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The Decision Process

Lesson 15 from: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life

Bill Burnett, Dave Evans

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Lesson Info

15. The Decision Process

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

In this lesson, the instructors discuss the process of decision making and how to make good choices. They explain that it is important to gather and create a variety of options, but also to narrow down the options to a manageable number. They emphasize the concept of choice overload and how having too many choices can lead to decision paralysis. The instructors also highlight the role of emotions in decision making and the importance of tapping into one's gut feelings. They stress the need to let go of other options once a decision has been made and to move forward without constantly questioning the decision. Overall, the lesson teaches the students how to effectively make decisions and be confident in their choices.


  1. What is the importance of narrowing down options in the decision-making process?

    Narrowing down options helps to combat choice overload and allows for a more focused decision-making process.

  2. How does choice overload affect decision making?

    Choice overload can lead to decision paralysis, where individuals become overwhelmed by the number of options and struggle to make a decision.

  3. What role do emotions play in decision making?

    Emotions play a crucial role in decision making, as they provide information and valence decisions. The emotional wisdom center of the brain, known as the basal ganglia, helps individuals make good decisions based on emotional feedback.

  4. Why is it important to let go of other options after making a decision?

    Letting go of other options allows individuals to fully commit to their decision and move forward without constantly questioning or second-guessing their choice.

  5. How can individuals tap into their gut feelings when making decisions?

    Individuals can tap into their gut feelings by paying attention to their emotions and trusting their intuition. This can be done by cultivating emotional intelligence and being aware of the wisdom center in the brain that connects emotions to decision making.

Next Lesson: Decision Models

Lesson Info

The Decision Process

Okay, so we got just a couple more things to do and we're back to our, sort of life design framework where we got the design thinking model in the center. We've talked about meaning-making, the workview, and lifeview, and now we're going to talk about the practice and discernment particularly around choosing. How do we discern, how do we make good choices? And there's a lot of evidence, this is the sort of neuroscience part, there's a lot of evidence about choosing that we know from looking at people's brains when they do that, and the age old question is how do you know when you know? You know? What is it that makes a good decision and how do you make a decision that you can really be settled with? So we have a model of decision making, we always like models we're kind of scientific that way. You gather and create your options, you're trying to make a good choice, you gather and create a bunch of options. We've talked about that sort of innovation and coming up with lots of ideas. You...

