Great work starts with decision-making.

No one is going to pay you what you’re worth. No one is going to give you the lifestyle you deserve. No one is going to hand you the work that suits your capabilities. That comes by making choices for yourself.

Everyone reading should make the same first choice…

…put yourself in charge.

Here’s the bad news. The decision to take charge…that’s the easiest decision you will make. The rest will be tough. You’ll have to pick goals with little reasoning. The decisions will have to fit the goals, and you’ll need to know what you stand for. And, there is still a matter of figuring out what the options are.

No worries though.

I’ll untangle what is happening subconsciously, then lay out a framework for making the best decisions possible for the sake of the responsibility you’ve handed yourself. We’ll start with the roles of emotions, differentiate between goals, decisions and constraints, then clearly layout the steps. The end result should be clarity in your decisions, movement towards your goals, and self-discovery along the way.

This article isn’t filled with facts and figures quoted from studies. It’s ideas I’ve developed by getting battered and bruised on my own path to self-discovery. I wanted to be an architect, then engineer, then entrepreneur, and then salesperson, now blogger/writer. I’m sharing what I wish someone would have shared with me.

My goal is to get you to start doing something, stop avoiding the important decisions, and figure out what you value, while sharing a bit of myself and a case study of a profession I find particularly suited towards decision making. I’ll save that as a surprise, but it’s not a CEO.

If you have a goal of putting yourself on a better path in life, and you have 15 minutes to spare, it’s worth it to make the decision to read this article.

For years, I was looking to do more creative work. The kind of work that I could exert my creative muscle over, making decisions, reviewing, editing, and thinking about on walks. With my fresh engineering degree in hand, I wasn’t doing fun design work. I was doing routine tasks. I was unhappy. My career eventually allowed me to do the creative projects, but it still wasn’t enough.

I couldn’t clearly spell out what was troubling me, the goal, nor the constraints, so I procrastinated. Over time, I made choices to do creative work for myself and my life improved dramatically. Work like writing this article, building furniture, inventing things, the list is long. The years of despair were the product of bad decision-making. I was frustrated, which if I was paying attention should have told me something was off, after all our emotions are indicators.

The role of emotions in decision making.

“Emotional” is a term used to deride bad decision-making. People who use that derision are thinking single dimensionally in a 3D world. Consider an animal, they make decisions about whether they are hungry, need rest, or to flee all without language to describe “rational thought.” These are crucial survival decisions based on emotion. Your decisions are emotional too. So were Albert Einstein’s. So are mine.

Humans have emotions to respond in the absence of data. COVID-19 came on quickly, and required many decisions without much data. People had to weigh the little data available, but also how they felt about the data. Early numbers aren’t reliable since test availability, number of people infected, mutations, regional differences, and death rate are all uncertain.

Uncertainty and randomness make emotions matter. Suppose while strolling through a jungle, a large orange cat with black stripes comes out of the bushes. This cat seems particularly agitated. Being unaware of tigers, with one snarling at you, taking the time to look it up on Google, finding that it will maul you, and the outcome probabilities of mauling in the case of running vs. fighting isn’t practical.

It’s fatal.

Emotions save lives! They are a core tool for deciding what to do, shutting them out leads to “analysis paralysis” which is where you’re at today.

Decision-making requires a value benchmark.

These benchmarks aren’t always clear. They can be muddied up preventing a decision at all. Take a hoarder, someone who can’t throw anything out, it’s easy to think these people have a sickness. Perhaps they are victims of poor decision-making because their values aren’t clear, or their values are different than the norm.

Here are questions when someone could use deciding to keep something:

  • What is the chance I need it again?
  • How much would it cost to replace it?
  • Will getting rid of this change who I am?
  • Will holding onto this make me happier?

If using these simultaneously, the decision is difficult. Weighing out how to value the answer to each of those places the decision in an unclear state. It’s easier to default to procrastination.

To learn to overcome procrastination driven by lack of clarity, consider Marie Kondo, an expert on tidying up. Marie leads people who are struggling to make their lives less stressful by clearing things out. She wrote the book called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. While the book has good organizing tips, the core tenet is getting rid of things. It starts with putting your stuff in piles, going through every item, and deciding if the item “Sparks Joy.” If it doesn’t, get rid of it. Only after paring down the items do the decisions about where to store things begin.

“Spark Joy” doesn’t seem like a concept to build a career on, but it is. “Spark Joy” is a simple value judgment. It’s not about costs, and needs, and what the future holds. “Spark Joy” is about whether in this moment, “Does this item make me happy?” If so, keep it. Why get rid of happiness?

The “Spark Joy” concept has launched a book and a show on Netflix. That’s because Marie is actually an expert in the psychology of decision-making rather than organization. She cuts to the heart of things, making her clients lives better by giving them a decision-making framework and benchmark for their home.

Your principles are your decision-making benchmarks.

“Spark Joy” is a single criteria, one formulated for deciding what to remove or keep, but there are any number of principles that can be used. Any time a decision has you on the ropes, it’s worth writing your principles down as clearly as possible, then judge the decision against them. It clarifies everything.

