Want to Stop Overthinking Decisions? Why Intelligent Minds Embrace the Rule of One Single Reason

A few years ago I had multiple offers from major publishers to write the book that eventually became The Motivation Myth.

While that sounds like an author’s dream (and it was), still: I was conflicted. The year before I had self-published a collection of existing columns. My up-front costs totaled around $500. My margins ranged from 70 percent (Amazon) to over 90 percent (Gumroad). Due to the (then) reach of being a Linked Influencer, I sold tens of thousands of digital copies without spending a dime on advertising.

At the time, self-publishing seemed a viable and profitable option.

So I compared and contrasted.

The positives of self-publishing? Speed. A much bigger share of the profits. The ability to easily update material. Retaining all rights. Complete control over, well, everything.

On the flip side, going with a conventional publisher meant widespread multi-channel distribution. No up-front costs. A team of talented, experienced people. A proven marketing machine. A sizable advance.

Adding more items to each list made things muddier, not clearer. I could have argued either approach equally well if asked to take a side in a debate. 

I realized I was looking for multiple reasons that added up to a decision. I was trying to come up with enough reasons – on either side — to convince myself. What I needed to do was find one reason.

So I took a mental step back. What did I care about most?

I wanted to write the best book I could. To write the best book I could, I needed to work with a great editor. One with a vested interest in the outcome. One who would push, and challenge, and squeeze every drop from whatever talent I might possess.

Everything else was secondary. 

In fact, I could make every other item on either side of the decision tree work. No up-front costs would be nice, but on the other hand, the up-front costs of self-publishing are really low. An advance would be nice, but on the other hand, so would a bigger share of the profits. (You get the point.)

For me, the single reason was writing the best book I could. All the other positives that came with a conventional publisher were icing on that single-reason cake.

When you find yourself with a complex list of pros and cons, the best way to gain clarity is to find one decisive reason to say yes or no.

As Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame) writes in Antifragile:

If you have more than one reason to do something… just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something.

Obvious decisions (robust to error) require no more than a single reason.

In fact, the more complex the decision, the more useful the single-reason approach.

Say you’re opening a restaurant and trying to decide whether to lease a particular location. You list the positives. Low rent. Variety of build-out options. Landlord with a good local reputation. Short commute from where you live. Given enough time, you can come up with enough reasons to convince yourself.

But what matters most? Location: Thriving area, excellent traffic, solid demographics, easy access, great visibility…

As with most real estate, location is everything. Get the location wrong, and all the other positives you listed won’t matter.

Get the location right, and most of the downsides will take care of themselves.

Try it. The next time you find yourself listing positives — or, worse, searching for positives — take a step back. Strip away the clutter. Set aside the huge list of pros and cons. Stop trying to resolve the difficult.

Find one single, clear, decisive reason to say yes.

If you can’t, don’t do it.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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