narrow those options down to the ones that are most useful and then you choose one. And then you agonize on whether you picked the right thing. You're just totally anxious about did I pick the right one, or was the other one a better idea, I don't know. I don't know that sounds like a bad idea That's a terrible way to be. In fact, the puzzler's psychology and the brain science around this is, what you do to have a good choice is you let go and move on. We're going to walk through each of these steps. And the important part about this process is by the way, it actually gets worse before it gets better. Just making a good decision is not enough. You have to make a good decision well. That's what Bill's talking about, how to make the decision well It turns out that making a great decision badly, doesn't work very well at all. Frankly, a fair to middling decision made well, works much better than a great decision made badly. You have to pick the right thing and then you're going to pick it right. So we've talked a little bit about gathering and creating. We've done the exercise where we've passed the ideas around, you built on the ideas of others. And there's many other techniques, brainstorming, mind mapping, things we call morphological analysis, just mashing up the traits of different things together in unique ways. So I think you're probably going to be pretty good at generating ideas. But here's the part where you got lots and lots of ideas, so we've just filled that board full of Post-its or you've filled your list with dozens and dozens of ideas, now you need that technique of narrowing it down and making a shorter list so you can choose. And this comes from some interesting work that's been done in psychology on a things called choice overload. Have you heard of this? And there was a very, very famous study called the jam study and there was this interesting sort of set up where you go to a nice grocery store and there's a friendly lady there and she's got a table full of jams. Designer Jam Week Yeah, and you come over and try a jam and then you decide if you want to buy one. This is kind of the way they sell things at Costco or something but this was a very upscale store, they had wonderful, beautiful jams. Six jams and about 2/3 of the people stopped and said that's interesting, let me taste the jam. So it's actually 40%, so 40% stopped. 40%. And then about 20% bought. Of them is where we are. About 40% stop and about 13-14% of those people actually buy something so you know, a fair amount of people stop, and a reasonable number of those people actually buy something. This is a good way to sell jams if you've got a lot of jams in your store. Okay, two weeks later same store, same friendly lady, 24 jams. We got jalapeno, strawberry-banana, we got all sorts of crazy flavors, 24 jams. What's your prediction? How many people come over to stop? More people stop? Or fewer people stop? Lots more people stop. Look at this, table full of jams, this must be very interesting. We love options. [Crosstalk] We love having lots of options. Nobody, almost nobody bought anything. When you have too many choices, you actually have none. A few people were able to get through this problem, but mostly by just focusing on the ones they liked. So it's actually an interesting thing. When you have too many choices, your brain goes into overload and now you have no choice. You get that numb feeling in your head and you don't know what to do, and you keep going over the list again and again and again. Who has felt stuck in a list of choices? Yeah. Welcome to the human condition. So it turns out the number of choices you can actually hold in your head at any one time is about four to seven. Six is a good number, that's why they pick six. If you have more than five or six choices on your list, here's what you do. You cross out all the rest. Just cross them off. But Bill what if I cross out the wrong one? It will be okay. It's a really good list. I worked really hard to make my list, I can't give up number seven. (laughter) It could be the right one. (laughter) But here's the thing, if you have too many choices you won't make the right choice. So you've got to get it down to five or six. And what do you do, how do you know when you've crossed off the wrong one? Well you actually have to do it first and here's the thing, it's what we call the pizza/Chinese food syndrome. So a bunch of people are at work and you go, hey let's go out for lunch today. That sounds great, you want pizza or Chinese food, because there's one on this corner one on that corner. Pizza/Chinese food, I don't care. Okay let's go get pizza. No no no! Chinese food. And you won't decide until you've decided. But you'll know immediately upon deciding that that's not the thing you want. So trust us. If you have a list of 29 options, cross off 15 of them. But when you said, no I don't care pizza/Chinese whatever, you were telling the truth. You did not know that you knew that you don't want pizza today. The part of your brain that knew that was not talking to the part of you that talks. (laughter) And you found out after you made the decision. This is not some sort of weird psycho thing, this is actually the way your brain works. Sets yourself up to win. That's what we're helping you tap into. So you've got your list down to a manageable set. And now you choose. Now most people will employ some kind of a rational choosing methodology which is great. You make a pro and con list. When I was deciding whether to take a job at Microsoft or become a professor I had a pro and con list and it was quite clear that taking the job at Microsoft, make twice what I was making or doing a professor job at half of what I was making, I couldn't decide. After looking at that list for a long time, I couldn't decide. So Dan Goleman, who's a writer and a psychologist and works on this idea of emotional intelligence, has a great video. I believe it's a TEDtalk. There's a Google Talk and a TEDtalk. There's a Google Talk and a TEDtalk on this. And he's specifically looking at how your emotions help you make good decisions. And it's absolutely, we understand now from the brain science that although your prefrontal cortex can make a pro and con list, and you can have a weighted average, and this idea's got an 87 and this idea's got a 74, and I think I want to do the 87 but it doesn't feel right, something's wrong, my gut tells me the other idea's better. It's actually true. There is a part of your brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is a very early part of the brain that exists in primates and some reptiles as well, and it's the part of your brain that sums up what did it feel like when I made a decision. I did this thing, I got a lot of positive response, that was a good decision. I did this other thing, oh that didn't work out at all I got a negative response. He calls it the emotional wisdom center of the brain. It valences the decisions. He talks about a guy who was a lawyer and he had a lesion and they had to do an operation and they accidentally cut the connection to the basal ganglia. He couldn't make any decisions, he could give all the the pros and cons for everything possible, but he couldn't decide which one was better. So without emotional information, you cannot get to a good decision, and the problem with the basal ganglia it's so early in the brain, it does not connect to the part of the brain that talks. It has no connection to the part of your brain that is talking to you right now. It is only connected to your gut. And by the way, it turns out there are more neurons in your GI tract than are in your brain. There's a whole intelligence system in there. So when you talk about gut feelings, it's real. It's really real. And without access to that kind of information, you can't make good decisions. Now watch out here because we're such wordy people in such a technological world, articulation is sort of the indication of intelligence. You're smart if you can say a lot of words. That's why I talk so much, you'll think I'm smarter than I am. But do not confuse inarticulate with unsophisticated. Your unconscious is a form of knowing, the wisdom center of your