How to make clear decisions

It starts with exploring what you need — and then checking if it’s true

Charles Davies
May 1 · 8 min read

I’ve explained everything here elsewhere in How to be clear, but a friend asked me yesterday if I could recommend a guide to making decisions — and I realised I hadn’t specifically spelled that out. So, here you go. xx

The first mistake is to think it’s about making decisions.

This happens all the time. When people want to get clear they ask — how can I decide between X and Y? And — already — that’s the wrong question. When it feels like you don’t know what to do, but it’s a choice between two things, that’s almost never true. I might even go so far as to say it’s never true. I’ll try to explain why.

If you don’t know how to do something, it’s because you don’t know what you’re trying to do.

This has become clearer and clearer the more people I’ve worked with. Someone will arrive and say “I want to start a new career, but I don’t know how.” And — I swear, always — it turns out that the problem is actually that they don’t know what that new career would be. And — here’s the kicker — if you don’t know what you’re trying to do, there is no answer to how to do it.

It’s like walking up to someone in the street and asking if they can help you out with some directions:

“Yeah, sure. Where are you trying to get to?” “Oh — I haven’t decided yet.”

When there’s no destination, there is no path to get there.

So, the trouble is we can habitually think that the way to move forward is to work out how to move forward. But actually that gets us more stuck. Because (if w’re not clear where we’re going) it’s an unanswerable question. And we can waste forever trying to answer it.

The ludicrous, magical thing is that when you get clear on where you’re going, the how becomes obvious and simple. This is what I’ve found through working with tonnes of people again and again where they arrive thinking their problem is not knowing how to move forward. Again and again, I’ll ask them if they wouldn’t mind forgetting about ‘how’ for a while and first get clear on what they’re trying to do. Happily, they indulge me and we work on getting clear on what they’re actually trying to do in the first place. And — basically always — it turns out that they’re not really clear on where they’re trying to get to. And — basically always — when they’re clear on where they’re going, the question of how to get there just becomes self-evident and obvious.

And it kind of surprises me every time. That the path begins with a whole world of drama of days or months or years of not knowing how, trying to work out how, being frustrated in exploring how. Finding out how feeling like it’s a completely impossible task. Then we get clear on the what and I ask, “So, do you want to talk about how you get there?” and — again and again — this friend who was oh-so-recently-full-of-drama-and-confusion says with total nonchalance, “No, no. It’s fine. I know what I need to do next.” With the air of someone who thinks it’s baffling that I would even ask. As if to say — of course they know how to get there. Isn’t it obvious?

So, to say it plainly, “I need to get clear on how I do X” is basically always the wrong question. And when it feels like you need to make a decision between two things, then “I need to get clear on whether to do X or Y.” is an even wronger question.

Not knowing how to do something is a symptom that shows you need to get clearer on what you’re trying to do. So, rather than banging your head against the wall of, ‘Is it X or Y?” recognise that the question itself is a symptom of not being clear. And don’t try to answer the question.

Don’t try to answer the question. Because the answer might be X and the answer might be Y — but the answer could well be ‘X with a bit of Y’, or ‘Y with a bit of X’, or ‘Neither’, or ‘Both’, or ‘Z’, or ‘Z with a bit of X and Y and A, B, C and whatever’. And “Is it X or Y?” doesn’t leave space for any of those possibilities. It’s a stupid question. Don’t try to answer it.

An example — and then I’ll explain the principle.

I need to go to York next week. Should I take the train or drive?

What’s the answer? It’s easy to start listing pros and cons. Train is more environmentally friendly. Driving is a little more convenient. Parking might be difficult. I have a lot of luggage. I could listen to some podcasts while I drive. I don’t like train sandwiches. What if there’s a delay? What if there’s a traffic jam?

I could go on forever. And maybe none of it will help. Because I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to answer the question of whether I should do X or Y. And listing all of the considerations actually just serves to emphasise — I don’t know what I’m trying to do.

So, here’s the principle: all needs are relative.

There’s nothing that I absolutely need. Every need is something I need to do in order to do something else. So when I ask “Do I need to go by train or car?” the real next question is “In order to do what?” There is no inherently right answer to which is better — travelling by train or by car. The answer depends on what you’re trying to do — and which of train or car serves it better.

