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Full Spectrum Thinking

I was terrified the first time I had to break up with a girlfriend. I was a teenager, and things weren't going that well, but it was my first relationship and I really had no idea what I was doing. Anyway, in the build up to making the decision, a friend of mine encouraged me to write down a list of the pros and cons of being with her, and his advice was that if there were more cons than pros, then I should break up with her. I duly completed the exercise on my school notepad, looked at the list, and felt more confused than before.

I felt confused because the list was so binary - each attribute was either a positive, or a negative, and whilst it seemed incredibly clear, I couldn't help but feel that this black and white analysis conflicted with my experience of reality. I mulled on it for a bit longer, and then another friend told me to go with my heart, so I leant into that feeling, and eventually decided to break up with her. I wrote down, word for word, everything I was going to say to her, and then picked up the home phone and made the call.

I think she still hates me.

In trying to explain the issues, I totally botched it. She didn't want to accept my bumbling explanation of how "it's me and not you", and eventually out of sheer panic I started referencing my pros and cons list, which as you can imagine didn't go down particularly well.

Off the back of this rather unpleasant experience, I've been seeking for a better decision making framework over the years, and eventually came to something I've subsequently called "full spectrum thinking".

The principle is very simple: Every decision you make will give you more of one thing, and less of something else. Every decision is about trade offs, and making those trade offs explicit is incredibly helpful. For example, if I had this tool when I was making the decision about my first girlfriend, I may have gone through an exercise which looks a little more like this:

In looking at the tradeoffs, I could then either decide to hone in on the areas which were problematic and try to fix them, or in looking at the overall picture, I may have decided that this wasn't worth trying to fix and I should rather just call it a day.

When you're making any decision in your life, but especially with complex decisions, making the tradeoffs clear, at a high level of granularity, is incredibly helpful. The example I've provided here is very simplistic, but you can go deep with this tool of analysis.

In many ways the quality of our lives is defined by the quality of the decisions we make, and we literally make thousands of decisions every single day. Taking responsibility for your decision making process, and not allowing yourself to be blown by the prevailing winds of the day, is one of the most important meta decisions you will ever make.


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