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Making choices with AF

How do you choose what to eat from an extensive menu? Some people find it very difficult to choose from an extensive range of dishes which all sound delicious, and I used to be among them. I was always worried that I was going to miss something really great, so I would weigh up the pros and cons for each choice and usually choose at the last moment just as the waiter was losing his or her patience. The trouble with this method was that, in spite of all the time I spent chosing, I often found that what my companions were eating seemed much nicer.

Then I had a period when I used to choose completely at random. I just jabbed my finger at the menu and ordered whatever it landed on. This led to several memorable experiences, but also to some dire ones!

But lately I’ve taken to much more intuitive method of choosing. I read down the list of possible dishes, then read through it again slowly until one of the dishes stands out and I select that one. It’s an easy way to choose and I’ve never yet regretted the choice I’ve made by doing it that way.

If you’re an AF aficionado this will remind you of the way in which we chose the next task in AF. Whether we’re in Forward or Reverse Mode, we are reading through a list of tasks until one feels ready to be done.

However there is one big difference - when chosing off a menu we intend to eat one dish and not eat the others. With the AF list we intend to do all the tasks sooner or later - so our choice is usually about what order to do the tasks in.

However it is quite possible to use AF to make choices of the menu type. Suppose we have decided to take our nearest and dearest out for a meal. Imagine there are three possible restaurants. To make the choice between them all you have to do is put three tasks on your list:

  • Book table at The Old Nag Eatery
  • Book table at La Pretensiosa Restaurant
  • Book table at Joe’s Diner

When one of these tasks stands out, book the table at that restaurant and delete the other two.

You can use the same method for almost any choice you have to make.

Reader Comments (20)


I'm gonna try this, thanks.
July 29, 2009 at 19:05 | Unregistered CommenterNicole
helpful sharing + great example :)
i firmly belief you may help me a lot.
July 30, 2009 at 4:48 | Unregistered Commenterws
Superb! My intuition is capable to generate so many possible choices that I sometimes spend hours pondering which one to choose instead of doing something productive for them. Writing them down in a list is very helpful.
July 30, 2009 at 12:31 | Unregistered CommenterTamagochi
This is a great approach.

It reminds me of an old rule-of-thumb that a very pragmatic and successful businessman once told me. He said, when you're shopping for something, don't keep looking for the "perfect" buy -- the best product, the best price, etc. Just keep looking till you find something that's "good enough" -- a good product, a good price. Then STOP LOOKING and just buy it.

Otherwise you'll just waste lots of time picking and choosing from among choices that are all actually pretty good. The benefit of continuing to look for the perfect answer, falls far short of the cost, in terms of time and energy spent.
July 31, 2009 at 2:17 | Unregistered CommenterSeraphim

And another rule I was told was that, once you've made a choice, you should never spend time regretting it.
July 31, 2009 at 9:18 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I treat decisions as binary. When you're getting a new glasses prescription, you're always testing two lenses against each other: which is sharper? The sharper of the two is then tested against another possibility. In the same way, if I have multiple options, I ask, which of these two? Then I repeat with the winner and another option. When I run out of options, I'm left with the best of all the pairings.
July 31, 2009 at 21:01 | Unregistered Commenterga

That might work fine for glasses prescriptions, where the process is not just comparing but also narrowing down the list of possible options to consider, at every step along the way.

For example, if a -7 lens is too strong and a -3 lens is too weak, then the optometrist will try something in between, such as -5.

If -5 is still too weak, then you've narrowed it to somewhere between -7 and -5.

Even though the optometrist hasn't yet considered -1, -2, -8, -9, etc., they have already been dropped from consideration because they are outside the established scope. And that scope is further narrowed with every subsequent test.

