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How to Decide Trifles Quickly

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpted chapter from The Technique of Getting Things Done (1947) by Donald Laird. 

There was a stack of printer’s proof waiting for me when I arrived in Seattle, so I planned to correct it right away in a restaurant while I ate.

“You pick out a dollar meal for me,” I told the waitress, thinking she could save me the time of reading the menu and making my selections.

“Don’t you want to pick your own soup?” she asked timidly.

“You go right ahead and select everything,” I answered and began reading the two-foot-long proof sheets.

I finished the soup, continued reading proof while waiting for the next course, and finished several pages, too, before the hesitant waitress approached again, “Which meat course would you like?”

“I don’t care. You go right ahead and choose my entire meal, just as if I were eating in your home.”

But no meat arrived. I looked around for my waitress and saw her in conference with two other waitresses near the kitchen door. She was pointing toward me as she studied the menu, corralling their assistance in selecting my meal.

The blond member of the pair glanced sympathetically in my direction, looked at my whiskers and the long sheets of paper I was scanning. I saw her lips say, “Guess he’s some foreigner and can’t read English.”

But her slouchy, gum-chewing companion had another answer. “Nope,” her lips said, “he’s just some nut!”

The indecisive waitress blew up completely under the strain of making up her mind what to bring me to eat. I had hoped to save time, but her difficulty in deciding trifles wasted the time of at least four people.

Most of us need some sort of training to get into the habit of making decisions more quickly.

Wasting time deciding trifles is one of the big reasons why people do not get more things done. The time itself may not be long, but the habit of indecision is likely to grow on one.

Indecisive people wonder so long what to do or how to do it that they get little accomplished.

They try so hard to decide what is the right thing to do that they do nothing until it is too late.

By trying to be perfect they become second-rate.

Perhaps they do not mean to put things off — they may be sincerely trying to decide what to do — but the net result is procrastination.

P.I.T.T.O.T.

The letters P.I.T.T.O.T. hung in a large frame in Robert Gair’s office.

This tall, curly-headed Scot had been following the advice of those mysterious initials ever since his luckless father had fled to America to evade the Edinburgh sheriff.

Robert himself did not sail quite so hastily as his dad. Fourteen years old, he had to seek an opportunity to work his way across the ocean as a ship’s carpenter first. He found one on an old sailing ship that was blown back across the Great Banks four times and took ten weeks to reach New York harbor.

As soon as he got his feet under him in the New World, he set up a small wholesale paper business, originated the idea of printing a merchant’s name and advertisement on his paper bags. He made the first folding paper box, using a $30, secondhand printing press, and revolutionized packaging methods.

He had his feet on the ground, and no grass sprouted under them. P.I.T.T.O.T. kept him doing things so fast the grass didn’t have a chance.

To Bob Gair and the initiated that slogan meant “Procrastination is the thief of time.”

Indecision — wasting time and brain power over trifles — is the chief cause of procrastination.

Gair, founder of the modern folding-paper-box industry, did not waste either time or brain power. A printer’s blunder, one April morning, gave him the idea for making folding paper boxes. By nightfall the same day he was producing them.

He did not let opportunity slip by while trying to make up his mind. He decided right on the spot and went to work on his decision.

Quick Decisions Are Usually Sound Decisions

Henry Ford, like most men who have founded great institutions, had the priceless habit of making decisions quickly. This is one reason why he has been able to build up, singlehanded, a business more successful than many that are guided by conference discussions. A group of men, such as a board of directors, takes a long time to reach decisions, and the decisions it makes are often the results of compromise.

Quick decisions, strangely enough, are more likely to be right than those we let simmer for days. One’s biases and hidden prejudices are given fuller sway the longer one debates. You have probably noticed that people who take a long time to decide not only get little done but also do foolish or impractical things. Their prejudices tend to dominate their decisions.

Decide quickly, and you will probably make a better decision.

Impulsiveness has its good points.

Indecision is inaction.

Worry About Mistakes

Conscientious people have difficulty getting things done because they try to be so perfect they quibble with themselves over trifles. Fear of making mistakes keeps them from accomplishment.

The executive who gets things done cannot have this attitude. He must have confidence in his prompt decisions. As Albert Hubbard wrote, “An executive is a man who makes a lot of decisions — and some of them are right.”

Lord Leverhulme’s favorite saying was, “The man who does not make mistakes does not usually make anything.”

And Cardinal Mercier, heroic Belgian religious leader of the First World War, said, “Don’t look back in the hope of gaining complaisant self-respect from the road you have traveled. MARCH ON! PROCEED!”

