How do you decide something is worth doing? One of my followers asked me about deciding whether or not they should get a motorcycle, but the question makes me think about all sorts of other decisions too. They can be big ones like whether you should get married or move in with a significant other, whether you should buy a house or condo, or whether you should take a new job. They can be little ones too, like deciding what movie you want to see this weekend, what color to paint your bedroom, or what book or game to dive into next. It can take a lot of time to figure out what you want to do about certain things, even if they might not seem important, as we all know when we agonize over restaurant menus because we’re hungry and everything sounds good. It can take even more time when we know that the consequences of getting our choices wrong might be dire. Regardless, the considerations remain the same and if structure how we work with them, we can become more efficient and make better decisions. Let’s start with some questions that can help guide you:
What is the up-front cost to me? I’m talking about the all-in sticker cost, the amount you have to budget for the thing you’re considering. Include the up-front price tag, but also think about incidentals that you might need to include like accessories and upgrades. If it’s a new activity, you might compare the cost of renting or borrowing equipment versus buying it yourself and, of course, see if buying used is an option. Don’t forget about non-monetary costs too, like the time and energy you might need to invest, not to mention any ongoing costs that might come up. If it’s very expensive or very cheap to you, that might figure into how possible it is for you to make the leap at all. And of course, if you don’t have the necessary resources, having to make the decision at all might be moot.
What’s the worst-case scenario? If everything goes wrong with your endeavor, what are the bad outcomes that could occur? While I’m focused here on the very bad, don’t forget the somewhat bad too. Dying is certainly a potential result of many activities you might be thinking about, like the one that started this whole inquiry: riding a motorcycle. So, too, are serious physical and psychological injuries that you might have to face. Part of this question asks you to be thoughtful and complete in predicting the worst that is possible, but part of it also asks you to give due attention to other potentially bad things that could happen. In doing so, you might find one that is, in fact, worse than death. Remember to connect each scenario with the likelihood it could happen, though, as well as what you might do to mitigate either the odds or the severity, because that nightmare might be so remote as to not be a real concern to you.
What’s the best-case scenario? It’s not all doom and gloom. Everything go could right, and then what would you have and where would you be? Maybe you’ll meet your new best friend. Maybe you’ll discover the passion that drives the rest of your life. Maybe you’ll experience the most sublime meal you’ve ever had. Maybe you’ll be able to embrace the adventure and adrenaline you’ve always chased. Whatever you imagine, big or small, goes here in your analysis. Like worst-case scenarios, the key is to value them as you do, and not necessarily as someone else might. Not everyone will enjoy losing a weekend reading a new novel or binging an old TV series but for you, that escape might be just what the doctor ordered. Here, too, think about how likely each good outcome is, and what would help ensure those goals…or make it impossible. Some of the variables might be under your control but not all of them. You can’t, after all, just know if you will love or hate a certain activity.
What do I stand to lose? This isn’t quite the same as thinking about up-front costs or worst-case scenarios, though they may overlap. Instead, it’s thinking about what the thing might cost beyond what it takes to get started and beyond what might go horribly wrong within that particular pursuit. Some losses won’t rise to a worst case, like losing all of your money, but they could still be bad, like losing a substantial part of your savings or dipping in to your emergency fund. When you place a bet in these types of situations, you could lose your stake and then some, going in to real or symbolic debt to the decision you make. Here is where you’ll start adding up the opportunities you might miss because you’ll be busy with what you’re choosing, the friends who might drift away because they don’t approve of your relationship, the time and frustration you might spend chipping away at this new project. Not all losses are bad, but you need to consider them anyway because they are something that you would give up in order to go after this thing you think might be worth doing.
What do I stand to gain? Much like losses and worst cases, what you can win isn’t precisely the same as what the best-case scenario might be and often includes small things that are net positives but not life-changing wins. Some of the gains will be the exact opposite of the losses you’ve already considered, while others will be what some people might think of as losses. Perhaps the opportunities you’d miss out on would be replaced by new and different opportunities in a new area, ones that could enrich your life in unanticipated ways. Perhaps that new job or your choice of school will take you far away from your family and the people you grew up with, and that’s a good thing because of the bad memories you’d be leaving behind. Gains might be obvious, like the muscles and fitness you’d acquire by deciding to participate in that new sport after all, or they may be more intangible, like a sense of satisfaction from completing a difficult task well or at all.
What is my exit strategy? Beyond mitigating worst-case scenarios and losses, you might have to or want to change your mind entirely about your decision. If your course is easily reversed or turned, it might make it easier for you to decide to try it out. The investment in risking a complicated new recipe could be the cost of some ingredients and a few hours of an otherwise lazy Sunday afternoon. If it turns out awful, you can order a pizza or skip dessert, and is that really so bad? If it’s expensive, hard, or even impossible to quit, then you should probably be a little more certain before you commit. That same recipe could be a disaster to back out of if you don’t have a backup meal you can afford, or the people you’re cooking for are very important to you and you’ve promised them this special meal. It might be overwhelmingly embarrassing to you, so much so that you can’t even face the idea. Then maybe it’s not worth it to you this time.
As you work back and forth through these questions, you might find that the overall answer becomes obvious. You might also find that the direction you should head is a little less clear. When that happens, perhaps you need to organize your thoughts by writing them down, or by putting them into a format such as a pro/con list with all the positives on one side and all the negatives on the other in boxes that denote how big or small each are to make a pro/con bar graph. Delaying when you need to choose could also help. Or maybe the situation truly is neutral and you can roll the dice on any of the options. Whatever you decide, it’s ultimately up to just you. Other people can give you their opinions, but you’re the one who has to live with the costs and enjoy the benefits, so you’re the one who gets to – has to – weigh each factor as you value them.