How to Make a Consequential Decision

Which college should I attend? Which job offer should I accept? Should we fix up our house or sell it and move?

Harvard psychology professor and best selling author Dan Gilbert argues that our approach to thinking through choices with significant future consequences is flawed. Gilbert has shown that we mistakenly assume our future selves will feel the same way about things as our current selves. In other words, when evaluating choices, we project our current mindsets and priorities onto the people we will become after the decision has been enacted. If the decision is consequential, we won’t be the same.

A couple may be discussing when and if they want to start a family. If you interview the couple to learn about their thought process, you’ll hear a lot about how they imagine kids will change their lives. The big assumption hiding in their deliberations is that they can rationally compare their current lives to their future lives.

Let’s say that in the current, pre-kids life the couple enjoys a weekly round of golf with another couple. It’s an important ritual that they prioritize in planning their weekly activities and commitments. The couple assumes that starting a family will spell the end of the weekly golf outings. Gilbert’s point is that when thinking through the decision, the couple can’t really weigh the pros and cons of playing golf against the pros and cons of caring for a child because they don’t have the lived experience of caring for a child to place on one side of the scale. They’re making a comparison between real feelings about their current lives against imagined feelings they can only guess at. We can’t feel the feelings of our future selves.

An alternative for thinking through consequential decisions

Step One: Stop asking, what should i do?

When faced with a decision to make, we have the unfortunate habit of asking, what should I do? The question tricks us into evaluating our options too soon. First, according to Gilbert, we should be skeptical of our ability to assess the options. Secondly, once we start comparing options, we stop imagining new, perhaps more creative possibilities.

Instead of thinking about what to do, anticipate the consequences of your options.

When people struggle with decision making, what they really want is a way to predict the future. It’s not the decision, but rather the outcomes after implementing the decision that matter. By shifting the focus from the choices to the consequences of the choices, we improve our ability to imagine the future. In other words, when I detach myself from the emotions present-me feels about my choices, I can consider how my options will feel to future-me.

… when I detach myself from the emotions present-me feels about my choices, I can consider how my options will feel to future-me.

Step Two: SCAN the consequences

The Unstuck Minds Blog introduced the SCAN framework a few years ago. In our work with organizations, we teach and apply the framework as a thinking tool to develop attention agility. Each of the four elements of SCAN (Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs) provide a view into different and overlooked aspects of our situations. Recently, we’ve considered how the framework might support an individual making a consequential decision.

It’s challenging to shift focus from your current choices to possible future consequences. Your current choices are defined and finite. Future consequences are vague, unpredictable, and infinite. The SCAN framework provides a systematic way to explore uncertainty and complexity.

Better questions to ask about a consequential decision

Let’s say that you want to exercise more regularly in the coming year. You are trying to decide between joining a health club, purchasing a Peloton, or hiring a personal trainer. Even though it’s a made-up situation, when you read the last sentence, it’s likely that opinions and feelings about each choice came to mind. Set aside early judgments and imagine asking the following questions instead:

Structures (how things get done in my life)

How will my current routines have to adapt to each option? What will it be like to integrate future routines into life with each option?

Context (the environmental influences of things I don’t control)

What might change in my environment that will influence how I think about the benefits and risks of each option? What might happen that don’t I control, which could change how I will feel about the decision I made?

Assumptions (my unchallenged beliefs)

What must be true in the future for each option to work out the way I want it to? What impressions will people have about me when they find out what I chose?

Needs (what matters to the people who matter)

How might my satisfaction with each option change as my needs change? How might each option impact the people who matter to me?

Step Three: Focus on adjusting to the future as it unfolds

We tend to think of decisions about the future as guessing games, like picking the cup that the pebble is under. We can be right, or we can be wrong. In reality, most of the consequential decisions we face provide a set of questions with no obvious right answer.

When you imagine consequences rather than dwell on how you currently feel about your options, you’re less likely to think of a choice as being “right” or “the best.” You’ll notice the overlapping benefits and tradeoffs of each option. You may even discover an option you hadn’t considered. When you take action to implement the decision, the future will unfold. The more consideration you give to future consequences, the more prepared you will be to adjust to whatever emerges.

In a recent podcast interview with Ezra Klein, the writer George Saunders talked about the power of literature. We feel about SCAN the way Saunders described great literature. “In the end,” he said, “you don’t have an answer, but you have new respect for the question.”