Episode 261: Creating Decision-Making Systems
Hello, welcome back to Practically Happy. I’m your host, Miranda Anderson, here today with episode number 261: Building Decision-making Systems. I love decision making. I think it’s fascinating.
I became really interested in the impact of decision making several years ago when I was studying about decision fatigue because of having too many options and running out of energy and losing our ability to judge as the decisions that we made during the day.
Leaning into minimalism as a philosophy and a lifestyle had a lot to do with reducing the decisions that I had to make in my regular life and creating some systems for decision making some guidelines around what it would look like to just baseline run my life, making as few irregular decisions as possible, having most of the things that I do on a regular basis, systematized and automated and systematized.
Then giving the excess energy that is saved by having some of those guidelines freed up for unique things or spontaneous things or unexpected things. Of course, as the seasons of my life have gone on in the last, I guess it’s been seven years, since a real dive into the idea of minimalism and incorporating it into our lives readily.
Some years it feels easier to have some decision-making system. Some years it feels a little bit less simple depending on what’s going on in our lives. For sure as my kids have gotten older and they are making more and more of their own decisions rather than Dave and me as the parents and the, you know, heads of household.
Being able to make umbrella decisions that impact all the family in an, you know, equal way as our kids is getting older. And that balance is shifting from. parent imposed decisions to child asserted decisions. There is, of course, a little bit of looseness in some of the guidelines, and still some family general rules, some general ideas about the way that we want to live, family culture, and the way we spend our time and our money, and those types of things.
These are all dancing around the idea of decision-making systems, and I have talked about different types of decision-making systems for years on this show, most of the ease that I found in life through simplifying and getting more practical and really homing in on the things I value and the things that I want and desire in my life and consciously eliminating the rest.
Most of that has to do with simplifying decision making and making it easier and systematizing it. Today’s episode is going to be a fun one because I’m going to just dive into one decision-making strategy that applies to a lot of different areas in life. And it’s something that you probably do automatically in some things and bringing it to your awareness and your consciousness and giving you some vocabulary around what it is.
It looks like could help you to use this strategy in other areas where it’s not yet being employed. My hope is that by the end of this episode, you have some clear ideas in your head about how to use this decision-making strategy and system to enable you to make some better, easier, more efficient, and more peaceful decisions in your everyday life.
I recognize that we’re heading into a really decision heavy time of year with the holidays, and it seems like every day there’s a whole new batch of decisions to be made around what we’re doing with our time, what we’re buying for, for who, and how we’re going to get it there, and are we traveling or not, and how do we decorate, and how much money do we want to spend, and how much time do we want to spend, and all of the many decisions that come along with the holidays.
I hope that this timing of this episode will be helpful in making some more clear and efficient decisions heading into the season and into 2024. And next week’s episode is going to be all about bringing your holidays back to your values. And hopefully that will also, you know, marry well with this episode so that you feel a little bit lighter around all the things happening in life right now.
Before I get too much further into the episode, I want to share a quick segment that I like to call Pause for a Poem.
Segment: Pause for a Poem
Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
O why lament its fall?
Life’s sunny hours flit by,
Enjoy them as they fly!
What though Death at times steps in,
And calls our Best away?
What though sorrow seems to win,
O’er hope, a heavy sway?
Yet Hope again elastic springs,
Unconquered, though she fell;
Still buoyant are her golden wings,
Still strong to bear us well.
The day of trial bear,
For gloriously, victoriously,
Can courage quell despair!
Life by Charlotte Bronte
What Does Decision Making Look Like?
Let’s dive into learning about building a decision-making system. The first step to the whole process is getting an overview of what decision making generally looks like. It’s so natural to us, especially as adults, making decisions feels like something that we do all the time and we do it sort of without thinking a lot.
And so, I want to give you the six steps that generally apply in most decisions that we make, whether these steps happen consciously or sub unconsciously. These are generally what happens when we decide.
