If you have infinite time to decide, it's relatively easy to make good choices. You gather every applicable detail, weigh the pros and cons, consult your values and your gut, and finally make a call. But as we all know, the world rarely gives you infinite time to decide.

Job offers expire, competitors launch new products, crazy drivers careen towards you at insane speeds, and significant others get antsy when waiting years for proposals. In these situations and others, success depends not only on your ability to make a good decision, but to make one fast, with limited information and in a rapidly changing environment.

How do you get better at this sort of real-world, under-the-gun decision making? Ask someone who has quite literally been under the gun, i.e. a fighter pilot.

How to decide faster and smarter  

When it comes to high-speed, high-stakes decisions, fighter pilots are perhaps the world's pre-eminent experts. After all, the result if they make a bad call can be death, and the time spans in which they have to maneuver are literally seconds. So how do they manage to make good, high stakes decisions in the blink of an eye? As ever interesting blog Farnam Street explained recently, they are trained to use a 4-letter decision-making shortcut known as OODA.

The dead simple but powerful approach to decision making was developed by a dogfight veteran named John Boyd, writes Farnam Street's Shane Parrish in the long post. "Boyd developed the strategy for fighter pilots. However, like all good mental models, it can be extended into other fields," Parrish writes. "I know lawyers, police officers, doctors, businesspeople, politicians, athletes, and coaches who use it."

So what is OODA? It's a four-step loop of action, feedback, and further action you can use whenever the world presents you with a fast-developing situation and demands you decide how to respond. Here's a basic outline:

  1. Observe: Even in the most high-pressure situations, you need to gather and evaluate as much information as possible in order to make good decisions. At this stage you simply try to ingest as much information as possible about what is happening in the time available.

  2. Orient: This is the least intuitive stage, but one which Boyd stressed it as being vitally important. In this stage you critically examine your assumptions to try and eliminate bias or faulty mental models. Are you relying on any metaphors or old patterns of thought when assessing the situation? How likely are these to be correct? "Orienting is all about connecting with reality, not with a false version of events filtered through the lens of cognitive biases and shortcuts," explains Parrish. And it's not just something you do in the heat of the moment. Responding in an optimal way when the pressure is on means constantly learning and studying so you'll be well armed with the right ideas and mental blueprints when the world demands action. (In other words, OODA is yet another reason for continual, lifelong learning.)  

  3. Decide: Now that you've scanned the situation and decided how best to think about it, you can take the obvious next step and decide how to respond.

  4. Act: Finally, act, but think of your action as a kind of experiment. Did your move impact the world in the way you expected? What changed around you? After acting you need to move back to the beginning of the loop, observation, and repeat the process. You're aiming to cycle through OODA loops as quickly as possible, getting smarter each time you do.

Does this sound simple? Why yes it does. But when the world is spinning chaotically around you, chances are you won't have the headspace for a more elaborate framework. And as this deep dive article on the OODA Loop idea makes clear, there's actually a lot more going on underneath the tidy exterior of this simple-seeming decision-making approach than many beginner's first realize.

The bottom line is that when you're under pressure to make a call in any domain, OODA can guide you towards rigorous but adaptable thinking, helping you see clearly and respond with agility to rapidly evolving situations. But using it well also takes practice.

"Start applying the OODA loop to your day-to-day decisions and watch what happens. You'll start to notice things that you would have been oblivious to before. Before jumping to your first conclusion, you'll pause to consider your biases, take in additional information, and be more thoughtful of consequences," concludes Parrish. "As with anything you practice, if you do it right, the more you do it, the better you'll get. You'll start making better decisions more quickly."

Published on: Feb 23, 2018