Here are some of my principles:

  • Family first.
  • Sharing is important.
  • Healthy competition is good.
  • Don’t sell out the long-term for the short-term.
  • Happiness matters more than money.

To be clear, these principles aren’t the same as a goal. “Spark Joy” isn’t a goal in Marie Kondo’s context. It’s a constraint.

  • Tidy my house. = A Goal
  • Do I keep this item? = A Decision
  • It must “Spark Joy” to keep it. = A Constraint

One goal can lead to many decisions. Each decision can lead to many constraints.

Your goal may be to do creative work. Your decision is “What job should I take?” or “What work should I do?” Your constraints may be earning potential, an ability to live in a certain area, an ability to work specific hours, and any other number of important principles.

To dive into the decision-making framework I’ll use a profession that has to make good decisions…

…it’s storytellers!

Storytellers make decisions about what drives characters, what the characters look like, the rules of the world they are creating, the imagery, how to promote their work and more. It’s nothing but decisions all the way down!

The story of One Piece has sold 462 MILLION copies. It’s one of the greatest stories ever told filled with Pirates, Marines, Friendship, Superpowers, Comedy, Adventure, Good vs. Evil, treasure, an underdog story, and much more. The author, Eichiro Oda has been telling the story by writing weekly chapters since 1997! Imagine all the decisions in 23 years!

The decision-making process

Oda has been praised for his ability to weave a story, connecting seemingly unrelated pieces of the story together years down the line, showing incredible foresight, planning, and storytelling skills. To do this, he must know the “goal” of the story, make decisions about events to drive the plot and choose characters’ reactions to those events constrained by their motivations, the world and previously written events. Using One Piece as an example the next portion of this article lays out the steps of the framework that can be seen in the image to the right. While One Piece is a story, so is your life. You’ll still learn principles that will help you go where you want to.

Step 1: Know the goal.

No decision can be made (or should be made) when it’s unclear what the goal is. This is why people get up and go to a job they dislike. It’s why people fall into a routine of “just okay.” It’s also the reason that decisions made by multiple people start to get difficult (think politics). Everyone has a different goal in mind.

The main character of One Piece, Monkey D. Luffy, dreams of becoming the “Pirate King” because his goal is to be the freest person in the whole ocean. He’ll bulldoze anyone in his way. On his adventure, he has gathered a crew, saved kingdoms, made an enemy of the World Government, all in the name of becoming the “Pirate King.” His motivation is so strong towards his goal, he repeatedly shouts it at people, “I will be the Pirate King!”

Could you state your ambition that clearly?

Most people can’t, and it causes frustration as they wander aimlessly. There aren’t many decisions to be made without a goal. Being the “King of Pirates” isn’t a goal in our world, but it would bring certainty by naming what you are trying to do. If a long-term goal puzzles you, pick something closer to the current moment.

For a more rational example, I worked with companies to optimize engineering designs. Making a design the lightest is one goal. Making it the strongest is one goal. Making it the cheapest is one goal. Those all provide clear insight to the designer on how to evaluate their work. Imagine if someone tried to make the strongest and lightest system at the same time. How do they judge that? The lightest looks thin and weak. The strongest looks bulky and heavy. Multiple goals sinks the clarity of the decision like the Titanic, and hides the solution in a range of options as every bit of strength is offset by added weight. Comparing designs now takes judgment. We’ll come back to this shortly after talking about decisions.

Step 2: What are the decisions?

When making decisions, there is a tendency to focus on the constraints:

  • How much do I want to make?
  • How many more years of schooling?
  • Where will I work when it’s done?

All constraints with no goals or decisions makes for confusion because there is no problem. It only feels like there is. In these cases, develop the goal first.

Someone could be deciding between engineering, law, or being a doctor. Picking a career is hard, however, if this person had a goal of making corporate practices sustainable, then two of those professions are better than the 3rd. The engineer can invent clean energy systems and the lawyer can practice law in the realm of emissions and corporate standards. The doctor isn’t likely to do as much in this arena.

There is a decision to be made for each profession:

  • Do I want to be a doctor?
  • Do I want to be a lawyer?
  • Do I want to be an engineer?

If the answer is no for a doctor, yes for an engineer, and yes for a lawyer based on the goal, a new constraint is encountered. A person can’t be two professions at once. A new decision arises:

Do I want to be a lawyer, or an engineer?

Now, new constraints need to be considered, such as earnings, schooling costs, location of living, etc.

Step 3: Lay out the constraints

Constraints are looser criteria that only has to be met, so many options can pass their test. That contrasts with goals which are something to minimized, maximized, or achieved. Revisiting the engineering design example, the strongest design that weighs under 10kg is a goal with a weight constraint attached. Clarity has been brought back. The goal now is the strongest part, that also meets the constraint for weight. If it weighs 9.9kg that’s fine provided it stronger than the 1kg design.

Each decision may have its own unique constraining criteria. Writing those out provides transparency, especially if family, spouses or coworkers are involved.

At certain times throughout the story of One Piece, Oda has to decide:

  • “How do I want the reader to feel?”
  • “Which character should be used to portray this to the audience based on their personality?”
  • “Would this character have the correct personality and motivations to perform these actions?”

