How to make fewer decisions (to save time and energy)

The first step to productivity is always elimination. Optimizing useless procedures is counterproductive. You waste time on something you shouldn’t do in the first place.

The same goes for decision making: many choices don’t require long deliberation. Quickly pick a reasonable path. Save your resources for more critical decisions.

As a creator, as a business owner, as a person, every day you have to make hundreds of choices, small and large. Your “decision budget” is limited, like your time. So, the first question is always: should I spend my budget on this decision?

It isn’t simple, but you can hone this skill with everyday practice.

Here are some methods to help you make fewer decisions:

  • one decision that removes 100 decisions,
  • the decision matrix,
  • automate small decisions,
  • make small bets,
  • learn to say no.

Let’s see them one by one.

One decision that removes 1000 decisions

In 2015 Tim Ferriss stopped investing in startups. He wasn’t losing money, quite the contrary.

But the investments brought an endless burden of decisions: pitches to accept, reallocations to be consider, meetings to schedule. He cut the problem at the root, got back hundreds of hours and turned down stress a couple notches.

He explains the process in this post. To find the one decision that removes 100 others, ask yourself:

  • In my life, where am I making decisions or saying “yes” out of guilt? Can I create a blanket policy that makes it easier for me to say “no”?
  • In what areas am I making a lot of decisions, or sending a lot of communication? Are they concentrated anywhere? Can I create a blanket policy that makes it easier for other people to make those decisions?
  • In what areas am I making a lot of decisions, or sending a lot of communication? Are they concentrated anywhere? Can I create a blanket policy that entirely removes the need to make those decisions?

Don’t just apply this blanket policy. Make it public. Share it with the persons concerned, your friends, your family, your colleagues, your audience.

This will create accountability and improve its effectiveness. When someone knows you aren’t investing anymore, he doesn’t even think to pitch you (unless he’s a spammer…).

The decision matrix

The decision matrix measures decisions based on the severity of their consequences and the difficulty of reversing them. Shane Parrish explains it in this post.

The following picture summarizes it:

How do you use it?

First, consider the inconsequential-consequential axes. If the consequences of a wrong decision are negligible, delegate it.

If you don’t have anyone to delegate, go with your gut. The idea is: do not waste time on any inconsequential decision. The price of a mistake doesn’t justify it.

For example, almost all the decisions on the tools to use in our projects belong to the inconsequential quadrants.

Consequential decisions need more attention. Reversible and consequential decisions represent your playground. Since they are reversible, possible damages can be fixed.

You can experiment even when you aren’t sure of the outcome. Risk is low. So, spend time on designing quick and useful experiments.

In this quadrant you can put for example the choice of the best content marketing channel. Often more than one works. You just have to try one at a time and measure the performance.

Consequential and irreversible decisions are the only dangerous ones. All the time saved on the other quadrants should be invested here. The cost of an error is high, take your time.

In this quadrant you find life changing decisions such as: leaving a job to launch your business, choosing a cofounder, moving to another country and so on.

Automate small decisions

Even the smallest decisions eat up your decision budget. Things like choosing what to wear and what to eat.

This could be named the “Steve Job’s turtleneck rule”. Apple’s cofounder famously wore always the same outfit. That way he saved the time and energy required to buy clothes and choose what to wear every day. Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg had similar policies.

I follow a similar approach with food, for example. I follow formulas and prepare food in advance whenever possible. At meal time I only need to assemble my meal and season it.

Find anything you do repeatedly, define procedure and template, never think of it again.

Make small bets

This is less intuitive. Often decisions take too long because they are too large, too complex.

For example, we try to predict the next five years of a business before even starting it. There are thousands of moving parts. They all interact with one another. We don’t even know all of them. Much less how they work. There’s enough to go crazy.

We can reduce the problem to smaller parts. For example we can start experimenting with a single acquisition channel we already know. Complexity will drastically decrease, there will be fewer decisions. We’ll save time and energy.

Learn to say no

Remember Tim Ferriss’ decision to stop investing? It gave him a default answer to all the startup pitches he received.

We have a hard time saying no to external requests:

  • would you talk at my meeting (for free)?
  • Can I pick your brain tomorrow at lunch?
  • Can you jump on a 5 minute call? (Which will balloon into a 50 minute, 10 person meeting)

Every new commitment brings many decisions to make. And they bring new decisions we didn’t choose for ourselves.

If you don’t know how to say no, here’s a good way to start.

The next step

These are all effective techniques to make fewer decisions. You don’t have to adopt them all (and probably can’t).

You can choose one that fits your situation or your mindset and test it for some weeks. I’d say at least for a month. Keep a journal of when, how and why you used it. Write down how much it made your life easier.

I am informally using the decision matrix more and more in my business. Before going down the rabbit hole of a long decision process, I imagine the consequences of a decision. If they are very small I don’t even start thinking. I choose an option I like that sounds reasonable.

Besides that, I am always devising new experiments based on small bets, together with my business partner Samuele Onelia. We reduce risk to the minimum and keep collecting data to improve our next decisions.

I hope this post helped. Let me know in the comments!

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