Zero-Based Thinking: Principles For Making Better Life Decisions

Is there anything in your life that you should do more of, less of, start or stop?

Thomas Oppong
Dec 2, 2019 · 5 min read
Image from rawpixel.com

Almost all difficult decisions are basically about weighing the long and short term values or benefits of options.

Some people consider the financial value first. Others take into consideration the emotional and social value, and so on.

To make better decisions, you have to weigh them appropriately.

Making objective decisions can be incredibly difficult, largely because we are all heavily biased towards short-term rewards, and pre-existing beliefs.

The burden of perception, heredity, and sometimes transferred life expectations prevents us from making optimal choices.

The first step in transforming your life is getting clear about exactly what it is that you want. That’s where Zero-Based Thinking (ZBT) comes in, a great decision thinking technique developed by Brian Tracy, a famous motivational public speaker and self-development author. He explains in his book, Goals!: How to Get Everything You Want — Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible:

“When you begin to plan your long-term future, one of the most valuable exercises you can engage in is “zero-based thinking.” In zero-based thinking, you ask this question: “Knowing what I now know, is there anything that I am doing today that I wouldn’t start again if I had to do it over?” No matter who you are or what you are doing, there are activities and relationships in your life that, knowing what you now know, you wouldn’t get involved in.

Zero-based thinking gives us the rare opportunity to ask ourselves if there anything in our lives that we should do more of, less of, start or stop.

He adds, “Top people are always open to the possibility and the need for doing something completely different. They are willing to stop doing anything that no longer works. They don’t get stuck into a “comfort zone” and stay there just because it feels good. They are willing to take the risks and the potential failure that goes with embarking on any new course of action.”

In psychology, this concept is similar to Sunk Cost bias (when you continue an action because of your past decisions (time, money, resources) rather than a rational choice).

Zero-based thinking is fundamentally based on imagining yourself back at the point before particular decisions were made, and if you can still change direction, make those decisions today with the knowledge that you have now about their outcome.

It can be applied to choosing financial investments, following particular career paths, changing particular habits in relationships, among a wide variety of other possibilities. The purpose is to avoid repeating past mistakes.

If your current situation is not serving you, but you have learned from it, don’t allow it to hold you back. You can use the zero-based thinking process to make a better choice.

“In effect, ZBT works like hindsight, based on experience, applied from a hypothetical future to the actual present in order to maximize the chance of success and/or avoid the risk of failure,” writes Margaret Rouse of TechTarget.

In ZBT, your current situation before you choose to do anything about is called the zero point. You work from a blank slate.

When applying ZBT, you analyse your present circumstances (what’s working and what’s not) and ask yourself if you choose to make the same decision in the past.

If your present outcomes are leading you towards your long-term goals, then the best course of action is to continue the tried-and-true actions relevant to the situation in an attempt to achieve your desired goals.

If you won’t make the same decision, then you should return to the zero-point, figure out the best course of action based on what you know now.

In some cases, the best solution is to get out of a situation to cut losses.

A principal key to effective use of ZBT is knowing when to quit, and if necessary, actually quitting or changing direction.

Example, if you hadn’t accepted the job, project, or contract, you have at the moment – knowing what you know now – would you have chosen a different option?

If your answer is “yes,” then your goal should be to find a better alternative while you still can. That’s what’s called zero-based thinking. Cut your losses now and try something else.

Starting from scratch, you design a better way forward by questioning everything. The idea at this point isn’t to commit yourself to anything. The goal is merely to gain a better understanding of what you really want.

Zero-based thinking opens up a world of possibilities that you otherwise might not consider. It frees your mind to think really hard about choices.

You can apply zero-based thinking to budgeting by starting with the assumption that you are not currently spending any money, and consciously and carefully deciding how you would really like to spend or invest it. The idea is to stop spending money on things that you don’t truly value.

The sample principle can be applied to your schedule. Mark Cancellieri, explains, “What if you had no time commitments whatsoever? Start with a completely empty schedule. What if you could create a schedule that allows you to spend far more time in ways that you find enjoyable, exciting, and fulfilling?”.

When you begin to question everything on your calendar and start with an empty schedule, you don’t have to fill every moment with activity.

You can plan better brainstorm possibilities of how you would like to spend your time if you were given the opportunity to completely start over.

In your relationships, you also start from zero — even though it can be a real challenge to think objectively when it comes to close families or friends.

But still, knowing what you now know today, would you choose the same friends or connections. A better question is, would you do things differently to build better relationships with your family and friends.

Are there people in your life that have a toxic effect on your happiness? Are there people who drag you down or are a bad influence on you? Be brutally honest with yourself to get a better understanding of how to become a better person.

“It is difficult, if not impossible, for you to make progress in your life if you allow yourself to be held back by decisions you made in the past. If there is something in your life that you wouldn’t get into again today, your next question is, How can I get out, and how fast?” argues Brian Tracy.

We can’t change the past, but with experience, zero-based thinking can help us make better decisions for our future. Challenge yourself to apply zero-based thinking to other aspects of your life.

Question everything. Look at your investments. Is there any investment of time, money, or emotion that, knowing what you now know, you wouldn’t make again today? If the answer is yes, how can you get out and align your life more precisely with what you want?

Circumstances are continually changing. Do more of what works and reconsider everything else that doesn’t bring out the best in you.

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

Thomas Oppong

Written by

Founder @AllTopStartups | Featured at Business Insider, Forbes, etc. I share practical tools for wealth, health, and happiness at https://postanly.substack.com

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

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