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Most Decisions are Reversible

March 5th, 2021

Making decisions can be nerve-wracking! The scariest decisions are those that are impactful and final. Impact is obvious—choosing a career path is a lot more impactful that picking out your clothes for the day and obviously contributes to a decision’s importance. But reversibility matters too—it’s a lot easier to dip your toes in the water than to dive in head-first. I think many people (including me) mistakenly assume that decisions are less reversible than they actually are. For example, switching careers or moving to a new city are both choices that seem final at first glance.

Let’s take Alice for example, a hypothetical product manager considering moving to Miami from San Francisco. At first glance, this seems like a pretty irreversible choice! Once Alice moves, she’s locked in for at least a year with a new lease. She’ll have to move or sell her possessions and maybe even find a new job. But on closer inspection, that reasoning falls apart. If Alice can’t stand the Florida heat or decide that yearly hurricane watches are worse than the threat of catastrophic earthquakes, she’ll have plenty of recourse to move back to the Bay. Leases typically have clauses allowing you to break them (with a penalty). Possessions can be bought & sold fairly easily on Craigslist, and jobs are often not all that hard to find, especially for white-collar workers like Alice. All in all, Alice’s choice isn’t as final as she might think at first glance—there’s a cost, but her decision is reversible.

Bob’s a software engineer at a Silicon Valley startup, but he’s always harbored a passion for design. He’s too scared to make the leap: switching careers feels like a permanent fork in the road. Once again, things aren’t as they appear. If Bob doesn’t have what it takes to be a designer, Bob can always return to software engineering. Like with Alice, reversing his decision has a cost, but in this case, it’s time instead of money.

The realization that many decisions are reversible has helped me more confidently make choices. Instead of spending time vacillating (and implicitly making a choice of inaction), I can make an initial choice and set a checkin point at some fixed point in the future. At that checkin point, I evaluate that decision—is it working out the way I thought it was? Should I reverse the decision? By having a fixed checkin point, I avoid the trap of rethinking decisions once they’re made over and over again.

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