Book Reflection: Decisive — How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work

Lei Xu
Lei Xu
May 22, 2017 · 4 min read

Decisive — How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath


Villains of decision making:

  • Narrow framing (limiting the options we consider)
  • Confirmation bias
  • Short-term emotion
  • Over confidence


Widen options. More real choices and alternatives.

  • Vanishing options test — now what if we remove all your existing options, what else could you do? Good way to think of new options.
  • Multi-track. Think “and”, not “or”. Try many things at once
  • Prevention mindset vs promotion mindset. Two mindsets that lead to very different decisions. Balance the two.
  • Find someone that already have solved our problem. Look inside for bright spots. Look outside for best practices. Look further out by comparing to adjacent fields/problems.

Whether-or-not is a flag for trapping in a narrow framing situation. There are likely more than 2 options.

Pursuing ideas sequentially is not as good as pursuing ideas simultaneously.

Intuition is only accurate in areas where it’s been trained by repetition. It’s pretty crappy to trust in new situations.


Reality test our assumptions.

  • Diligent about how we get information.
  • Find the right kind of information.
  • Test your assumptions.

Process is important. Judges less likely to fall under confirmation bias, because their process forces them to consider two opposing points of view.

“What would have to be true for this approach to work?” can open up people’s defensive mindset to an opposing point of view. Useful in places where dissent is unwelcome.

Set a “tripwire”. Circumstances where a team will reconsider the decision. When skeptical about decision but cannot change it.

Ask specific questions and for examples. Similar to user interviews. Don’t ask about “do you have a life outside work”, but ask “how many times last week you had dinner with family.”

Probing question vs. open ended question? They’re relevant in different situations. Ask self, “what’s the most likely way I’ll fail to get the info I need?”

Assume positive intent from the others. You won’t get as defensive.

Make deliberate mistakes to challenge existing assumptions. Celebrate when the mistakes stay mistakes, because assumptions are right. Celebrate if mistakes turned out positive, then you learned something new.

Fight the confirmation bias

  • Make it easier for people to disagree.
  • Ask questions that can surface contrary information
  • Consider the opposite

Spotlight effect. Don’t be blinded by only the information in front of you. Move the spotlight, and you’ll see it from a different perspective.

Be wary of the “inside view” — using only your unique situation to assess a problem.

Trust the base rate. The statistical averages are more likely to apply to your SPECIFIC-OH-SO-UNIQUE situation than you think.

Anecdotal “texture” adds nuance to the statistical averages and useful in guiding intuition.

FDR: encourage citizens to send in views via mail. White house office tallied opinions into statistical base rates. He also reads a small sub-sample of them.

Experts are horrible at prediction. They are great for gathering information and learning the base rates. An expert is simply someone with more experience than you.

MVP and small experiments. Test your assumption before going all-in. Book calls this “ooch”. Little bets.

Entrepreneurs favor testing. Corporate execs favor prediction.

Experiments are useful when we genuinely need more information. Don’t use it to procrastinate and tiptoe around decision. Counterproductive when commitment is required.


10/10/10 analysis. How will you feel about this decision 10 minutes/months/years from now? Balance short-term emotion with long-term perspective.

On avg, people see losses as 4x more painful than gains. Loss aversion.

Intel: “what will our successor CEO do?” in getting out of memory business. Distance helps gain clarity.

Advice we give others are different from what we tell ourselves. In advice to others, we downplay emotion and highlight priorities. Ask “what will I tell my best friend to do in this situation?”

Same process and information may still lead to different decisions for different people.

Agonizing decision can be conflict between core priorities. Align on priorities first.

Make core priorities known to the team so it guides actions.


Bookends. Consider the extreme cases. Form a range of guesses about the future rather than a single prediction.

Prospective hindsight, or pre-mortem. Picture something has already happened and then ask why. E.g. Google went bankrupt in 2020, what caused it? Answers are more specific and relevant. More concrete.

Realistic preview. Play out a situation in the harshest reality that it is, for example the most difficult part of a job or conversation, to vaccinate against the actual difficulty.

Tripwire sets a clear binary trigger to evaluate a decision. Safeguards against a gradual slow change.

Partitioning helps with self control. Put money into several envelopes reduced money spent gambling.

In an org setting, bargaining and getting buy-in is worthwhile. Broadens options. Avoids going down wrong direction. Probably speeds up implementation as well because of the buy-in.

Follow the process when there’s someone that will lose from the decision. Procedural justice, due process of law.

Make sure others perceive the process as just. State back their concerns better than they can.

Lei Xu

Written by

Lei Xu

entrepreneur, product, ex-Google, ex-YC |

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