Will knowledge change a decision you make? «
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This is one of my favorite decision-making heuristics: Will knowledge change a decision you make?

My default method of procrastination is to try to learn more, to study, to collect more data. I can do this approximately forever.

Eventually I learned to ask myself what would change if I read that next book or next blog post. Would it enable me to do something totally new, or succeed where I would have failed? Or would it give a tiny marginal improvement, or help with a problem I don’t even have yet?

When I started asking this question it broke through a lot of delaying behaviors. Nowadays we’re inundated by information: there’s always another book in the queue, a blog post, a tweet, a reference to something else to study. Always. Last year I read over a hundred books and probably the same volume in blog posts. I could stop going to work, stop playing video games, stop working on personal projects and perhaps triple that number… and I still wouldn’t run out of interesting things to read that might offer a slight improvement in a project. Better to read the books that show me something totally new or where that small improvement is to something I care a lot about… and then stop. Go do the work.

After using it for a while, the question took on a second meaning.

Can I predict what I’ll do in the future?

I interview a job candidate and evaluate them based on pair programming for an hour or two. I’m asked to recommend hiring or declining the candidate. I haven’t seen their resume or portfolio. I ask the question: Would that information change my decision?

No. Almost certainly not. Maybe if I looked at their resume I’d see their previous position was Senior Vice President of Puppy-Kicking at the Institute For Gratuitous Evil, but it probably isn’t. I can just say “no” now and know I’d almost never change that answer, or I can delay my answer but know that when I do see the resume I’m only looking for a big signal, I can skip reading about their college intramural fencing or even the bullet points under each position title.

Another quicker example: some friends ask if I want to go out to dinner at that hip new restaurant now that the lines have died down. Do I want to come? Well, I could go look at Yelp and ask my coworker what he thought of it, or find the newspaper’s review… but the answer is yes. I still want to see friendly faces, so say yes and move on. Sure, maybe I’ll end up at a restaurant that’s too loud to have a good conversation or only serves a cuisine I can’t stand, but that happens maybe one time in forty and I’m probably happy to be with friends anyways. The extra information would rarely cause a change.

So there’s a favorite question of mine. If you have your own, please share it in a comment.

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