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If not now, when? The importance of being bold

Here's a theme that's come up repeatedly as I continue to build my personal productivity practice: The value of being bold in my decision making.

I bring this up because my default behavior is to analyze (OK, agonize) far too much before making decisions, esp. ones where it's not clear the best path, or what the outcome might be. Brian Tracy says it best in Time Power: A Proven System for Getting More Done in Less Time Than You Ever Thought Possible:
Decision making requires courage. This is because every decision involves a certain amount of uncertainty. With every decision there is the possibility of failure. But it is not possible for a person to advance in life unless he is willing to make decisions, with no guarantee of success. All successful leaders and managers are firm decision makers.
Of course a major strength of Getting Things Done is in the habit of making decisions on the "front end," rather than delaying them, which causes clutter and stress. (Barbara Hemphill - of File, Act, Toss fame - is famous for saying that Clutter is Postponed Decisions.)

But sometimes it's not that easy! So one bit of advice I've been trying to follow is to 1) ask if I have all the information I need (or am likely to get), then, if so, 2) do a brief internal check-in to figure out what I really want to do, and 3) do it and move on.

The motivation for this comes from research on executives, which indicates it's better to make a strong, quick decision, knowing that most of them can later be revisited, un-done, or at least worked-around relatively reasonably. (See Organized for Success: Top Executives and CEOs Reveal the Organizing Principles That Helped Them Reach the Top by Stephanie Winston - Organizing Law #2. Make decisions, even if they need to be revised later.)

What I've found by doing this is first, the results are just fine! I.e., the anticipation and worry are often unwarranted. Additionally, I've found that making the decision and then acting on it empowers me - I feel better, lighter, and just a bit more courageous after.

This leads to Matt's Law on Decisions:
If you want to avoid feeling discomfort or fear when making hard decisions, get practice by doing it a lot.
In other words, making bold decisions is hard at first, but gets easier with practice. Yes, you'll hesitate before hitting your email program's "Send" button, and you may check back frequently to see what the response was, but I've found this will eventually cultivate a very healthy "what the hell" attitude.

This has the benefit of making me more productive: It's now much easier to write shorter, more direct "good enough" email messages (with no grammatical or spelling errors, of course), thus bringing more actions within the two minute rule (more here and - surprisingly - here). Also, I'm convinced making a quick, firm decision uses up less mental energy because, let's face it, decision-making is hard work!

Finally, as Joe points out, each decision we make opens doors as well as (possibly) closing them, though we often focus on the latter. So be bold, make some good, strong decisions, and move ahead. Cheers!


Articles: You may find useful the following articles on decision-making:Books: In addition to Susan Jeffer's very helpful Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and Edward de Bono's terriffic Six Thinking Hats (there's a nice summary at MindTools), I found a number of books with the theme "If not now, when?" including:Quotes: Here are a few of my favorite thoughts on boldness, with the first two being from poets with some local history (they were both notable residents of the great town I live in):
  • Fortune befriends the bold. -- Emily Dickinson
  • Freedom lies in being bold. -- Robert Frost
  • If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when? -- Rabbi Hillel
  • Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute! Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Only engage, and then the mind grows heated. Begin, and then the work will be completed. -- Jean Anouilh
  • Begin, be bold and venture to be wise. -- Horace
  • Be bold. If you're going to make an error, make a doozy, and don't be afraid to hit the ball. -- Billie Jean King
  • Laugh at yourself, but don't ever aim your doubt at yourself. Be bold. When you embark for strange places, don't leave any of yourself safely on shore. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory. -- Alan Alda
  • The flower has opened, has been in the sun and is unafraid. I'm taking more chances; I'm bold and proud. -- Paula Cole
  • All good fortune is a gift of the gods, and you don't win the favor of the ancient gods by being good, but by being bold. -- Anita Brookner
  • Fortune favors the bold. -- Virgil

Reader Comments (10)

I'd also suggest the book 'Optimal Thinking' by Rosalee Glickman. Besides some good Positive Psychology aspects; she has some great models for asking the right questions and resolving would be paralysis decisions with simple logical forms or abstract concepts.

I have them on my notecard arsenal and use them when confronted with a fork in the road.

March 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Very insightful article, Matt. I, too, agonize over many of the decisions that I make. I am going to printout your post and references and beginning looking at them in-depth and try to start making bolder decisions.