- The first one is that we determine the goal when we’re deciding. We are choosing based on what we hope to happen because of our decision, the goal of the outcome.
- Secondly, we prioritize the goals. Sometimes we have multiple goals that all play into the same decision. We’ll kind of filter through which matters most. In some cases, we can get more than one of our goals achieved through a decision. Sometimes our goals end up at odds in a decision-making process. Leaning into which of the goals has the highest priority or matters most to us in any one decision enables us to make an easier decision and knowing that that’s part of the process can be helpful.
- Next, we’re going to array the options. Sometimes that takes a very long time that we’re going through lots and lots of different options. Sometimes there’s a very succinct number of options available right in front of us.
- We array the options and then evaluate the goal fit, which of these options is going to best fit our primary goal.
- Next, we pick an option, we find out what happens because of that choice.
- And then in the future we generally evaluate the consequences of past decisions as we’re choosing future options.
So, determine the goal, prioritize the goal, array the options, evaluate the fit. of the option to the goal, pick an option, and then evaluate the consequences over the long term.
If you’re someone who has a hard time making decisions, you feel like making decisions is just stressful, and it feels overwhelming, and you feel like maybe you make decisions, and then you regret them often, there’s probably something in one of these steps that feels a little bit off.
Maybe you don’t have a clear idea of your goals. Maybe you don’t really know exactly what you want. And you’re leaning on other people’s opinions or ideas about what you think you should want. And that results in your decisions not going, or not feeling the way that you want to feel at the end of them.
Maybe they’re satisfying someone else’s idea of a good decision rather than your own. Maybe you have a hard time prioritizing your goals or you’re having conflicting goals and you want it all.
I have a friend, a good friend, who owns some land, who’s trying to build a house, and they’ve been working on this process of choosing the design and the materials and the, and the architect and all those things for a long time.
And when I ask her about the timeline, one of the things that she has said is that we want all these things and they’re not all mutually compatible. So, we want it to be within a certain price range, have a certain type of materials and architecture and construction, and have a timeline. And the actual goals conflict with each other.
It’s not reasonable or possible to fit all the different goals. You know, they don’t fit like puzzle pieces. One of them must go for the other ones to be able to work. And the inability to accept that is leading to some pause and some friction in we want all of this to be true and we’re not able to satisfy all of it and so we’re just going to do nothing.
That is something that happens often with us. We’re trying to find the just right thing that fits all our needs, and it might not exist. We might have to prioritize a little differently and put more emphasis on one of the goals, knowing that we can satisfy one completely, and the next one may be partway, and then one we must get rid of. A lot of acceptance comes into the decision-making process.
Evaluating the goal fit, picking an option. Some people just have a hard time with commitment, and so you get to like, I know this is the right thing, but I just can’t commit, I just can’t pick it. I’m having a hard time pushing that button, or pressing send, or pressing accept, or, you know, going to checkout, whatever it is.
And so, each one of these steps, In the flow, the process of decision making can be kind of tricky. If you feel like you’re a great decision maker and you feel satisfied with your decisions overall, then you probably have a slick pathway in your mind that all these things sort of work out.
You have a clear idea of your goals. Generally, you know what your values are, things that matter most to you. You don’t have a problem deciding and feeling like it’s okay. If you change your mind later. There is some level of sort of perfectionism that comes in here.
I have a great podcast episode that talks about how there’s not just one right choice, but there are many right choices that can be helpful to listen to, to just open your mind to the idea that you’re not always aiming for this tiny bullseye.
You may have the ability to choose six or seven or eight different things, and any one of them would. be a good choice. So, then it just comes down to picking and moving forward. So, I’ve given you a quick overview of the general decision-making process. Now I want to tell you a little bit more about second order decisions.
Second Order Decisions
Specifically, second order decisions refer to the choices that you make about your choices. So, these are making decisions about your decision-making process. Second order decisions generally involve setting some guidelines, rules, or norms for your own decision-making process that enable the decisions to be easier.
