Problem Solving and Decision Making

It does no good to be efficient on tasks that are addressing a decision that was not given enough thought. It doesn't matter whether you are using a PDA, a paper day planner, or no planner at all: it pays to have a logical way of solving problems and making decisions. So, this section provides some techniques that will help you in solving problems and making smart decisions. (The terms problem solving and decision making are synonymous when you think about it.) You may want to copy some of the info into a memo for future reference.

The book Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions covers eight aspects of decision making. I summarize the first five here:

  • Problem - this aspect of decision making focuses on defining the right problem, so that you don't work on the wrong thing. The book provides advice on how to go about doing this. All too often, the problem definition is not as obvious as you might have thought. Additionally, as you focus on the problem definition, it pays to ask what the constraints of the problem are and then to examine each constraint closely to see if it really is a constraint. Sometimes we think we are constrained to do something a certain way, when in reality we are not.
  • Objectives - this aspect focuses on what objectives you really want to get out of the problem solution. For example, you might realize that one objective you want is for you and your spouse to work together on the problem, rather than you tackling it alone (as might have been your original thought). The objectives are not just restatements of the problem.
  • Alternatives - this aspect addresses identifying alternatives. Mr. Spock on Star Trek used to say: "There are always alternatives." While I'm not convinced that there always are alternatives, as sometimes there is just one right thing to do, alternatives often do exist.
  • Consequences - everything has consequences. The book provides advice on how you can think through consequences.
  • Tradeoffs - this is where you focus on tradeoffs between various consequences and payoffs.

I have found the above book to be very helpful. I also like to have a set of questions to ask myself when facing a decision. Here are some of the questions I use:

  • What am I really deciding on?
  • Who can benefit from this decision?
  • Who can be harmed from it?
  • Is it fully reversible? (Note: some texts recommend that you don't go for reversible decisions.)
  • What are the consequences, long-term and short-term?
  • Are there any past experiences and lessons learned that apply?
  • Should I be the one to solve this problem?
  • How much time do I realistically have available to make this decision?
  • What prejudices do I have that impact my ability to decide this objectively?
  • How can I avoid being impulsive on this?
  • What Realistic Outcome best serves me and others involved and why? Short-term and long-term?
  • How would a more experienced decision maker whom I admire handle this?
  • What are my skills, biases, and limitations in dealing with an issue like this?


In addition to the above points, you should also have some understanding of how we can trick ourselves when we make decisions. Some publications that deal with this are:

  • The Wikipedia entry on Cognitive Biases, an utterly eye-opening accounting of the number of ways we trick ourselves. From all of the reading I have done over the past five years on the topic of whether there is an afterlife, I can tell you first-hand that confirmation bias (discussed at Wikipedia) is prevalent on both sides of the question. It is truly hard to find totally objective discussions in this area, regardless of the rationality and brilliance of the authors, and I suspect it is hard to find totally objective discussions in any area. (By the way, having a confirmation bias does not necessarily mean that one is wrong -- just that one is downplaying some data and up-playing some other data, with the downplayed data being data that does not support one's views.) I think one can become more objective by realizing that we all are subject to such biases, and that we have to work to not have them.
  • A free document that is available on the Web in Adobe Acrobat format: Matthew Rabin's Psychology and Economics. Although this article is a bit complex in places, it is a real eye-opener on the biases we can have that can negatively impact our problem solving and decision making (these biases are just part of human nature). While this article focuses on the psychology of decision making (specifically as related to economic decisions), rather than on the mechanics of decision making, I still consider it a useful read. Despite what we would like to think, we are not logic machines: we make decisions based on emotions as well as facts and a number of decision biases seem to be built into us (probably some evolutionary baggage that we might not ever completely shake free).
  • The Paradox of Choice : Why More Is Less, provides additional great insights on the psychology of choice. Very readable and accessible. Note that a Google Video of the author's presentation on the subject is provided below.


Update: Although I am embarrassed to admit it, I recently made a bad decision by not following the advice provided herein. My tendency to be too impatient and my (incorrect) belief that I did not have any real choice contributed to the bad decision. Hopefully I have (re)learned an important lesson through this. You can read more about it on my blog.


Help me continue to improve this site by giving me your feedback. My email is brucekeener at

2001 - 2008 Bruce Keener



Note: The following is a Google Video of "The Paradox of Choice. If you prefer to watch later, here is a link to the video."



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Prioritizing Tasks

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Problem Solving


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