In the end, you are checking only a very small set of choices, which are very close together, e.g., -5.75, -6.00, and -6.25. And at that point, it is sometimes a matter of discretion. Maybe the optometrist thinks you need a somewhat weaker lens, because the stronger ones are causing progressive myopia (stronger glasses every year). So in this case the optometrist recommends -5.75 or -6.00, even though the patient says -6.25 is the clearest. So, it's not exactly a binary choice at that point. It's more a matter of using judgment to carefully weight the pros and cons of the different choices, which include metadata such as the patient history, the strength of the optometrist's opinion, the comfort of the patient, and so on.

The "binary" method might work well when there is a very small set of options to consider, and the decision is important / expensive / risky enough to warrant such a careful decision-making process. For example, listing "parameters to consider" (benefits and risks) down the left and "choices" across the top to make a scoring matrix of some kind, and then spending considerable time and energy filling it all out so you can have a rational, data-driven decision. This might be a valid approach, for example, if that final decision over lenses became contentious, and the optometrist and patient needed an objective method to weigh the differences.

But in one of the examples Mark gave -- choosing a selection from a restaurant menu -- you'd potentially need to do thousands of comparisons. If there are 50 items on the menu, you'd need to do a minimum of 49 comparisons, and a maximum of (50 choose 2) = (50!)/((2!)*((50-2)!) = (50!)/(2!*48!) = 50*49/2 = 1225 comparisons. (cf.

And that's assuming you can really do an "apples to apples" comparison. Sometimes that's not possible, or desirable.

For example, if you use Mark's method of choosing a restaurant, it might be impacted by the time of day, the day of the week, your location, your mood, what else you've eaten recently, and so on. Mark's intuitive approach takes all those things into account, and when the "Book table at The Old Nag Eatery" feels ready to be done, it takes all those things into consideration.

The "binary" approach would force you to do two compares each and every time you want to go eat, consciously evaluating all those factors in the process:

(1) Compare The Old Nag Eatery to La Pretensiosa Restaurant
(2) Compare Joe’s Diner to the winner of (1)

But there's another wrinkle that can make this more complicated. Sometimes, depending what exactly you are using for your criteria, A > B > C > A. E.g., Old Nag might seem better than La Pretensiosa because the atmosphere is more pleasant. But Joe's seems better than Old Nag because the food is better. But La Pretensiosa seems better than Joe's because it's cleaner and the waiter is more polite. And on and on and on.

So, you might be forced to do a "scoring" system of some kind (which Mark's approach incorporates as a matter of intuition). But how complicated are you going to make it, for choosing a restaurant?

All this is further complicated if you ever add new restaurants to your list of possibilities, or even new types of restaurant. Mark's system can handle any arbitrary number of new restaurants without much of a hiccup (or burp, as the case may be). But the binary approach adds at least one more decision for every restaurant, and potentially far more, depending on what criteria you are using to do the comparisons and whether it's possible for A > B > C > A to occur.

And then, what happens when you try to compare different TYPES of restaurants (e.g., fast food vs bistro vs roadside cafe vs corporate cafeteria vs "family restaurant" vs "fine dining" etc.). Can you really use a "binary" method in this case? Mark's method works just fine.
August 4, 2009 at 1:03 | Unregistered CommenterSeraphim
To continue the menu metaphor, as a hardened procrastinator, I find there's simply nothing on the menu I want to eat!

What to do?

Eat the least worst thing? It has the benefit of getting me started or keeping me going,but it's not good for you if you're always eating pudding or bread and butter, right?

Eat the frog? (To borrow from the title of another famous time management book). No thanks. Faced with that, I'm utterly repulsed and overwhelmed and do nothing at all.

When, as a little girl, I refused to eat my vegetables, my mother would serve them to me alone at the next meal. I'd stare at them long and hard until I was starving and didn't have a choice but to eat them.

I'm doing the same with my AF list - things don't get done until I'm in a hard place and have no choice but to do them.

I don't want to live like this any more. Anyone (especially Mark) got any advice?
August 5, 2009 at 15:46 | Unregistered Commenterlittle b
little b,

Sometimes I use one of Mark's suggestion, an old one . What I am avoiding the most? Then do it. ( He wrote it in a different way, I don't remember how).