Second order decisions don’t impact specifically the decision you’re making. They impact the way you make your decisions. Some of the ways that second order decisions offer advantages to you are in consistency. Establishing frameworks or principles helps maintain consistency in your decision making.
The Benefits of Second Order Decisions
This is helpful in parenting, having like family norms, family rules, family guidelines. That helps you maintain consistency so that you and your children know what to expect on the day to day. When you have clear guidelines or strategies that are pre aligned with your family values, you’re more likely to make decisions that align with those values on a regular basis.
Another advantage of second order decisions is the efficiency they create. They streamline the decision-making process because you can kind of skip down the line, the steps of decisions, because some of them are already made for you by virtue of the second order decision guidelines. So, once you have some guidelines set, you can apply them to many different situations and the decisions become more efficient.
A third advantage is clarity. In complex situations where there are lots of different things going on, having a second order decision framework, this sort of higher structure to the way that you’re going to think about the, the individual situation becomes clearer because you have some pre-established ideas and principles.
In general, second order decisions enhance the quality of your first order decisions. A first order is like the direct decision, second order is the decision about the making decisions, the framework. You are likely to have more favorable choices when you’ve thought about the decision, creating the guidelines ahead of time.
Second order decisions also allow for adaptability. They offer structure, but you’re the one making the second order decision and you are also the one who can bend it as needed to accommodate changes in unforeseen circumstances, unexpected situations, or opportunities that might arise. Finally, A huge advantage of second order decision making is the way that it reduces your stress.
I, you know, briefly talked about at the beginning the idea of decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is when you make so many individual decisions that your ability to make good decisions diminishes. Your energy and judgment diminish. The more decisions that you make each day, so when you know the principles guiding your choices, it can alleviate the pressure of making every single decision from scratch the best way, I think, to understand second order decisions in.
Examples of Second Order Decisions from my own life
Everyday life is to hear some examples. I’m going to share a few different ways that I use second order decisions in my regular everyday life and how that supports my ability to make easier, quicker, more meaningful decisions without the same amount of decision fatigue or stress every time a decision roll around.
One example is a time management strategy, and I’ve, again, shared several podcast episodes about this, but I like to, in general, use a time block planning method, where I allocate chunks of time to be able to do a particular thing on similar days each week. For example, on Mondays, I like to record my podcast.
My morning routine, I have some routines. Routines are also an example of second order decisions. In my morning routine I wake up, I go downstairs, feed all the animals, wake up the kids, start having breakfast while the kids are getting ready, I put on my gym clothes, get the kids to school, I go to the gym at 8:30, and then I’m back by 10, and on Mondays at 10:30, I am at the Coworking space that I use to record the podcast almost every single Monday.
If I’m not recording a podcast on a Monday morning around 10, that means there’s some extenuating circumstance that has happened. In general, that’s the routine. The routine is a second order decision. It’s a way that I generally do things as a baseline and don’t vary from it unless there’s some specific reason to vary from it.
Wednesday Coaching Calls
Another time management strategy with time block planning is that I do all my coaching calls on Wednesdays, rather than having my calendar dotted with coaching calls throughout the mornings and afternoons, willy inly, any day of the week. All my coaching is done on Wednesdays between the hours of about noon and 530.
On Wednesdays, I get into coaching mode. I can put on my coach hat, and I can address each of my clients with that specific lens on it reduces the need to task switch and to go back and forth. When I don’t switch in and out of other types of work and decisions and time block planning, I do better work for my clients and to have more space and free time outside of that because I don’t have as much transition.
Minimal Meal Plan
Another example of a second order decision is with the minimal meal plan that our family has used for many years where we allocate one meal per day. and repeat those seven meals for three months at a time. I’ve also seen my friends, stretch this minimal meal plan into a two-week system, where they do two weeks’ worth of meals and repeat those for a full season.
