Decision-Making and Trade-Offs

Sometimes when we are having trouble making a decision, we will be advised to go with our gut. While this can be a good way to make a decision, it’s often not enough–especially when we are making decisions that affect other people or are unique to specific situations.

If we want to be more intentional with our decision making, I suggest this four-step process:

LIST CRITERIA. Often we go into a decision thinking that only one thing is important–for example, choosing the cheapest option. But with more thought, we find that other factors are more important. Let’s take the example of grocery shopping: how do we make decisions on what to buy to feed our household for the week? Cost is an important factor in our decision-making. But other factors are important too–factors like nutrition, taste, preparation time, shelf-life, environmental impact, fair labor practices, and so on. 

PRIORITIZE CRITERIA. Our values can differ from person to person and from situation to situation. Take the list of criteria from above for choosing groceries. For some folks, nutrition is more important than shelf-life. For others, preparation time is more important than the lowest cost. The trick is to figure out what matters most to us. So we must list our criteria, at least in our heads if not outright, and assign each a value like 1, 2, 3. Doing this helps us understand what’s most important. 

RECOGNIZE THE TRADE OFFS. We have to give up something to get something. This is what weighted criteria helps us understand more clearly. When we choose something that’s time-saving, for example, it will likely cost more money. It’s helpful to know when and for what situations in life that time-saving is something we are willing to spend extra money on. For some of us, time-saving is a priority all of the time. For others, time is something we value greatly once in a while, like when our schedules get overbooked. 

MAKE A DECISION. When we have taken the time to list and weigh our criteria and to make trade-offs more visible to ourselves, then we have a better grasp on what we value and what we are willing to give up to get it. This makes decision-making easier to do and easier to explain to other people and to ourselves.  



There are a lot of resources in the business literature that can help you list out and weigh your criteria to make smart decisions. Some methods are like my 4-step process above, and others are even more methodical. Have a look and I hope you find something that works for you.

Forget Right Or Wrong: Decision-Making Is About Trade-Offs (Forbes 2014)

Tradeoffs: The Currency of Decision Making

Even Swaps: A Rational Method for Making Trade-offs (HBR 1998)