In One Piece, the character Zoro is a swordsman with a stoic personality. Zoro loves a good fight. Picking a character to convey danger to the audience, he’s a bad choice. Usopp is an emotional guy, and tends to be scared. He’s a sniper, and doesn’t like direct confrontation, making Usopp a better pick. Oda is constrained by these personalities. Writers that don’t think this way, tend to get criticized by their audiences because people don’t change principles drastically. Just like decisions the characters make should be consistent, your decisions should be too. If not, think more about what you stand for as that will show up in your decisions time and time again and determine whether you continually progress to your goal or not..

Funny One Piece - Sogeking and Zoro Handcuffed - YouTube

Step 4: Lay out the choices, or brainstorm some options.

There is a portion of the story where Luffy and his crew, the Strawhat Pirates, had to leave their old ship behind.

Oda had the goal in mind: Make the reader feel sad at the departure of the Strawhat Pirates’ ship, Going Merry.

Then Oda had the constraints:

  1. The audience needs to be attached to the old ship, otherwise they won’t feel anything for it.
  2. The Strawhat Pirates must leave the old ship behind, but the story must still progress on an adventure, so they need a way to get a new ship.

Oda must have thought deeply about that first constraint because he nailed the writing. What he came up with was, “The ship needs to be alive”. Giving the ship human characteristics works to attach the audience to the ship. For most of the story, the ship was just a ship. As the departure came, Oda added the following events:

  • The ship mysteriously getting repaired
  • Revealing that the spirit of the ship repaired itself to carry the crew that it loved safely to the next destination
  • The damaged ship magically appearing to save the crew after being cornered by the government with nowhere left to run.
  • The ship “dying” in a fire and speaking to the crew, thanking them for letting it come along this far on their journey.

It is amazing how emotional Oda makes the scene about a ship feel. It’s a gut punch, as if a friend had died. That emotion is a result of the good decisions he made to tell the story.

Oda also had to fulfill that second constraint so these events happened when they were on an island famed for their shipwrights. The shipwrights are the ones that pointed out the irreparable damage to the ship, and put the ship’s departure in place by telling Luffy he is risking the lives of his crew by sailing in that ship as a storm will eventually break the weakened keel and it will sink. That set off the events leading to the crew’s reluctant acceptance of the need for a new ship.

When Eichiro Oda was trying to make his audience feel sadness at the departure from the Going Merry, I’m sure he came up with dozens of options. The ship could crash and sink, and the crew struggles to reach land. The ship could be destroyed by an enemy cannon. It could be stolen. He had options.

In an infinite world, there isn’t a menu of all the options, however after setting the goal and constraints, modern technology creates a tremendous opportunity for feedback of ideas. Friends, family, coworkers and online forums give access to the brainpower of others for choices. By sharing your goal and constraints, it’s possible to receive many choices and unique perspectives for free.

By involving others you’ll get:

  • More options
  • Better constraints
  • An audience to test ideas

Those things lead towards better outcomes.

Step 5: Selection.

Oda had an option for someone to steal the ship, but if sadness was the goal, that would move the reader towards anger and confusion, failing to achieve the desired outcome.

Knowing what options to leave out of the mix is important. To write a comedy, edit out almost every situation that isn’t funny. For a drama, edit out every situation that isn’t dramatic and so on. Start leaving out options that don’t fit the constraints.

If done correctly, there should only be a few options and a final decision, “Which of the remaining options will move, or is likely to move you closest to the goal?” It’s possible that given all the constraints, the actual goal is still out of reach. That’s okay, as long as forward progress is made, future decisions will make up the difference.

It’s important to resist getting stuck. No decision is also a decision, and it’s one that is forced on you. If all decisions seem equal, putting the remaining options in a hat, and drawing one is likely as good a choice as any as they should all serve the same purpose and meet the constraints at that point. There will be a chance to change course later with new information available from your increased experience.

Step 6: Review the results.

Movement towards the goal is the result of a good decision. That is only revealed in time. Reflecting on decisions is a way to reevaluate them with more data, and more insight about the constraints we should have used. This is what learning to make better decisions is all about. It’s the magic that improves us as people as time goes by. Just start the process over with your improved outlook if necessary.

Today is an opportunity to pick yourself, set a goal to start on anything, and make some decisions. You have important work to do. Set a goal and make your first simple decision today. The rest of the decisions will flow from there, and the constraints show up naturally.

I’m looking forward to seeing what you can achieve.

If you enjoyed this, some additional articles you might want to read are:

How I destroyed everything by lacking patience for a perspective on the long-term vs. the short-term when setting the goals discussed here.

What happened to interesting?, Can you please build an asset?, and Marketing as a filter if you’re looking to set a goal for a creative/entrepreneurial business.

None of this is Right is about seeing opportunities to apply creativity, patience, courage and generosity to improve your life and the lives of those around you. The great part is that it doesn’t require and specialized knowledge or experience. If you can’t see those opportunities, or if a reminder is useful from time to time, subscribing below is valuable. I generally send 1 email a month, so it’s low effort on the inbox management.

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