In this way, the decision making about what to cook, what to shop for, how long it takes to prepare, when to have it, all disappears. You do the front-loading framework of choosing the meals for the season, creating the shopping list that goes along with it, and then plugging it in and putting it on repeat.
That becomes the second order decision. You’ve decided how to decide, and then only four times a year. In our case, are we going to the recipe books and online and deciding what new meals are we going to have? We just choose the meals seasonally and then repeat them. And that takes a lot of stress out of life.
Another way to use second order decisions is in financial planning. Setting a budget is a first order decision. Choosing the specific numbers of a budget, but deciding on the principles that guide that budget, like a percentage into savings, emergencies, leisure, the way that you choose to determine your budget is second order decision.
Deciding ahead of time that you want to spend 10 percent of your annual income on travel experiences for your family allows you to not make all of the intricate decisions about where you’re going and when and the plane tickets and the hotels and everything else, but to know behind the scenes, kind of the first step of the framework about how much you’re going to spend on travel this year.
And then you can get in, use that information to reliably make further decisions. With regards to shopping, a second order decision system that I made, again, several years ago, was our capsule wardrobe clothing system. And this is something that I have a couple podcast episodes about that I will link in the show notes.
Capsule Wardrobe System
But the capsule wardrobe system for me looks like twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, going through all the clothes that I own, and for each of my children I do the same thing. Individually, we’ll take a week where we’re going through and trying things on and seeing what works and what doesn’t, what will move over to the next year and what won’t, and then we decide about what is needed to fill the gaps in the wardrobe for this upcoming season.
And then we do all the shopping within about a couple weeks, and then we don’t think about clothes again until six months later. We, as a family, are not continually shopping for clothes all year long, just kind of when people want something or need something. We open it up, do our evaluation and our shopping, and then we close it up again.
That capsule is closed until the next time the season rolls around and we do it again. This streamlines the decision-making process. It streamlines the way where we’re spending money on clothes, it streamlines the amount of clothes that we have at a given time, because we’re not just adding, adding, adding without evaluating and taking things away.
Picking Favorite Stores
Something else that’s a second order decision that comes into play with the capsule clothing shopping is that I tend to shop at about five stores for clothing, and I have my go-to’s that are the second order decision that’s kind of like, I’m going to look at Madewell. I’m going to look at our local consignment store.
I’m going to look at Old Navy. There’s like a couple places that I’m going to go and we’re going to choose from what’s available in those stores. Rather than going everywhere or looking online for everything, we are going to confine our clothing shopping to some familiar favorites and That’s how those decisions will be made.
What’s whatever is available at the time that we are shopping at those locations that narrows the decision from infinite choices down to a reasonable number of decisions. Add in then our budget and like the sizes that we’re looking for. We’ve really reduced the number of decisions, which is helpful when you limit your choices based on your own values and goals, you are.
Fair Play Method
Much more easily able to make a positive decision. Something else that’s been so helpful in the last few years is the clarity around household duties and household management that my husband and I established using the fair play method. If you haven’t heard of the fair play method, it is. Basically, second order decisions are deciding who oversees what pieces of the household management and then fully allocating the mental work, the mental load, the, you know, decisions around whatever area to one partner or the other.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t work concurrently or have a, you know, still collaboration and teamwork, but it does create a lot of clarity around who oversees what so that you don’t have to. Be continually starting with the question, well, who’s supposed to be doing this or who’s in charge of this?
When you clear up that delegation, delegation itself is a second order decision. Delegation, so that someone can have full responsibility of something, the decisions that are made in that area become a lot clearer. Another way to think about second order decisions is to create in the moment guidelines for a decision that you’re making.
For example, I had a client who was having a hard time choosing a couch for her house. Getting overwhelmed with all the different options and finding things that were a little bit out of the budget and then not knowing if the budget should be shifted or adjusted or all the different, I mean, it can be really overwhelming to make decisions.