It’s like standing in the shop and trying to decide which ingredients to buy for your dinner. “Should I buy vinegar or butter?” It’s just like the person asking directions and not having chosen a destination. You could try to look at the relative merits of vinegar and butter — maybe vinegar is cheaper, maybe butter is unhealthier, maybe butter has less packaging, maybe vinegar is heavier to carry home… But by trying to answer the question, you’ve already made a mistake. Instead, the question arising should tell you — you probably need to decide what you’re making for dinner before you start trying to choose the ingredients. There’s no point trying to decide which ingredients are right until you are clear on what you are trying to make.

Because needs are relative. Whether you need butter or vinegar depends on what you’re trying to make. And when you know what you’re trying to make, the answer is obvious. Stir-fry? Vinegar, no butter. Cheese sandwich? Butter, no vinegar. Risotto? Both. Bowl of cereal? Neither.

This might sound so totally obvious it’s not worth spelling it out. And, when it comes to making dinner it is obvious. We know that the choice of ingredients depends on what we want to make for dinner. But when it comes to life, when it comes to work, our common sense sometimes wanders off and we’re left, on autopilot, banging our head against a wall, trying to make a decision, when actually the root of the problem is we haven’t actually got clear on what we’re trying to do in the first place.

So, back to my trip to York. “Travelling by car” and “travelling by train” are two potential ingredients. And which one is right depends on what I’m trying to do. And it might seem obvious that the answer to what I’m trying to do is ‘get to York’. But the trouble is — that’s not a very specific answer. It’s like saying “I want to make a cake. Do I need carrots or chocolate?” And the answer is “It depends on what cake you want to make.” Because ‘making a cake’ isn’t a very clear idea. And neither is ‘going to York’. And, in each case, my feeling of uncertainty should tell me that I need to get clearer on what I’m trying to do.

And the way I get clearer on what I’m trying to do is not by asking how. And it’s not by trying to make a decision. And it’s not by weighing up pros and cons. To get clearer on what I’m trying to do, I need to focus on what it will look like if everything turns out the way I hope it will. That means forgetting about the how and just letting myself focus on what I actually need.

The clear ideas process is designed to help you focus. You explore your vision — asking yourself what you need and want and demand and love and wish for and dream of. Then you distil that vision down into a sentence and test it — checking if the line you’ve arrived at accurately captures what you need and want and demand and love and wish for and dream of. And, lastly, you refine that line until it is accurate. (You can read more about the clear ideas process here.)

And, what you’ll find, is that by exploring and distilling and testing and refining your idea, you end up with a much richer, more accurate expression of what you need.

So, rather than ‘going to York’ your idea might end up as something like “travel to York in a way that’s relaxing and gives me space and time to relax and see some scenery and have a decent conversation with someone”. And, because that has been brought into focus, the question of whether to go by train or car becomes clearer. Or, more likely, you drop the question of ‘Is it X or Y?’ (because that’s a stupid question). And what you do instead is you start at the other end. And that means, instead of sitting here weighing up theoretical pros and cons, I ask myself something along the lines of:

“In my idea I am travelling to York in a way that’s relaxing and gives me space and time to relax and see some scenery and have a decent conversation with someone. So, in my idea, how do I get there?”

And — when the first part of the idea is clear, almost always, the second part becomes obvious. Like “Oh — I should ask my brother if he’d like to drive and then I can just choose the music, read the map and spend the journey chatting.”

If I’d stuck with my original strategy though, of trying to decide between X or Y, I’d have never found that answer though.

Here’s the thing. It’s never about making decisions. It’s about making a clear commitment and being wildly open-minded about how we fulfil that commitment.

The common habitual route, of trying to get work out whether to do X or Y, actually gets in the way of both of these things. If I’m stuck trying to decide between two things, there’s no commitment — only drama. And if I’ve convinced myself it’s just a choice between A or B (when it could be either, neither or something else completely), then I’m not being open-minded.

So, here’s the recipe for making clear decisions.

  1. Don’t make decisions.
  2. Get really clear on what you‘re doing.
  3. Commit to doing it.
  4. With a wide-open mind, ask how you’ll fulfil that commitment.

Nearly always, the answer is obvious. Sometimes, the answer is something like ‘by asking someone else who knows more about it than I do’. Or ‘wait until next week when I know more about such and such’. But even those are actually very useful answers to ‘how’.

Being clear is a skill you can learn. Find out more at www.howtobeclear.com.

PS. I’m really keen to work with teams at the moment. If you manage a team and would like to get clearer about how you work together, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks. C

HOW TO BE CLEAR

Get clear on who you are, what you’re doing and how it gets done

Charles Davies

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www.howtobeclear.com

HOW TO BE CLEAR

Get clear on who you are, what you’re doing and how it gets done