Last week I posed the question “How do you choose what’s next?” I’m considering this in my own career, as I evaluate where to spend my time and energy, and what new projects to sink my teeth into.
Some of you responded with fantastic resources and ideas – thank you! This is a huge topic, one that books could and have been written on. And the more I dig into this…it’s a deep dark rabbit hole down here. So I’ll approach this topic Bird by Bird – one thought at a time.
In the spirit of personal growth and learning in public (what this blog is all about), I’ll also use myself as a case study to explore decision making frameworks in real time over the coming weeks.
How do you decide?
Here are frameworks we’ve come up with so far (with links to corresponding blog posts as I write them):
1. Just pick something! Probably the least satisfying to us heady folks, but likely the wisest.
2. Criteria-based. Rank all of your options against personal criteria that matter to you (this post).
3. Service-based. Who do you want to serve? Make decisions around the individuals or communities (human or more-than-human) you want to serve. Possibly a subset of #2.
4. Regret minimization. Long-term decision making that minimizes potential regrets and pierces through short-term confusion.
5. Intention-based. Decisions guided by your intentions around who, what, or how you intend to be in particular moment or situation.
6. Alternative ways of knowing. Using faculties beyond our strategic thinking brain but equally informative ways of knowing – i.e. feeling, intuition, imagination.
Most of these (specifically 2-5) could potentially bubble up to #2: Criteria-Based Decision Making. So that’s where we’ll start.
How to Decide (Part 1): Criteria-Based Decision Making
Immediately after posting my last article, my friend Jonny tweeted back:
What I love about Jonny’s decision making approach (and Jonny himself!) is it’s both head and heart. Nerdy and soulful. Rational thought and gut feeling.
To make a good decision, we need to know what a good decision looks like. The criteria-based approach helps us rank our options to calculate a good decision for us. In his spreadsheet, Jonny plots a list of new project ideas against certain criteria, like his values, to calculate a good decision for him.
Psychologist Rob Archer calls these decision criteria. Ranking our options against personal decision criteria helps us quantify a good decision from a less good one. These criteria might include:
- Values (what matters to you)
- Personality (your natural tendencies or where you get your energy)
- Interests (what you like or enjoy doing)
- Excitement (what pulls or excites you)
- Purpose (why you do what you do)
- Strengths (your natural talents and strengths)
- Skills (learned abilities or new skills you want to develop)
- Earning (how much money you need or want to earn)
- Lifestyle (how, where, and with whom you want to spend your time)
- Risk (how much risk you’re willing to take)
In his book $100 Startup, entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau advocates something similar with his Idea Decision Matrix, using 4 key criteria to evaluate business ideas:
- Impact (on the business and customers)
- Effort (energy and time to execute)
- Profitability (earning potential)
- Vision (how well it aligns with your overall vision for yourself and your business).
Startup mentor Ben Keene calls these “good idea criteria” and suggests selecting “your top 3 drivers in life” like income, lifestyle, and values.
Let’s take a closer look at Jonny’s spreadsheet to pick apart what’s going on:
- List of Ideas / Projects. In the first column, Jonny lists all the ideas he’s considering, from “Learn AI on Udemy” to “TEDx / Creative Mornings Talk” to “Facebook Ads Online Course”. At this point there’s no distinction between work and life, money and service – it’s about energy and time. Financials might come under criteria.
- Values. The next set of columns lists Jonny’s top 5 values – what’s important to him right now.
- Other Considerations. This contains other criteria Jonny finds useful in making a decision, like “gut excitement” and “would I be proud in 2025?”
- Ranking each idea against criteria. He then ranks each project on a 1-10 scale against each criteria. The sum total gives each project a score. The projects with the highest score are the winners. From his ranking, “The Great Unknown Podcast” comes up #1, with “TEDx / Creative Morning Talk” as #2.
My stab at this.
Using Jonny’s spreadsheet as a guide, I took stab at the criteria-based approach for my own projects.
First I jotted down a list of potential ideas and projects, from the creative “write a screenplay” to the familiar “career change workshops” and the random “olive leaf tea.” I came up with 48 projects/ideas.
Then I brainstormed criteria upon which I’d rank my projects. In addition to my top 5 values (Growth, Craft, Authenticity, Exploration, Spirituality), I came up with 10 additional criteria I thought was meaningful:
- JOY: Do I enjoy the day-to-day work?
- EXCITEMENT: Gut check – how strongly does this project pull me?
- PURPOSE: Is it aligned to a grander vision for myself and impact I want to have in the world?
- EFFORT: How much time and energy will it take to implement?
- SKILLS (CURRENT): Do I already have the skills to pull it off?
- SKILLS (FUTURE): Do I want to build the skills required to pull it off?
- EARNING: How much money could this earn in the short-term?
- INVESTMENT: How much earning potential is there in the long-term?
- COST: How much will it cost to implement?
- TIMING: Is now the right time to work on this?