Creating some guidelines around the way you’re going to make the decision for something, even as simple as buying a couch, can ease the decision-making process. So, second order decisions around choosing a couch might look like determining a clear budget. Maybe a color or a fabric type, maybe a size and maybe one or two stores where you’re going to look when you frame out the scaffolding, you’re going to start eliminating options and the systematic elimination of options that are going to be less aligned with your values and with what matters to you is the goal with second order decisions.
It’s not that. The decision, you know, the best choice, quote unquote, best choice is going to become immediately clear. It’s that it gets more and more clear as you’re making guidelines that cut out of your purview things that you know, you don’t want to have to think about. This is focusing on what matters to you, on what things you know for sure, and then clearing out by systematically Shutting down options that don’t fall within that range in a work or corporate environment, establishing guidelines for when meetings are held and how long they are, who has decision making authority in different areas, outlining how conflicts are resolved.
These are all second order decisions that kind of frame out the culture. of firsthand decisions that are made on a day-to-day basis, clarifying, eliminating the no go options, and clarifying the space for the things that might rise to the top as the best choices in any given moment.
Christmas Gift Rotations
Another just simple example, as we’re heading into the holidays, my family and Dave’s family we have two different rotation systems for Christmas gifts within our extended family on Dave’s side.
Each family gives a family gift to one other. family, so he’s one of six siblings. We have a rotation system where our family will give to one of the other sibling families, and there’s a budget for what that looks like, and the rotation is clear. It falls on a spreadsheet each year. His older sister, who is the oldest sibling, she oversees managing the rotation, and she sends us a reminder each year.
The second order decision systems that happen there are that we are doing a family, rotation, and that the oldest oversees updating everyone each year on who they’re supposed to purchase for, and the budget has been set. In my family, we do a similar thing, but on a more individual scale. I’m also one of six siblings, and the siblings and our spouses have our own individual rotation.
So, I might give to my sister or to a brother-in-law. It’s on a spreadsheet, a rotational system. The same thing happens for the cousins. So, the cousins who are 18 and older are in their own category. And they exchange gift cards on a rotational basis, and then the cousins that are 18, I guess under 18, 17 and younger are on their own rotation, and they exchange actual gifts that are within the budget.
Having a clear idea of who’s giving to who, when, how much to spend, and each year, that updates so that there’s sort of this fair distribution of who you’re giving to and receiving from, has made the difference. The decision-making process around the holidays a little bit easier another personal second order decision that I have is that I really prefer to give gifts of experience rather than gifts of stuff and of course, I’m flexible with this.
Remember how I said with second order decisions, you can bend your own guidelines but in general, if possible, I like to give an experience like movie tickets or tickets to a play or a game that can be played together in a group, maybe an annual pass to a local botanical garden or a science museum. It helps me frame out my decisions to think about what are things that can be experienced rather than just used.
These examples show how considering the frameworks and principles that guide our choices can significantly impact the outcomes of our daily decisions. They’re often these invisible forces shaping the quality and effectiveness of how we’re making our decisions that make all the impact.
I hope that shedding some light on the idea of second order decisions and how you can use those ideas to build a decision-making system for any area of your life has been helpful for you.
I appreciate the way that I can free up energy and enthusiasm and vigor in my life by putting as many things as possible that I can into little systems that ease My daily decisions so that I’m free in all the other ways that matter.
Thanks so much for tuning in today. If you have any questions about second order decisions, or you could use some one-on-one help to build some decision-making systems in your life for clarity and ease, I would love to work with you one on one as a coach.
I have just a couple spots available right now for individual monthly and bimonthly coaching and I would love to work with you. So, send me an email at email@example.com and let me know if you’d like to hop on an exploratory call to find out if it would be a good fit to work with me.
Thank you so much for tuning in today. I hope that you will think of some ways you can use second order decisions to make your life a little more practically happy.