Think about the last hard decision you made. How long did you spend on it? What did you consider when you were making it?

Steven Johnson thinks there’s a better way. It just doesn’t have to be so hard to make those agonizing choices.

One reason why it’s so hard is that it’s hard to know exactly what you don’t know, he writes.

The ultimate limitation of the pros and cons list is that we are merely transcribing our existing understanding of the decision at hand and not seeing it with fresh eyes. “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination,” the economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling once observed, “is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”

He has a couple of tips, fortunately.

First, write down a list of the values that are most important to you. Think back to Darwin’s choice of whether to marry. His values included freedom, companionship, the clever conversation of men at clubs and having children. Next, give each of those values a “weight,” a numerical measure of its importance to you. In the most mathematical version of this approach, you give each value a weight somewhere between 0 and 1. If the clever conversation is not so important to you, you might give it a .25, while the prospect of having children, if it’s something you greatly value, might get a .90.

With the values weighted, you then turn to the scenarios you’ve developed for each of the options on the table. You grade each option in terms of how it addresses each of your core values, on a scale of 1 to 100. Remaining a bachelor scores very poorly on the “having children” value, but to Darwin, at least, it scores better on the clever conversation front.

Once you’ve established those grades for each scenario, you then do some elemental math: Multiply each grade by the weight of each value and add up the numbers for each scenario. The scenario with the highest score wins.

Maybe by listening to this show, we’ll chase away those sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling.

We hope.

Produced by Danielle Knight. Text by Gabrielle Healy.

Guests

  • Steven Johnson Author of eleven books, including, "Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most"; host, "American Innovations" podcast; host and creator, "How We Got To Now" on PBS; @stevenbjohnson

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