Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Decisions, decisions. They take up time that can’t be spared, demand information that isn’t available and cause unwanted stress. This is why many people use shortcuts or routines to deal with smaller decisions (like which shoe to put on first) — they’re not worth the trouble.

But bigger decisions sometimes mean the right choice will result in success and happiness, and the wrong one will lead to misery and pain. How should people respond when the pressure is high and they are afraid of making the wrong choice?

Unfortunately, many people choose not to respond at all. Or they make their decision too quickly, too slowly or too randomly. It’s only when the worst outcome results that they see how things could have been done better. By then it’s too late.

Smart Choices was written by three respected academics: the late Howard Raiffa of Harvard, Ralph Keeney from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Hammond from the University of Southern California. Their goal was to develop a structured approach to decision-making. Their process doesn’t make hard decisions easy but it removes the complexity that makes decisions hard in the first place.

The approach is simple. It’s about breaking decisions into their key parts, figuring out what matters most, and using structured thinking to reach the right choice. It all happens with their PrOACT system: problem (defining what must be decided), objective (clarifying what must be accomplished), alternatives (understanding how the objectives can be achieved), consequences (weighing up how well each alternative meets the objectives) and trade-offs (choosing the alternative that best meets the objectives).

You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change your life. And the procedure — the process — is its own reward.
Amelia Earhart

Sometimes the book gets too technical, with confusing advice like this: "[To] determine a consequence’s contribution to the alternative’s desirability, multiply its associated outcome probability by its desirability score assigned in the first step."

In its most interesting section, the authors discuss the psychological traps people fall into when making decisions.

But the only advice they give on controlling emotions is to be aware of biases that trip people up. The case studies help a bit but they tend to have arbitrarily happy endings that are detached from the real world. To protect decisions against bias, people need to know when they can trust their gut feelings, confident they are drawing on appropriate experiences and emotions.

There are four tests: the familiarity test considers how frequently identical or similar situations have been experienced before; the feedback test asks whether or not reliable information is available from past situations; the measured-emotions test explores how well feelings from similar or related situations are being measured; and the independence test evaluates how likely people are to be influenced by inappropriate personal interests or attachments.

Another great part is the distinction between making a good decision and having a good outcome. Sometimes people get angry when things don’t go according to plan. But as long as they took the time to make a good decision, they shouldn’t get upset when uncontrollable things happen that badly affect the result. In addition, people shouldn’t be too pleased when they make bad decisions that luckily work out well. The most important thing is to focus on what can be controlled.

Although life’s uncertainties can’t be wished away, good decisions can still be made in that context. What is required is clarity on the different outcomes that could come from decisions; the chance of each outcome actually happening; and the effect each outcome could have. It’s also good to review decisions — to learn what was done well and where improvements must be made.

Dealing with uncertainty also means dealing with risk. People have different appetites for risk but everyone should do their best to remain neutral when making decisions by considering the negatives and the positives as accurately as possible. This should be followed by doing whatever it takes to manage the risks, whether by finding more information or creating backup plans.

Another important consideration is the fact that decisions made now could affect decisions made later on. The authors agree that the future should be taken into account but they caution against getting so caught up in decisions for tomorrow that decisions for today are ignored.

As Amelia Earhart once said: "You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change your life. And the procedure — the process — is its own reward."