Making up one’s mind may waste so much time that the golden moment for action passes without being used. It is also genuinely fatiguing, particularly so for the self-quibbler.

Parents Do Too Much Deciding

Top-notch mental specialists make a strong case for the claim that there are more people nowadays who can’t make up their minds than formerly. The experts blame this condition on our small families in which the parents do most of the deciding for the children. When there were many children in each family, each child had a better chance to get practice in deciding.

The way to develop willpower for making speedy decisions is, of course, to practice making decisions. When parents or teachers prevent such practice, obviously the willpower to make decisions is not being increased.

There are bosses and employers, too, who keep their workers in an indecisive state by telling them, “I am the one who is paid to do the thinking in this place.”

It was John Ruskin’s mother who made a milksop of him. She did not even let him go to college alone; she went, too, to see that he dressed properly, did not fall in with bad companions, and ate the things that were good for him.

Ruskin’s mother had him so tightly tied to her apron strings that, after she had picked Euphemia Gray as the girl he should marry, the mother actually proposed to Euphemia for her twenty-nine-year-old son. But the son was too firmly tied to the apron strings to make a satisfactory husband, and in six years Euphemia divorced him in a case that had all England rocking with laughter.

Ruskin was a pathetic man, broken by parental attention. Even he knew that his mother’s overprotection of him, her making decisions for him, was the cause of his weakness. “The ceaseless authority exercised over me,” he wrote, “left me unable to do any more than drift.”

Some young men have the spunk to wean themselves, despite their mothers’ efforts to keep them closely tied to the apron strings. Strongheaded Bismarck, for example, resisted his mother’s attempts to keep him on such a leash.

Dr. Clarence O. Cheney, of the Hudson River State Hospital, gives this advice:

Some mothers, particularly those unhappily married, bestow their whole affection on their boy. They shield him from hard knocks, and have him remain their baby. He is excused if he fails in school or in work, and the blame put elsewhere.

The boy to succeed in life has to learn to stand on his own feet, deriving satisfaction from overcoming obstacles himself, and establishing himself in his own family.

The unwise mother who gets her satisfaction in life by making her boy dependent on her, lessens his chances of development.

Our advice to parents is: Help and guide your boy to grow away from you. If increasing signs of independence sadden you, keep in mind the thought that it is only by their independence that your children can be successful men.

Lessons in Decisiveness

Joseph Henry, the stage-struck Albany boy who became the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, had a well-remembered lesson from a cobbler in deciding things for himself. Those were the days before shoe factories were known, when shoes were slowly made by a cobbler in one’s own hometown.

The boy’s grandmother offered to have the cobbler make him a pair of shoes. There was a choice of only two styles, the round-toe or the square-toe. The boy could not decide which style he wanted. Meanwhile the cobbler was making the shoes. Each day Joseph visited the cobbler’s shop, trying to reach a decision about the toes. He waited until it was too late. The cobbler finished the shoes, and one had a square toe, the other a round toe.

Those mismated shoes, a monument to indecision, lasted a long time.

Checker players often spend a long time figuring out their next moves. But mental specialists use checkers to develop speedier habits of decision by putting a time limit on each think period. After only one minute of pondering, they make themselves move.

In a like manner, if one sets a time limit on important decisions, it helps prod the sleeping willpower.

Tex Rickard, ex-sheriff who became boxing promoter, advised a torpid card player in Nome, Alaska, “Never stare the spots off your cards; play!”

Tossing a Coin

Many of our daily decisions are so minor they can be made by tossing a coin — which turn to make when walking, for instance, or which necktie to put on in the morning. Make a turn, any turn. Put on a tie, any tie. Do more things more quickly to wake up your decisive qualities.

I toss a coin, with a clear conscience, to make many decisions that others stew over. Take haggling about prices. I consider it a waste of time. The time spent haggling is seldom worth the few pennies saved on the deal.

Recently, for example, an editor was interested in an article I had written and offered me a price I considered way too low. “Why waste time arguing or why have bad feelings about it,” I said to him. “I’ll be a sport, if you will. Let the waiter toss a coin for us. If it comes up heads, you can have the article for a nominal price of one dollar. If it comes up tails, you pay me twice what you offered.”

It came up heads.

“Now I have seen everything in editing,” the editor said, in amazement. But I didn’t lose, after all, for I gained his goodwill and desire to buy later articles at good prices, and I did not waste time or nerves haggling.

Tossed Coin to See Where the Brains Went

Edward S. Morse was a New England boy who was kicked out of three schools for his mischief. He never went to college, yet became one of America’s leading naturalists and received honorary degrees from four colleges. He had to pick up his education the hard way but was not handicapped by indecision.

