11/19/2013 06:56 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014


To decide or not to decide, that is the question. Men and women make decisions, in a way that other animals do not. Does a rabbit decide to excavate a burrow? Imagine Bugs Bunny behind a boardroom table, debating with his fellow rabbits whether to go ahead. Does he review the latest decision paper on the burrow project? No, Bugs goes ahead on instinct. Only humans make decisions, and they are great levers to control our environment and improve our lives. Without decisions, we drift rudderless on the sea of life. With decisions, we summon up the crazy resolution to change the world around us. If we are decisive, we might well succeed. If we are indecisive, we never will.

But the quantity and quality of decisions made varies enormously from time to time, from job to job, and from person to person. It is easy to say, and probably true, that there are two kinds of people - those who make decisions, and those who allow them to be made for them. When we come of age, we attain the freedom to make our own decisions. But many people never quite make it out of the burrow of instinct and convention. They make few decisions, bad decisions, or inconsequential decisions. Like everything else, it can become a habit to make decisions, or to avoid them.

You can see the power of decisions by looking back over time, and by looking at who makes what decisions today. Nowadays, we make more decisions than our forbears did. And the closer you get to the top, the more decisions you make, and the more influence they can have.

Take the case of Michael Eisner, when he became head of the Walt Disney Company. In three years from 1984, he took the firm's profits from under $300 million to nearly $800 million. How did he do this? He made three good decisions. Virtually all the profit surge came from them. He raised the prices in the Disney theme parks. He built many more Disney hotels. And he started to sell videos of the Disney animated classics.

From the viewpoint of the shareholders, everything else Eisner did in those three years - and he did a great deal, because he was a workaholic who believed in rushing around and doing things - was pretty much irrelevant. Three decisions, and that was it. It probably didn't take him long to make those decisions. They made a world of difference.

Life is hard, but decisions are relatively easy. If you look for the right decisions, you can change your life, control your surroundings rather than let them control you, and improve the world. Decisions are easy in three ways. Unless you are a child or in prison, there are always important decisions available - there are millions of potential decisions available to you, from going to live in Australia to choosing a particular person as your partner for life, or working towards getting the job that you covet. You just have to select the decisions that are important and right for you. Decisions are also easy in that you can take your time. There are probably few vitally important decisions you make in your life - you can probably count them on your fingers. And decisions are easy in the sense that once you have made them, a whole string of other consequences flow almost automatically.

But as always, decisions comprise the sheep and the goats. We make hundreds of decisions every day, but nearly all of them are trivial. No matter how high up you are in a company, most of your decisions will make very little difference. If you don't believe me, make a list of all the decisions you make at work today. I will bet that fewer than 10 percent of them will be of any consequence. But making any kind of decision uses up precious life energy and willpower. So make sure that you only make important decisions. Delegate the rest. Trivial decisions drive out good decisions. Save your wisdom and instincts for the vital decisions.

And be sure that you actually make them.

The most important decisions for most of us are the ones we never make. They are the decisions that could transform our lives, our businesses, our social life, our happiness, and our impact on the world.

To see how this works, if you have any discretion and control over what you do, try this experiment at work. An hour before you plan to go home tomorrow, think of one vital decision that you haven't yet considered, the more important the better.

Take that decision.

Then go home. Chances are, that one decision, taken in minutes, will have more impact than anything else you do all week, perhaps all month or all year.

Exert leverage by making definite decisions, especially those that are counter-intuitive, unprecedented, or courageous. I call these the 'trinity of 80/20 decisions', comparable to the 'faith, hope, and love' that Saint Paul said are vital for life. Each one of these three types of decisions can have massive results - they are the few decisions that make all the difference:

• Counter-intuitive decisions. Make decisions where relatively small expenditures of energy (people, money, or time) can yield disproportionately impressive benefits. To take a simple but important example, if you eat five units of fruits and vegetables a day, your health will improve significantly at almost no cost. The same Principle applies if you exercise for thirty minutes a day - for example, by walking or cycling to work. At work, a day and evening every week free from phone calls, emails and mobile devices will raise your performance and recharge your batteries, for negative effort. Look for the cases where there is gain without pain, and results without effort, where you are going with the grain of the universe and not against it. Smile. Love. And be crafty. Make those decisions and keep to them.

• Unprecedented decisions. Boldly go where no man or woman has gone before. Take the plunge to decide to do something nobody has ever tried before. Even if it proves to be a mistake, you will learn a lot, generate a lot of interest, and maybe stumble across an opportunity you don't expect. This may be the case even if the reason for your decision turns out to be utterly flawed, because you are generating new information about your world.

Christopher Columbus believed that the world was much smaller than was commonly believed. He calculated that the distance from Spain to Japan was 2300 miles, so he could reach it in three small ships without running out of food and water. By embarking on his famous trip, he gambled with his life and the lives of his sailors. We now know that his sums were completely wrong. Even if navigated in a perfect circle, the true distance is 7500 miles. Columbus & Crew had no chance of making it alive. Happily, just as their supplies were running out, they landed in the Bahamas. When was the last time you made a decision to do something completely different - to live in a foreign country, learn a new discipline, or take your business in a completely new direction?

• Courageous decisions. Sometimes you need courage to make the right decision, when everyone else is telling you what a huge mistake you are making. For example, in the mid-1930s, Winston Churchill stood almost alone in warning of the threat Hitler posed to world peace. Everyone else thought that Germany should be given a chance to recover its dignity and national pride, and that Hitler couldn't mean what he said. Be nice to Mr Hitler and he would calm down. Churchill was ridiculed or ignored. Yet his stalwart opposition to appeasement meant that eventually he became the only choice to lead to the fight against the Nazis. Similarly, if you decide to embark on a project dismissed as impossible by everyone else, it could make your career if you succeed and give you enormous leverage in the future. Of course, you must think very carefully and be certain that you are right, before making the decision.

Take a few minutes today to think about the crucial few decisions, that could transform your business and your life. Identify one transformational decision.

Take it.

Your life may never be the same again.

This blog is based on material from my new book, The 80/20 Manager, selected by as one of the best business books of the year. Next week we look at the third of the six forces that made the West what it is.