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Jun 30, 2020 11:07 PM ET

Agonizing Over Low-Stakes Decisions

iCrowd Newswire - Jun 30, 2020

Should we buy the $5 billion company? Should we fire the CEO?

You should agonize over those decisions. They matter.

But there are low-stakes decisions.

Who should we call first about the threatened protest at our building — security or the other tenants? Shall we send Pirrip or Magwitch to the meeting? Should we buy white legal pads or yellow?

You should not agonize over those decisions. They don’t matter.


Remarkably, many people seem unable to tell the difference between decisions that matter and decisions that don’t.

Here’s the nasty part: The fact that decisions are low stakes doesn’t mean that they’re easy.

It could be very hard to decide whether to buy white legal pads or yellow.  The pads might have different absorbency or reflectivity characteristics.  Jarndyce might prefer white, while Summerson might prefer yellow. If we buy white, what will Summerson say? How will we answer? What will Summerson say next? Will Summerson be distraught?

Faced with a difficult — but low-stakes — decision, an intelligent person might well say: “Flip a coin, for God’s sake! We’ve already spent more time discussing this than the issue warrants. Let’s spend our time thinking about the high-stakes matters!”

But that intelligent person would surely be criticized: “Flip a coin? On a matter that affects this institution? And something that’s actually very difficult to decide? How dare you say such a thing? We must continue to debate this, on into the night, until we reach the right decision on the legal pad question!”

Let it go.

Think first about whether the decision makes any difference. If it doesn’t, just decide and be done with it.

On the other hand, if the decision does make a difference, then fret. It’s worth the effort.

Don’t get caught up in things that don’t matter.

(I read somewhere, but I can’t find a link, about a World War II handbook on how corporate executives stranded in Europe during the war, but supportive of the Allied cause, should contribute to the war effort. Those corporate officers, the manual said, should insist on debating every last item to exhaustion. No issue was too small to ignore. Once a decision was made, revisit it! Have people start the debate again. By debating and reconsidering every insignificant item, folks would ensure that no products were actually made, and the Nazi war effort would be crippled.

When you start to feel that way at your firm or corporation, advocate intelligence. Fret about the things that matter. For things that don’t matter, simply decide, and move on. You may have decided wrong, but you’ve decided. Remember: It doesn’t matter.)


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