One example of this is the way he disposed of his brains. Cornell University asked him to bequeath his brains to them when he died. So did the Wistar Institute, in Philadelphia. The peppery scientist did not waste time. He tossed a coin and wrote to Wistar to send a jar and instructions about preserving his brains. He kept the jar in a small box beside his  desk, using it as a footstool.

His Life Saved by a Tossed Coin

Looking back on decisions made by tossing coins would almost make a superstitious person believe coins possessed both intelligence and foresight into the future. Decisions made by tossed coins often seem, in retrospect, to have been the wisest that
could have been made at the time. This is because for most decisions what we decide is less important than getting something under way. Doing rather than wondering what to do is what counts. And, as one looks back, almost any decision can seem to have been the right decision. The human inclination to try to justify one’s actions makes one believe in the rightness of tossed-coin decisions just as firmly as in the rightness of those that have split brain cells.

Yet there are cases, such as the one to be related, where a tossed coin does seem to have had some uncanny foresight into the future. Dr. Morse, who tossed the coin to dispose of his brains, was from Salem, Massachusetts. Another scientist from the same historical seaport is Dr. Frederick B. Knight, educational psychologist and administrator at Purdue University.

Dr. Knight was in New England, on a combination trip for business and pleasure, when he was invited by the dean of the University of Connecticut to join a group at the opening performance of the circus in Hartford. Other friends invited him to go fishing the same afternoon. Never a man to waste time deciding or be tactless with his friends. Dr. Knight flipped a coin to see whether he would go fishing or to the circus.

The coin took him fishing. While he was out, the circus tent broke into a sheet of flame, and every member of the party he might have been with was burned to death. The lucky coin had saved him from the same tragic fate.

The Banker Tossed a Coin

James B. Forgan took the decisive step of his life by tossing a coin; and he was a banker at the time. This Scotch-born red-head was in his early twenties, clerk in a New York City branch bank. One day the bank received a telegram asking that a clerk be sent to the branch in remote Halifax. No one wanted to go there, but young Forgan and another clerk were eligible for the job.

Forgan thought he preferred to remain in New York, but to decide which clerk should go to Halifax he suggested tossing a coin. He lost, went to Halifax like a good loser. The varied banking experience he received there proved to be invaluable as he rose in banking circles to become president of the First National Bank of Chicago.

A toss of a coin determined a major decision for Forgan.

For most daily decisions over perplexing little things, a tossed coin can be recommended without reservations.

A Coin Located an Industrial Center

Three farm brothers, William, Daniel, and John Grant, set out early in life to make their way in the world together. They left their native Scotland to start a business in the lush Lancashire valley. Just where to locate it was their first problem. The three stood on a hilltop, uncertain whether to locate it in the valley to the east or in the equally pleasing valley to the west. But they did not quibble. They quickly tossed a coin, and, in the valley at Ramsbottom, they began the combined cotton mill and printworks which they were to build up into one of the largest organizations of its kind in the world.

Having the best location was no more important to them than having the valuable quality of reaching decisions quickly.

The Use of Rules and Policies

For speeding important decisions, a policy, a set of principles, or a goal is essential.

The young Mayo boys, for example, had a goal; they were going to be top-flight physicians and surgeons. When they were invited to a pink tea they did not hesitate over their answer. They simply asked themselves, “Will this make us better medical men?”

A college graduate in engineering, who inherited a good job in his family-owned factory, was getting nowhere because he could not make decisions. He bit his fingernails, wanted to do things, but could not clear the work from his desk.

His white-haired uncle noticed his indecisiveness and was seriously concerned, since the business might someday fall on the nephew’s shoulders. The uncle gave the young engineer a list of principles to guide him in making decisions on the dozens of problems that came to his desk daily.

Will it make the work easier?
Will it lower costs?
Will it make the work safer?
Will it make the workers more satisfied?

The nephew had been trying to reach decisions on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Each problem had seemed different to him. But with this list of questions as a guide, he was astonished to discover how much effort he had been wasting on things of no consequence and how quickly he could now pick out what was important.

That is a characteristic of most indecision. We gnaw our nails over minor things and overlook the weighty questions.

The decisive person has principles which guide him to the heart of a problem. He can decide quickly, consistently, because principles dispel confusion and open a clear track to the essential.

John Wanamaker decided quickly on the basis of definite principles, so found it easy to live up to his motto, “Do the next thing.”

The little things in life do not count nearly so much as the indecisive pretend.

You can decide most things more quickly.

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