brain that connects to the emotions, limbic center into the intestines. So the gut feeling is a real thing. Do not confuse that, oh it's not particularly articulate- It's squishy, it's a feeling I hear people say things like, you know I want to make a really good decision. I don't want to make some emotional decision, I want to make a good decision. There is no such thing as an unemotional decision. Clearly bigger is better, right, so I want a bigger tumor not a smaller tumor, because bigger is better. Oh no, you meant IPOs. Sorry. No. The Objective facts don't mean a thing. Bigger isn't better, bigger is bigger. Better is what, I don't know what better is. That's an emotional reality, that's a value based reality. So tapping into this part of who you are and doing it intelligently, is really a powerful tool. And in our culture, because we value speaking and rationality so much, we don't spend a lot of time developing our discernment of these feelings. Some people are very good at it. They kind of know what's a good decision, they have a sense of it. They don't need to justify it in words. But the critical thing here is that the neuroscience tells us that this part of your brain which is so important in making decisions, doesn't have any ability to talk to the part that talks. So this thing that you think is your self, that you're constantly reproducing up here, and the decision making that you're making which is always predated from something that happened before, is heavily valanced by your emotional wisdom. And you can cultivate that wisdom and make yourself better. So if you combine EQ and IQ, you will make a much better decision. Okay, so say you've gotten through the choosing part, now we gotta learn the letting go and moving on. I don't know about you, but this was the most challenging part for me, because I read all these studies and I said well that may be true for other people, it's not true for me because I know how to make decisions and I can keep my options open. And this guy, Dan Gilbert who for some reason or another is now doing insurance commercials, but he's actually a neuroscientist at Harvard and a really smart guy. He's been studying decision making, and he did a very interesting experiment that kind of had two interesting conclusions. You want to talk about the experiment? There's one particular outcome that we want to zoom in on. So they were looking at how people make decisions and how they feel about the decisions after the fact. He said it's "synthetic happiness," not fake happiness, but how do human being actually create or synthesize make happiness that lasts and works. That was his field of interest. In one situation, they had a group of people who were evaluating looking at four different Monet art prints, and they were to rank them one to four, and when they were done they said, oh by the way thank you for your ranking, that's all we want from you. We have a whole bunch of spare copies of the ones you call #2 and #3. You know you can take a spare one of those home with you if you'd like. Just either 2 or 3, we don't care And they did that just the same for one group of people and a second group. Except on the first group they said, be sure to pick the one of those two that you really want because once you take it, we haven't got time to deal with you anymore, just take it home, you're done and we never want to hear from you again, goodbye. The second set, oh by the way it's not a problem. We think we have enough spares, you can take either number one, number two, or number three of the ones you chose. And you if you want to change your mind, you have up to three weeks. Just give us a call. You can flip it around that doesn't matter, you can have number three instead if you change your mind. Not a problem. And then they wait a couple of weeks, well beyond the deadline and they check back in with the people. All the people who picked in fact, number two, that took it home when they could only keep it, versus the people that picked number two and they could have brought it back, but didn't. They didn't swap so Susie took pic #2 and kept it. And Harry picked #2 and kept it, but Harry thought he couldn't change it and Sue did, she was much less happy with her outcome than he was. The exact same result. And Dan's line is, the reversible condition is not conducive to the synthesis of happiness. The nagging reality that just keeping the option open because I might be dissatisfied maintains your potential dissatisfaction, and helps you be unhappy for the longest time. Because getting what you want isn't what it's about. What is it? Well the other interesting thing in the study is when we asked him to re-rank the stimuli, re-rank the paintings. The one I picked is much better than what I thought, it's no number one. The other ones, they aren't so good. Nothing changed other than my sense of having made an irrevocable decision and then living into that decision and not looking back. So you really do have to let go of the opportunity to come back. And the nice part about this model is if you learn to think like a designer, if you lead with curiosity and you're really flexible at reframing problems and coming up with lots of options. There's no problem in picking something and letting go of the other things. Option preservation is not a problem It's not a problem. We'll get more. I'll move from this point to the next thing and then something interesting will happen and I'll have this wonderful interview with you, and then I'll discover something completely different than I thought and then I'll go to the next thing. And if that turns out to not work, I can go back to brainstorming and generating more options. So there's not penalty for- Land the boats, burn the boats and just move on to the new territory. Don't keep your options open. Don't keep your options open. What are you keeping it open for anyway? What's an option become when it grows up? It becomes a decision. That's why you had it. Now I've decided, all the other options are now done. I've moved into this next world where a whole bunch of new things are going to happen. And that's going to be so exciting and so interesting that I'm not afraid of making my choices irrevocably. You sure you did the right thing at Stamford? My answer to that question is I don't know what your talking about. I never think about it. I'm at Stanford. We're having a great time. That was then this is now. I'm much happier than if I'm worrying about well did I do the right thing. By the way, if you are worried about if you did the right thing, you will never know anyway. So all you get is your worry and no answer. If that's working for you, stick with it.

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Ratings and Reviews


A fantastic class for someone seeking to optimize their life for a greater sense of satisfaction and especially for someone who is considering a career transition. We are taught effective methods for brainstorming, examining, and prototyping our options, and we are given an approach for the hardest task of all: how to make a choice when faced with multiple good options! Also great tips for networking and getting your foot in the door. This class was very timely for me as I've been struggling with making a decision on what my next career was going to be. I now feel equipped with tools that will help me make that decision with less agony and more fun! Also, I'm a huge fan of design thinking, so it was great to see how that methodology could be applied to making one of the most important decisions in our life.

Karen Vitto

Great course! Great for who like me is on their 30's starting life in a new country with a new language and have been out of the industry for 4 years. Designing new goals, making new networking and starting a MBA for some updates on my carrear. Really helped with some focus. Super recommend!


Loved this class! It was high energy, fast paced and well organized, as well as inspiring. It helped me to make more concrete things I've been thinking and dreaming about. I'm so glad I took it. I made great contacts and will definitely use this material in the future!

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