You might notice that these criteria contrast with one another. Earnings vs. Joy? Purpose vs. Cost? Spirituality vs. Skills? Archer offers some useful guidance here:
“You’re a complex human being with multiple, often competing, priorities and values…it’s fine if your criteria conflict; the aim is simply to be very clear on what really matters to you.” –Rob Archer
Adding these 10 criteria to my top 5 values, I now had 15 total criteria to judge my 48 projects:
I’m fairly analytical, but this nitpicky piecemeal work sits in a special corner of hell for me. I wanted to give up immediately. I dug in anyway. It took ages, but I completed it, using a 1-5 scale instead of 1-10.
Soul Work vs Survival Work
As I ranked each category, I noticed some categories – values, joy, excitement, purpose – felt more like purpose-driven soulful metrics. Others – earnings, timing, effort – felt more like real-world survival considerations.
This reminded me of a concept I learned from Elle Harrison: Soul Work vs Survival Work.
- Soul Work is the work you love doing, the stuff that feeds your soul.
- Survival Work pays the bills.
As we’re transitioning into more meaningful work, Soul Work vs. Survival Work spectrum is less binary, more like a fluid dance. Some months may be 80% Survival, 20% Soul. Other months it may be the opposite. If we’re lucky / work hard, the two might one day merge into one.
I summed up the criteria for each project according to Survival Work and Soul Work, giving them a score for each. Then I made a combined ranking that averaged the two.
Anything in the top 5 for either Soul Work, Survival Work or Soul + Survival Work, I highlighted in yellow.
View my project list in real time here.
If you’re thinking this is overkill – you might be right. This feels a bit much.
As someone who tends to make decisions on intuition, this approach feels contrived. At the same time, I appreciate that it helps me quantify those gut feelings and heart pulls to evaluate them more rationally.
I’ve already been working on “Relaunch GiveLiveExplore, grow readership” over the last couple weeks, so that’s good to see on top.
I’m bummed to see stuff like “leather working” so low on the list. I plan to still spend time working with leather, but maybe it’s accurate in the sense it will likely exist as a part-time side hobby for now.
It might have been smart to weight each criteria. Is purpose as important as timing? What matters more – values or short-term earnings? This is where the science of criteria-based decision making becomes an art.
What’s Next? Ironically, I’m not sure. I might select one project from Survival Work and one from Soul Work. Or take the top 2 or 3 from Survival + Soul. I’ll keep updating this page as I go.
UPDATE (July 28, 2017): Narrowing down projects by theme
Next I drilled down into the projects that scored in the top 5 of either soul work, survival work or soul + survival work. That left me with 19 projects. Still a ridiculous amount!
Something worth noting: Even “survival work” projects for me are also partially soul. I can’t bring myself to do anything purely for money any more. There must be some soul in it. So calling items like the career change workshops purely survival work is misleading. I find deep fulfilment in serving people through them and satisfaction knowing I’m becoming better at delivering them. (This reminds me of a core principle in the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You – gaining mastery in a topic often trumps merely having passion for it.)
Similarly with the film extras / commercial work – but that’s more about pleasure than mastery. I actually get a lot of joy out of those experiences on set with award winning actors, writers and directors. Plus, half the time we’re sitting around, so I read or write in the downtime – something else I find joy in. (This, on the other hand, reminds me of another book: Happiness by Design. Author Peter Dolan found that the combination of purpose + pleasure over time produces happiness over the long-term.)
When I looked at all 19 projects as one list, I noticed each project could be boiled into nine common themes: video, nature, adventure, storytelling, writing, social good, online platform/website, facilitation and consulting.
I also noticed some projects were similar and could be combined into one macro project to check all the boxes: i.e. video production / documentary + 1-minute with Matt + The Stories We Drink could combine to be a single project.
From these top 15 condensed projects I’ll create a new tab ‘Action Plan’ to think through details and immediate next steps for each.
This is a work in progress… Subscribe to hear more each week.
Final thoughts (for now).
At the end of the day, this is merely a tool to guide my decision making. And no tool, no matter how intelligent, can tell me what to do with my life. That decision is mine.
As Ruth Chang emphasizes in her TED talk How to Make Hard Choices, there is no one right choice. The choices we make is an opportunity to define and design our lives.
Feel free to view my project list in real time here.
Want to try this to help you evaluate your next move?
1. Download a template.
You can download Jonny’s template here.
Or download my revised template here.
2. Make a list of your projects / ideas.
You might want to start with pen and paper first. Many of my ideas came up in my Morning Page routine.
3. Come up with your Decision Criteria.
If you want to ensure the projects are aligned to what’s important to you right now, I’d suggest using your values as a guide. Not sure what your values are? Here’s an exercise from Rob Archer to help: How to clarify your values.
I used 10 additional criteria, but a wiser person might whittle those down to 5 or 4. Feel free to borrow mine or Jonny’s, or come up with your own.
4. Rank each project against your criteria
My template has the calculations included. Feel free to adjust or adapt.
5. Let me know how it goes!
Until next time,
Matt @ GiveLiveExplore