March 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Ramm

Matt - Great post! Mark Forster says in Get Everything Done that our basic productivity problem is our inability to make decisions and then do them. In Do It Tomorrow he says that our natural decision making pattern is Stimulus-->Reaction. It really should be Thought-->Decision-->Action.

All too often, I find myself thinking, making a decision, and then not acting on that decision. It's just so easy to break an agreement with myself. I've found that I work best when I have very few things on my list, and a clear vision for accomplishing most of those things. Now I attempt to keep as many things on my Someday/Maybe list as possible, and only have the things on my current next actions lists that I'm reasonably certain that I will get done before the next weekly review. I even do daily lists now (and I've heard that David Allen is starting to see the benefit of daily lists too). Seeing dozens of next actions is overwhelming while seeing just a few is empowering--"I can do that!"

March 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Andy - thanks for the tip. [ Optimal Thinking: How to Be Your Best Self | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0471414646?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0471414646 ] sounds great.

Michael - Thank you. And I like your plan.

Ricky - Stimulus-->Reaction should be Thought-->Decision-->Action: Neat! Mark's books will be next on my [ candidates list | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1929154178?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1929154178 ]. Also, I really like your thinking about keeping lists small. I've heard activating actions out to 60 days maximum is a good time window; farther out -> Someday/Maybe...

Thanks everyone!

March 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt
Hope the practise is going well. there is some interesting information coming to light on using the unconscious in the decisionmaking process..including a mention in the Harvard Business Review. I have a couple of posts you might enjoy:


March 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterManny

Thanks, Manny! Both of your posts look great - I'll be reading up on your ideas.

March 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt. I've been following your blog for some time now, and finally have decided to participate!

I'm a big fan of The 80/20 rule; often referred to as The Pareto Principle. You've referred to Richard Koch's book (The 80/20 Principle) which I highly recommend for those who want to increase their productivity and focus on the things that really matter in their lives.

Something that I think is of considerable interest in this particular post about decision- making.

...The motivation for this comes from research on executives, which indicates it's better to make a strong, quick decision, knowing that most of them can later be revisited, un-done, or at least worked-around relatively reasonably.

Using 80/20 thinking, the majority of decisions that one has to make will have little impact or consequence on the productivity, efficiency and overall quality of your life (the 80%). Conversely, the other 20% has a significant impact, and thus these are the decisions in which we should be focusing on.

80/20 thinking supports the idea that 80% of our inputs are derived from only 20% of causes, actions or efforts. Unfortunately, most of us are agonizing over every decision we make, not realizing that 80% of these decisions can be made quickly, as their outcome will have little importance on the impact and (advancement) of a project, a business start-up, a presentation or whatever your focus may be.

80/20 keeps it simple. Because your focus should be spent managing the 20% that will give you 80% results (understand that the margin fluctuates. Could be 60/40, 70/30...it's all the same). This involves managing the resources that are going to yield the greatest impact. This means that you switch your thinking from "low-value" to "high-value."

Koch (The 80/20 Principle) makes a great point about success:

Success is undervalued...and underexploited. Often it is dismissed as a lucky streak. Behind luck there is always a highly effective mechanism, generating surpluses regardless of our failure to notice it. Because we cannot 'believe' our luck, we fail to multiply and benefit from value-creating virtuous circles.

Perhaps with this type of thinking, we can all make better decisions and create more impact on our daily lives and our long-term goals.

March 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHugh Hession

Hi Hugh. Thanks so much for your comment. I've been hit on the head enough times recently that I really have to upgrade Koch's book to the top of my candidates list. Another reader kindly sent me "The 80/20 Principle", but he's also written "Living The 80/20 Way" and "The 80/20 Individual." Do you have a recommended starting point? Thanks!

March 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey Matt. Just read your response. Tonight I ordered "Living The 80/20 Way: Work Less, Worry Less, Succeed More, Enjoy More" from Amazon. This was written 6 years after his first book that I mentioned. From what I understand, this more recent book is easier to follow according to some of my associates who recommended this version to me (I'll fill you in when I finish reading it).

If you have his first book, go ahead and read it. I think for some it is a bit advanced and requires some thinking, however it's one of my all time favorites! For someone who has a business background, it should be required reading if one is serious about maximizing their productivity.

Koch also has a book entitled "The 80/20 Individual: How to Build on the 20% of What You do Best," which you mentioned. Don't know much about this one.

March 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHugh Hession

Thanks very much, Hugh. I'll start with the one I have, and work from there.

March 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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