The Two Options Illusion


Up until March of 2020, my business consisted entirely of speaking at in-person events. Then the COVID lockdowns happened and suddenly I had no revenue. After absorbing the shock and wallowing in self-pity for a couple of weeks as all of my bookings got cancelled, I had to figure out a new direction.


I saw two options:

1) wait out the pandemic until events open up again

2) give up my business and return to the corporate workforce as an I.T. professional


Yes or no. Do this or don’t. Now or never. Take it or leave it. Framing a decision as a choice between two options is common because it is fast and easy, which makes it our default mode of thinking. How common is it? A study of business decisions found that 71% were decisions considering just one alternative to the status quo. However, these kinds of binary decisions fail 62% more often than decisions where at least one additional option was considered.


Of course, it is not just business executives who succumb to this tendency. Some big decisions we all make that are often framed as binary include:

- Break up or stay with a partner

- Move to a new city or remain where you are

- Make a big purchase or save your money

- Take a new job or stay put (as in my situation)


Thinking that our options are limited to two choices is an illusion because there are often more - often better - options available. We just need to do some digging. Each of the decisions listed above has other potential options if one takes the time to seek them out.


In my situation, I was fortunate because I had connections to other speakers in the same boat. Through their example and advice, I was able to see other possibilities:


- Convert my presentations to a virtual format

- Work part-time for temporary income until in-person events re-start

- Develop other non-speaking streams of income within my business


Finding other available options


Find the core problem - There is the familiar example of going to the hardware store because you think you need a ¼” drill bit. What you really need is a ¼” hole and there may be other options to get that besides buying a drill bit.


Say you are considering springing for a gym membership. What you really want is not a gym membership but to be more fit. Joining a gym may or may not be the best option, depending on your personality and your needs. You may benefit more from joining a walking group or fitness class, or buying a treadmill for your home.


The vanishing options test - In their book, Decisive, Dan and Chip Heath recommend widening your options by imagining that the new option you are considering is not available. In my income conundrum, I would imagine that no companies were hiring so re-entering the workforce was not an option. I would then need to consider other ways of generating income.


Consider opportunity costs - Opportunity costs are so often overlooked in both large and small decisions that adopting this habit will greatly improve your ability to widen your options and make better decisions.


When thinking about spending your resources on something new - whether it is a purchase or an endeavor, take an inventory of how much time, money and energy you think it will take. (Energy is difficult to predict but is definitely a resource cost). Now imagine what else you could do with those resources if you didn’t spend them on this new thing. With just a little creativity, suddenly a whole world of possibilities opens up.


The key is to recognize when you are in the process of making a decision where you are only considering doing something or not doing it. Catch yourself before you commit and try implementing the above strategies to widen your options and perhaps uncover a better solution.


Think well and be well!


- Steve Haffner


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