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3 Simple Tactics For Making Better Choices

Looking at a difficult decision through someone else's eyes can make all the difference.

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This story appears in the October 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Intel nearly failed in the 1980s, but its survival became a classic success story. The short version goes like this: Intel’s memory chip business was struggling, and its leaders, Andy Grove and Gordon Moore, felt lost. One day, Grove asked Moore: “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would we do?” Moore’s response: “Get out of the memory business.” That made their path clear. They laid off more than 7,000 people, shut down plants, pivoted into microprocessors, and saved Intel.

Stunningart | Shutterstock

Katy Milkman loves this story because it captures a key strategy for making change. She should know. She’s a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and she researches how to change behaviors in positive ways. (She also wrote a book called How to Change.) If someone must make a change in their business or life and they cannot decide what to do, Milkman suggests doing what the Intel guys did: Get out of your head.

Related: How to Make Better Decisions

“There’s a fair amount of research suggesting that taking an outside perspective can make you more dispassionate, a clearer thinker, a better observer,” she says. “When we’re thinking about someone else’s problems, they don’t feel so personal. We don’t escalate commitment to an already chosen course of action. We can see the pros and cons more clearly.”

The next time you’re grappling with change, Milkman offers these three head-­escaping strategies.

Tactic 1: Copy and paste.

“If you’re thinking about How do I make a change? or What’s the right change?” Milkman says, “try to think, Is there information I can gather from other people who’ve pursued a similar path? And what can I copy and paste that worked for them?’

Copying the strategies that were successful for others sounds obvious, but Milkman says people rarely do it because of something called the “false consensus effect” — people’s belief that everyone thinks the way they do. As a result, we fail to realize how much new knowledge is stored in other people’s minds.

Her research validates the method. For example, she and a collaborator ran an experiment on students in which one group was told to make a simple plan for increasing their exercise. The other group was told to identify someone who had good exercise habits, ask them what their strategy is, and then simply copy that strategy. The students who copied strategies had improved outcomes.

Related: These Decision-Making Tactics Can Help You Formalize Your Process and Make Better Choices

Tactic 2: Give advice.

If you’re feeling lost, you may not feel suited to give someone else advice. But in fact, you are exactly the right person to give advice.

Research out of Wharton found that when people give advice to someone facing a similar situation, they become better able to tackle the problem themselves. Why? Giving advice builds confidence and forces us to think more deeply about our own issues and needs.

“Once we suggest something, we start to believe it,” Milkman says. “We start to feel hypocritical if we don’t do it ourselves. It’s this magic sauce where you get yourself to get behind a risk that you wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable telling yourself to take. Then you convince yourself to take it.”

Tactic 3: Pre-mort.

Most people have done a “postmortem” — examining a project that just ended. Milkman suggests doing a version of this before any change. For example, you might ask yourself, If I regret this decision later, why would that be?

Every change brings some discomfort, but a pre-mort can help you gain clarity about the obstacles you’ll face and what risks you’re willing to tolerate.

Related: Your Decision-Making Is Flawed, But It's Not Your Fault

Now think back to the Intel story. To Grove and Moore, ditching memory chips must have felt insane. But by getting out of their own heads, they were able to make one of the hardest — and best! — decisions of their careers. That’s success.

Jason Feifer

Written By

Entrepreneur Staff

Jason Feifer is the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, and host of two podcasts: Build For Tomorrow, a show about the changes that got us here, and how to thrive in a changing world; and Problem Solvers, about entrepreneurs solving unexpected problems in their business. He writes a newsletter about how to find opportunity in change.

Prior to Entrepreneur, Jason has worked as an editor at Men's Health, Fast Company, Maxim, and Boston magazine, and has written about business and technology for the Washington Post, Slate, New York, and others.

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