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Struggling with a life-altering decision? Try a “premortem”


Alex Holyoake | CC0

Calah Alexander - published on 11/15/18

This method could replace your pros and cons list for good.

We all know that decisions are hard to make. No one has made it to adulthood without learning that difficult decisions are stressful and time-consuming, because the consequences can be life-altering — for better or worse.

There are many tricks we learn as kids to help the decision-making process go more smoothly and hopefully yield better results, like making a list of pros and cons or asking advice from trusted friends and mentors. But these techniques often fail us when life gets real, when decisions are too personal to seek advice about and too weighty to be simplified into a list of pros and cons.

A little over a year ago, I had a life-altering decision to make. It wasn’t a decision I could ask advice about (though I tried) or procrastinate about (though I tried), and my future and that of my family hung in the balance. So I did something I’ve never done before — I imagined what our lives would look like in a year if I made the decision I was contemplating. At first, I imagined nothing but worst-case scenarios and disasterous outcomes. Then I started to seriously consider the actions I would have to take and the ensuing chain of events necessary for that disaster to become a reality, and it all began to seem highly unlikely. Instead, I started imaging what would happen if I made the decision I was so hesitant to make, and what the results would be if I handled it well and saw it through. Finally, I compared both imaginary future outcomes to our current status quo, and projected a year into the future.

That process ended my deliberation. My decision became not merely clear but inevitable, as certain as if it had been laid in front of my feet the entire time. And maybe it had been — but I can’t be certain I would have taken that path if I hadn’t, according to Medium, stumbled upon such a valuable way to both make decisions in the present and avoid pitfalls in the future:

Considering the best- and worst-case scenarios is a common way to make tough choices. What’s the very best future you can imagine? The worst? And how would you feel if that disastrous scenario became reality? …

Imagine that your decision was terrible. The project you chose to tackle was a crash-and-burn disaster. Now, explore every possible reason for the failure. Once you address this worst-case scenario, you can take steps to prevent it  —  and make a better decision in the first place. In fact, research shows that premortems (which are also called prospective hindsight) can increase our ability to identify future outcome causes by 30 percent. On the flip side, try to visualize that epic, best-case future scenario and gauge how you feel. If you’re not happy or excited, it’s worth considering why.

This method was far and away more helpful for me than lists of pros and cons had ever been, and at least as helpful as wise counsel (if not more so). It allowed me to quantify and qualify my fears, motivations, and desires, as well as suss out ulterior motives that I was either trying to ignore or truly unaware of. Essentially, it was the equivalent of a come-to-Jesus talk with myself — it forced me to strip away pretense and face what was actually at stake, and what I was willing and able to do about it.

Since that first, accidental premortem, I’ve become a premortem convert. I rarely make decisions without imagining, at length, any and all possible future outcomes. Usually this process of projection is as effective as it was the first time, and the decision is made by the process itself. But sometimes all possible futures, either positive, negative, or neutral, seem pretty much the same.

That’s when I know I’m not ready to make this particularly decision yet. Sometimes you can wait to make decisions, and when you can, it’s often a good choice. Decisions I’ve jumped the gun on invariably backfire on me, which is why I’m reframing my understanding of patience and procrastination. Sometimes they look the same, but they’re not. If a premortem doesn’t give me any sense of which way to go, I know that I need to wait, be patient, and have faith that when it’s time to make a decision, I’ll know it — and I’ll know which way to go.


Read more:
4 Steps for making smarter decisions

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