It’s a New Year, which means a set of new resolutions and a promise to finally make decisions about the tough calls you face in your career. To do that, you’ve probably scribbling out a bunch of can’t-fail goals and lists of pros and cons about whether or not to take a leap to a new job or quit and start that business you’ve always considered.
Decision-making expert Annie Duke says goals and resolutions need a way out or an “unless,” and that a pros and con list is a “bias amplifier;” one that allows you to game which option looks best when making the list and weight different factors similarly even when they’re not. A toxic boss, say, should carry a lot more weight than whether or not your current job gives you access to on-site brew taps.
“Once we start to think about something, we’ve usually already made a decision. So if you want to do it, you’ll have lots of pros, and if you don’t want to do it, you’ll have lots of cons,” said Duke, the author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When To Walk Away and a “special partner” focused on decision science at venture fund First Round Capital Partners who is a former professional poker player.
“The other problem is that [pro and cons lists] don’t really express magnitude. How bad is the thing, or how good is the thing?”
Duke spoke with Forbes last month for a subscriber-only session where she talked about using helpful decision frameworks, getting a “quitting coach” for sticking to your commitments and developing “kill criteria” to look for factors that could help you know if a decision is right or it’s time to quit.
“What you want to think about is: What are the things that I value? How much do I value time? How much do I value money? How much do I value fulfillment at work?” said Duke. “Then you have to make a forecast, essentially: Ask [yourself] which thing is going to cause me to achieve the things that I value at a cost that I’m willing to bear.”
Rather than a pros and cons list, Duke suggested people make that forecast by imagining, say, how you think you’ll feel a year from now. “Where are you happier? I think that’s really the better way to think about things. You’re just going to fool yourself with a pros and cons list that you’ve somehow uncovered some sort of truth. Mostly what you’re going to have uncovered is your own bias.”
When trying to make decisions about change, people are typically biased against the switch, she says, due to the concept of loss aversion. “We’re very tolerant of those losses from the status quo, so we have to recognize that and we have to step back and think about that as a new decision,” Duke said. “One of the best ways to do that is to project forward.”
After making that projection, Duke suggests developing “kill criteria”—asking yourself what wouldn’t make you ok to remain in the situation, and the signals that would tell you it’s time to leave—as well as getting a “quitting coach” to help plan your exit. It “could be a mentor, it could be a colleague, it could be a friend, it could be a therapist—somebody who has your long-term best interest at heart.”
Duke also had some recommendations for people setting goals or making New Year’s resolutions for the year ahead. All too often, people fall prey to a cognitive phenomenon that behavioral economist Richard Thaler has spoken eloquently about, Duke said. People do not like to “close mental accounts in the losses,” she says, or stop before some kind of endpoint we’re trying to reach.
“We have a loss on paper. And if we ‘closed the account’—in other words, we stop running or we sell the stock or we quit our job, whatever it might be—then we now have to take that loss on paper and turn it into a realized loss.”
She says that cognitive phenomenon “causes goals to be very pass-fail in nature.” If you’re running a marathon and you hurt yourself on mile 13, you feel like you failed if don’t get to mile 26, even if a half marathon would have been an achievement. If you’re climbing Mt. Everest and get 300 feet from the summit but have to turn back for weather, you may feel like you failed even though getting that far is impressive. “That’s part of the reason why lots of people have died up there, because they’ve continued up toward the summit in conditions under which they shouldn’t. They don’t want to close mental accounts in the losses,” she says.
Instead, when you set goals or resolutions, make sure you include the word “unless.” I will finish this marathon unless I get injured. I will get that promotion unless my boss expects me to do things that aren’t ethical. “I think we have the intuition that if you have a backup plan, you won’t try as hard. But that’s not true. … It’s not like you’re just going to go quit willy nilly because we’re not really wired that way. That’s the thing that we have to remember: We’re still going to want to achieve it. It’s just going to stop us from achieving it when we have a broken leg.”
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