Making decisions in the uncertainty of COVID-19

In 4 months we have gone from skittishness about COVID-19 appearingin the U.S. to seeing it every day in our news, in our communities, in our lives. Life plans are in disarray and the future is uncertain. We all have questions — does infection confer immunity for life? how long until a vaccine? when will things return back to normal? — that are impossible to answer right now.

A few friends have asked me to how to make big life decisions with so much uncertainty and I realized that decision making in startups was suddenly relevant. The uncertainty around COVID-19 compared to life pre-COVID has similarities to the uncertainties we face in the startup world versus a larger company: your access to resources and information is more limited, there are the same number (or more) decisions that need to be made that have more variables or considerations than ever before, and each decision seems momentous.

I’m sharing a simple decision process below for making life decisions during COVID. It works well for with three-or-less options–I haven’t tried it with anything larger yet, but suspect it might work with up to five options before becoming too unwieldy. And while it is written in steps, changes are you’ll revisit prior steps, change their order, or find yourself changing what you’ve written over multiple days to make a decision. These steps aren’t hard rules; they’re organization for your thoughts, minimizing the energy-draining endless circles of thought so common in these decisions:

1. Remind yourself of your long-term goals

Big decisions should be made in the context of your long-term goals. These are the career plans or life plans you had for yourself five or ten years out. While COVID may have thrown a wrench in the next year or two, but this is a good chance to remind yourself what you do and why. It’s also a good chance to revisit whether you still want to do these things based on what you’ve learned or how the world has changed during the pandemic. If you’re not sure of you’re long term goals, now’s a great chance to pick a few and try them out — don’t obsess about them being perfect or right, it’s just a guess about what you think you want. They’re going to change.

How to do it advice: Write these goals down on paper or somewhere where you can view them at the same time as the outputs of the following steps.

2. Map out best and worst case possible outcomes for each option

Now it’s time to tackle the actual decision. The goal of this step is to get a high level of understanding of the decision by writing down the options and best and worst possible outcomes. Keep it realistic to the decision — for example, ‘the world ends in a smoking nuclear apocalypse’ is a bad scenario, but it probably doesn’t change based on if you choose option 1 or option 2. The figure below provides an example of how to lay this out:

Laying out the options for a decision in a ‘decision tree’

Once you’ve got your best and worst possible outcome from each option, it’s time to figure out how good and how bad these outcomes are to you. See if you can make your decision easy by getting rid of any options that lead to worst possible outcomes you wouldn’t accept or couldn’t live with, and/or thinking about the difference in best versus worst-case scenarios:

Comparing outcomes of different options by ranking (left) or drawing out the distance between them (right). While not everything can be ranked cleanly, focus more on what outcomes you would never want or accept.

For example, a friend made her decision of whether or not to move for a job when she discovered the worst case scenario from moving was something she would never want. And I made my decision of which startup to join when I finish the Blavatnik Fellowship in August partly by looking at the difference between the best and worst case scenarios for each.

If you’re analytical and like deep frameworks, this is a great chance to add variables. Think about which variables matter to your long-term goals (e.g., skills gained that are needed for long-term goal, fit for your future family life), write them down, and score the outcome scenarios for each option on each of these variables. Have fun! Just keep in mind the goal is to make a the best decision as efficiently as possible, not to burn endless mental energy building things that feel productive but may not help you make the decision in the end.

3. Think about how easily you could undo the decision

Regardless of whether Step 2 solved your decision problem, it’s good to step back and think about how reversible the decision is. This doesn’t mean the decision isn’t important. But it might be easy or cheap for you to reverse the decision for one or both of the options. In the moving example, my friend realized she could easily decide later that she wanted to move. She would have to break a lease and pay a bit extra, but that was much less effort and cost than moving across the country only to realize it was the wrong choice for her.

If you find that an option or set of options is easily reversible, consider them more than options that would be difficult to reverse and you can worry less about the decision. This is particularly helpful now, as the uncertainty of COVID can make every decision seem momentous and by relation irreversible. But many decisions are reversible, and knowing that helps you make the decision with a lighter heart. Credit for this idea goes to Ben Horowitz, who discusses rapidly making reversible decisions for startups in The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

4. Figure out how to delay the decision or ‘buy down’ risk

If you’ve reached this step and are still facing a difficult decision, it’s time to figure out how to gather more information to make the decision, either by delaying the decision and/or ‘buying down’ risk. This will take effort on your part but will help you make a better decision and give yourself peace of mind that you’re working on it without going in circles. If you feel like the decision needs to be made immediately, start by writing out possible ways to delay the decision: for example, could you extend your current lease by a month; or could you arrange to do a short temp project for pay? This gives you the ability to delay if you need to and also helps you realize that there’s (almost) always a ‘third option’. Then write down 2-4 specific questions that if answered will help you decide between the options: what are the available companies that are hiring, or the outcome of a decision someone else is making. Do the legwork to get these questions answered — basically ‘buying down’ the risk or uncertainties in your decision with some of your time and effort. Once done, repeat Steps 2-4 to see how the decision has shifted.

Conclusion

Hopefully these steps provide a process for decision-making during the uncertainty of COVID-19 (and really, any time you’re faced with a lot of uncertainty). Again, you may not complete all the steps before you realize the answer to your decision, or you might revisit this process across many times before figuring it out. You’ll never be 100% certain that you made the right decision. But often there isn’t a right decision to make. It’s about making the best decision with the information you have and adjusting your course when you learn more.

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