This is a crosspost from the EA forum. It refers to EAs and the EA community a couple of times, but as it is essentially just about a nice norm and decision making, it seemed worth having here too.

There are a lot of things about this community that I really love, but possibly my favourite is a thing people often do when they're trying to make a difficult and/or important decision:

  1. Write out your current thinking in a google doc.
  2. Share it with some people you think might have useful input, asking for comments.
  3. ???
  4. Profit.

I like this process for lots of reasons:

Writing out your reasoning is often helpful.

My job involves helping people through difficult decisions, and I often find that a lot of the value I provide comes from asking people questions which make making considerations and tradeoffs salient to them. Trying to write out how you're weighing the various factors that are going into your decision is a good way of helping you work out which ones actually matter to you, and how much. You may even get some big wins for free, for example realising that two options might not be mutually exclusive, or that one of the things you're trying to achieve is because of a preference that you don't, on reflection, endorse.

People often ask good questions.

Even when you're doing the above well, other people trying to understand your reasoning will ask clarifying questions. Responding to these will often cause you to better understand your own thought process, and might identify blindspots in your current thinking.

People often give good advice.

To some extent this is the obvious reason to go through this process. I'm listing it here mostly to highlight that this clearly is a big source of value, though it's not clear that it's bigger than the previous two.

It's fun.

I find it really interesting, and fairly easy, to comment on decision documents for people I know well, and I know many people feel the same. Also, they often say thank you, or that you helped, and that's nice too!

What does doing this well look like?

Use the method at all!

If you're facing a decision and haven't done this, I would much rather you just went and followed the steps at the start before reading further. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Be concise, but complete.

People are more likely to read shorter documents, and it will take them less time to do so, but leaving out a consideration or piece of information that is an important factor to you will cost people more time and/or make their advice worse in the long run. I think a reasonable method to try first is brain-dumping everything into the document, then editing for clarity before you share it.

I've had a few people share Excel models with me. In one case I ended up finding a fairly severe mistake in their model, which was helpful, but overall I think this is a bad strategy. Unless you put a ton of detail in comments on different cells (which then makes the document a nightmare to read), you're probably missing a lot of reasoning/detail if this is the format you go with.

Let people know what you're hoping to get from them

Often it can be difficult to know how honest to be when giving feedback to a friend, especially if you're not super close and/or haven't already established norms for how much honesty/criticism to expect. It might be the case that you don't have a clear view for what you're uncertain about, and roughly just want an overall 'sense check', but it also might be that there's a particular part of the decision you're hoping for feedback on, and everything else is just context which seems relevant but is already fixed. Consider putting clear instructions for commenters early in the document to help with this.

Put some thought into who to ask for comments.

'Smart, kind people I know' is a perfectly reasonable start, but after that it might help to ask yourself what specifically you expect people to help with. There can often be pretty sharply diminishing returns to sharing with too many people, and having a clear idea in mind for what people are adding can help prevent this. Here are a few ideas on who you might want to ask and why they'd be particularly helpful. The list is neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive.

  • People who know you well. They can often give a good overall take, bring up considerations you might be missing but do matter to you, call you out on ~your bullshit~ motivated reasoning you might not have noticed.
  • People with specific expertise in the decision. In this case it can be good to ask them a specific question, or for a take on a specific aspect of the decision, and make it clear that just answering that is fine, though they might be welcome to comment on the rest.
  • People who have a different perspective to you. This can (but doesn't have to) include non-EAs. This community is great, but it certainly isn't the only source of good advice and guidance that exists, and sharing a google doc and asking for comments isn't that weird a favour to ask a friend for.
  • People whose reasoning you particularly trust, and/or who you know won't mince their words. You can give them express permission to be pessimistic, or skeptical.
  • People who like you and will be supportive. Encouragement actually really matters for some people! I'm one of them!

Should you go and make a document right now?

Stop reading and do it...


Thanks to Aaron, whose comment on a document of the form described below prompted this piece, and Luisa, for some incredibly valuable advice about how to interpret that comment. Thanks also to Emma and Chana for helpful comments on a draft of this post.

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