Since AF, if I remember this question, I surely don't know why, it is pure "AF effect", I go and do the action immediately. The problem is that I don't remember this tip as often as I need it. Repeating, before AF, it never worked for me.
August 13, 2009 at 1:18 | Unregistered CommenterSilvia
" And another rule I was told was that, once you've made a choice, you should never spend time regretting it. ' This is exactly what my mom always told me. It only worked in past years.
August 13, 2009 at 1:20 | Unregistered CommenterSilvia
Sylvia wrote:
> Sometimes I use one of Mark's suggestion, an old one.
> What I am avoiding the most? Then do it.
> ( He wrote it in a different way, I don't remember how).

These were his words from Twitter:
"Want to know what you should be doing now? Ask yourself 'What am I resisting?'" Apr 29th
August 13, 2009 at 10:07 | Unregistered CommenterAlys
If you're not remembering the rule of "what am I avoid most", try doing what I just did and write that rule on your AF list.
August 14, 2009 at 17:37 | Unregistered Commenterds
For a much lengthier examination of the topic, the book "The Paradox of Choice - Why More is Less" by Barry Schwartz is illuminating.
September 2, 2009 at 14:03 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline
This reminds me of two other pieces of decision making advice:

Always come up with three choices.

(Originally this was, "Always come up with three answers, so you're always wrong more often than you're right. It helps you be humble.")

Give the first acceptable option a score. Go down the list giving each item a score until you reach one that scores higher than the first. Do that one.

(Half the time, the first option will be average or above, so the final choice will be even better. The only time you end up with a less-than-average choice is if you get a run of bad choices at the very beginning.)
November 9, 2010 at 14:32 | Registered CommenterCricket
I knew there was a reason to slow down when reading these archives. That post probably slipped under the radar. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. This weeks started with two days of errand set by others, so I need to use the rest of the week efficiently to make progress on my own goals.
November 9, 2010 at 20:50 | Registered CommenterCricket
I remember this menu hack. I used it last week in fact.

<<Always come up with three choices.>> Good advice.

<<Always come up with three answers, so you're always wrong more often than you're right. It helps you be humble.>> That reasoning is cute, but flawed. It assumes most answers are wrong, when usual/y they are varying degrees of right.

<<Half the time, the first option will be average or above, so the final choice will be even better. The only time you end up with a less-than-average choice is if you get a run of bad choices at the very beginning.>> Right on!

Now if you want truly excellent choices, I have a book on that. Partly it says:
1. Come up with lots of ideas without judging any.
2. Pick out the coolest ones, without judging them.
3. Come up with lots of ideas without judging any.
4. Pick out the coolest ones, without judging them.
5. Come up with lots of ideas without judging any.
6. Pick out the coolest ones, without judging them.

Now you have *really* cool ideas and you can get to work on making them practical. That work may again follow the above kind of process.

The reason for doing this 3 times is to get you deeply into creative thinking. Stopping to judge at any point would inhibit the creativity.

There's a lot more to this, but it can often turn questions like "How can we reduce breakage at the loading docks" into answers like "Let's sell the warehouse and ship direct".
November 9, 2010 at 22:03 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

That's very interesting. The way that one's mind keeps coming up with new ideas when the same question is asked several times has always fascinated me.
November 10, 2010 at 0:19 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
You're right, "wrong more often than you're right" is only true if there are right and wrong answers. Sometimes the original speakers only get it half right.

In typing up the following problem, I also came up with the solution.

When encouraging the kids to do something that would benefit from brainstorming (like solve or prevent a problem, or explain why something happened) it's tempting to keep them at it until they reach the answer _I_ like. This can take a long time and can end up fooling me into thinking they actually agree with the answer I let them stop at.

Next time I'll ask them to come up with three ideas up front (and cross my fingers that at least one idea will work well enough).
November 10, 2010 at 1:43 | Registered CommenterCricket
Cricket, when you finally get the right answer, wait for the next one. It could be right too, even though it's different. Might even be better.
November 10, 2010 at 13:29 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

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