Clear Thinking by Shane Parrish – Book Review

Shane Parrish founder of the popular blog site Farnam Street has authored a book about decision making called Clear Thinking. Parrish has spent much of his working life seeking to answers to questions like, “How can we get better at reasoning? Why do people make bad decisions? Why do some people consistently get better results than others who have the same information? How can I be right more often, and decrease the probability of a bad outcome when lives are on the line?” The quality of our decisions is a large contributor to the quality of our lives. And yet, we aren’t taught that decision making is a skill.

Parrish proposes that better decisions follow two steps. First, we must make time to think. We must resist the reflex to react. Then we must use the time created to think. Like much good advice, both are easier said than done.

Creating space for cognition is tough because our biology can get in the way. We think we’re thinking but are as likely to be simply reacting. We want to repulse at our impulse. Four defaults are detailed by Parrish which can disrupt our ability to think. The emotional default prioritizes feelings over facts. We react to our feelings and only pay attention to things that improve our feelings. Who is in charge? Are you moved by your waves of emotion or by your conscious cognition? A second default is our ego. We are sensitive to criticism and attacks against our self-worth. Where we sit in our social group is very important for us to protect. We want to be seen in a positive light. We will react defensively to attacks. Parrish writes, “Our desire to protect ourselves prevents us from moving forward.” We will work to rationalize our decision instead of evaluate information. Third, the social default is the drive we have to fit in with our peers. We don’t want to stick out. Being a contrarian isn’t comfortable. We want, if not the respect and admiration, at least the acceptance of our peers. Parrish quotes Walter Lippmann capturing the cost of the social default when he wrote, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” The concern with the social default is conformity. Dissent is less likely. Critical thought is sidelined in favor of favorable group, social dynamics. Finally, the inertia default prizes the status quo. We crave comfort and change creates uncertainty which is uncomfortable. As a result of the inertia default, we’re more likely to leave things as they are and defer decisions to change.

Physical and mental stressors can increase the likelihood that we’ll lean on our defaults. If we’re tired, hungry, distracted, angry, stressed, rushed, or somewhere unfamiliar, our defaults are likely to kick in compromising our ability to see things clearly and make good decisions. Developing an awareness of defaults and their tendency to disrupt decision making is the starting point to getting out of our own way. Awareness of defaults helps us tune our antennae to allow us to insert our thinking self into the equation earlier to avoid dependence on defaults. Parrish writes, “Strength is the power to press pause on your defaults and exercise good judgment.”

A way we can work to give ourselves a chance is to set up environments for success to avoid some of our vulnerabilities like sleep, nutrition, distraction, etc. We can create a rule to adopt the HALT strategy. That is, avoid making decisions when Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. A separate rule to consider, for example, is never say yes to something without sitting with it overnight. Avoid being forced into a decision in the moment. Parrish proposes we seek safeguards to set up success. We can control our environments to rid ourselves of interruptions to reduce being pressured into decision making. Create checklists which are several rules piled into a routine which help us stay on track. They force us to slow down and engage mentally in a process allowing us to ask as Parrish writes, “What am I trying to accomplish? And what are the things I need to accomplish it?”

Associated with accelerating awareness of our defaults (weaknesses) and controlling our environment is assuming responsibility for your decision making. We need to not just accept but embrace the responsibility we have for our decisions. When we see the importance of our role in decision making coupled with the value of quality decision making to our lives, we’ll heighten our awareness of defaults and want to work harder to build time to think. Avoiding accountability for our decisions and complaining both weakens and devalues us. Complaining is an assault on agency. We can’t be victorious while being a victim. When we’re hopeless, we become helpless. Taking responsibility may be tough, but it’s empowering. No, you don’t and can’t control everything. However, your actions contribute to your direction. Focusing on what we can control and making the most of the decisions with which we’re faced are the best ways to make progress in life. Recognizing reality is about placing our feelings in the back seat and deciding based on facts. Parrish quotes James Clear offering, “Life gets easier when you don’t blame other people and focus on what you can control.”

We can think of our decisions as binary points where what we decide will either help us or hurt us. This binary becomes our decision driver. Parrish offers, “Each moment puts you in a better or worse position to handle the future.” He encourages us to ask, “Will this action make the future easier or harder?” It is in our moments of decision that our future is determined.

Once we’ve created time to make choices consciously, we now need to use this time to make better decisions. Parrish presents four stages for decision making: defining the problem, exploring solutions, evaluating options, and executing the best option.

Defining the problem must be done by the decider. Deciders define their problem in two steps. First, what is to be achieved. Second, what impediments lie in the way of where I/we want to go? Parrish suggests that how a problem is defined shapes how and what becomes seen. The definition determines the perspective. It’s also important when defining the decision that the root cause be rooted out as opposed to going after a surface level symptom. The definition of the problem should consider not just the immediate situation but the longer term as well. Engaging in an initial conversation focused solely on defining the problem ensures that solutions don’t creep into the conversation prematurely. Try to document your efforts to define the problem. The more you preserve your process, the more you will be able to review and learn from it after the solution has been selected and executed.

Solutions can be sought once the problem has been defined. The goal is to seek out several. Avoid being limited to one or two options. Seek a minimum of three potential solutions to evaluate.

Once solutions have been surfaced, they must then be evaluated. Each solution should be weighed based on their pros and cons. What is good about a potential solution and what limitations are there? No solution is perfect. What are the opportunity costs associated with a given solution? Remember, the best solution is the one that will, as Parrish writes, “make the future easier.” As part of this step, your goal is to determine evaluation criteria. How will each solution be weighed? Do you have a clear decision filter through which you’ll be sifting your solutions? Do you have a clear set of priorities? Ideally, a single priority as the goal for the solution to serve. Again, writing things down is an asset here as it makes your process concrete and allows the future outcome to be weighed against your decision-making process.

Parrish proposes a sticky note battle to prioritize choice criteria. List individual criteria on a single sticky note and stack one by one the others against it until you have your hierarchy of what’s important for your solution to serve. Once you’ve selected your solution, you reach the final stage of the decision-making process. It’s time to execute. Parrish offers the military idea of Commander’s Intent as an approach to adopt to assist execution in a team environment. To avoid the leader becoming the weak link in the execution chain, the leader gives the group the driving principle behind the goal a decision is intended to achieve. This is the intent that others will rely on to make their own determination of what to do. This passes the baton for execution from the leader to the front lines. It empowers those around you to act with confidence and in service of the ultimate objective keeping things moving.

An often-overlooked consideration in decision making is the cost of analysis itself. Too much time spent deliberating instead of doing has its own limitations. Parrish offers the ASAP and ALAP principles to help move things along when needed while allowing for time to discuss when the nature of the decision is more vital. The ASAP principle, Parrish writes applies, “If the cost to undo the decision is low, make it as soon as possible.” Whereas, the ALAP principle is, “If the cost to undo a decision is high, make it as late as possible.”

At the end of the day Parrish writes, “The quality of your decisions eventually determines how far you go and how fast you get there.” Getting better at making decisions should be a goal for all of us and Clear Thinking is both readable and actionable to help us in this regard. There’s much wisdom contained within that can be put to use right away for readers in their personal and professional lives.