How to Make Life-Affirming Decisions Using the 70% Rule
Our ability to become high achievers—in business, sports, or any of our hobbies—hinges on whether or not we can consistently make well-informed decisions. Every aspect of our lives depends on decisions in one form or another.
Most of us make decisions the same way. We collect information about each available option, assess the risks, and finally make a choice. Whether consciously or subconsciously, all of our minds go through this same risk assessment process. And while the ideal is absolute certainty in the “rightness” of our choices, real life doesn’t work that way—we often take a swing and a miss.
So how do we reconcile the desire for 100% certainty and personal benefit with the reality of less-than-ideal choices?
By doing what society’s most respected leaders have done: Employ the 70% Rule.
The 70% Rule, also called the 40/70 Rule, was introduced to the public by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It simply states that the best time to make a decision is when you have 40-70% of the information that would ideally be available for 100% certainty.
This definition is echoed by Lily Naylor, Editor at UKBestEssays. She puts it this way: “As a leader, one of the most difficult things to do is to make decisions that I know will affect everyone, including me. By the time you have 90% of the information you need, a lot will have changed—and time is another variable you should never miss. Even if you make the wrong decision, you need to be fast in realizing it and correct your course. It’s much easier for both you and everyone that way.”
While Naylor is, of course, right about the speed of decision-making in business (and society), we have a tendency to avoid making any decisions at all because we’re not ready for the pressure of deciding on the fly. If we can’t have all of the right information to make the best decisions, we’ll just avoid making them altogether.
This pervasive procrastination is so ingrained in our lives, we don’t even realize it. But as we build on our habits of procrastination, we also build our anxiety. Unmade decisions lurk in the background, overshadowing our modest accomplishments, until they all come to a nasty head. The weight of compounded decision-making nearly crushes us.
No more. It’s time to take a different approach and leverage the 70% Rule.
Take the first step, and the rest will follow
The most common reason people procrastinate (i.e. avoid making a decision) is perfectionism. Most of us are afraid of being viewed as weak because of a misstep or miscalculation, so we plan everything to death. This perfectionism is normally a result of fixed mindsets—that success can only be accomplished in certain ways, that there is one way to be “right,” etc.
What matters more than “rightness” is improvement. In reality, nobody expects 100% perfection or certainty all of the time. It’s just not humanly possible. What they do expect is a life of strong mission and action, with self-improvement as the polestar.
But let’s take it a step further. Casting aside the expectations of others, what would you expect of yourself? What is your life vision and how do you want to accomplish it?
With that at your back and an acceptance of imperfection as your foundation, the best way forward is the 70% Rule. For most of us, it’s the only way to begin the growth process—otherwise, we end up mired in doubts, insecurity, and questioning that never ends.
Once you have the initial momentum afforded by the 70% Rule, the next steps up the improvement ladder will be that much easier.
Conquer decision-making anxiety
Everyone feels anxiety before they make an important decision. It’s the mind’s way of making you ask yourself a bunch of questions and ensuring a positive outcome. But while most of us—consciously or not—see anxiety as a sign that we should step back, it’s important to analyze the roots and causes of that anxiety. Sometimes, it’s merely the weight of the decision; other times, there’s a personal history or association that’s making a relatively easy decision difficult. When we remove the emotional uproar and reason through decisions we have to make, it is much easier to turn our focus to the 70% Rule.
Here’s another downside to lingering with your anxiety instead of making a decision: You’re going to miss out. As Naylor mentioned above, those who stall because of fear or doubt are not only avoiding beneficial steps toward personal improvement, but also lose opportunities to colleagues and competitors. That loss can have serious emotional, mental, and financial consequences.
Accept the risk
Are you 70% certain you want to write that book? Do you have 70% of the ideas you need to finish it? What are you waiting for? Get to writing!
Have you been working yourself to death and are 70% sure you deserve a raise? Make an appointment with the boss and make your case. The words will come once you’re in the meeting.
Here’s my point: Nothing is guaranteed in life. It takes a special kind of mindset—the growth mindset—to be courageous, to be unafraid of failure, to persist until you get what you want.
And yes, every step forward comes with some risk—the risk of failure, of pain, of humiliation, of upheaval, of anxiety. Life weaves risk together with growth. But you can’t grow until you cultivate the courage to take risks.
A recent study carried out at the University of Michigan illustrates this risk-fear-growth proposition well. In the study, participants revealed the circumstances around making various decisions in their lives. Guess what the study discovered? That fear—a fear of risk—always affects how we make decisions, whether we are aware of it or not.
But you can conquer that fear with a little bit of self-reflection. Ask yourself:
- What is it I’m afraid of—the process or the result?
- What’s the worst possible (realistic) outcome of trying?
- If I ignore this situation, do I become stronger?
- Can I handle the outcome of not getting this done?
- What are the gains of putting it off?
- Am I making excuses to avoid being responsible?
- Have I actually experienced the consequences of trying or have I just heard about them?
Commit to growth
The 70% rule isn’t just a one-off tool you use to make decisions once in a while. In the end, it’s not about what you do or don’t do, how you achieve or fail. It’s about growth—in other words, learning to face risk and move ahead despite your fears.
If you commit to this kind of growth, fired by the 70% Rule, what you’ll find is that decision-making will become easier, taking risks will become easier, your self-awareness will grow, and you’ll be able to improve by leaps and bounds in a relatively short period of time.
That growth is certainly beneficial to you, but it’s also a boon for your company, your friends, your family—anyone with whom you associate. Why? Because they, too, will be inspired to level up with the 70% Rule. As many others have said, a rising tide raises all boats.
It’s time for the tide to come in.
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