You always have more than two choices in any decision. A lot of decisions come out of a problem or dissatisfaction. The temptation is to jump in and do something right now, especially if you’re angry. Before you do that, settle down and make a list of possible alternatives that will remove, mitigate, or otherwise deal with the problem. Remember that the idea is to generate as many alternatives as you can. Some will be clearly ludicrous or even unsavory. Don’t worry about that now. You’ll get to throw those out later. Right now, open your mind to the full range of possibilities.
Here are some general possible alternatives.
- Hope for someone else to change (Good luck with that!)
- Help someone else to change
- Remove the problem
- Remove the source
- Remove yourself
- Change the problem
- Change the way you deal with it
- Accept it
Hope for someone else to change
This is usually the first alternative people think of when they’re dissatisfied. “The problem is my boss.” If not your boss, it could be your spouse, your coworker, or some seemingly incompetent service worker. Even though this is the most obvious solution, it’s generally the least likely to succeed. Often people get stuck taking this as the only solution. Then the only action they can take is becoming increasingly annoyed with the other person. The result of your decision process must always be what you are going to do.
Here’s an example. My coworker Bob rides his bike to work and keeps it in the hallway outside his cubicle, making it hard for me to get to my own cubicle. One alternative would be silent resentment toward Bob for causing me inconvenience.
Help someone else to change
Come up with alternatives on how you can get the other person to change their behavior. This could be simply talking to them. Better yet, think of alternatives that you can undertake to remove barriers that they face. Remember that people are not going to change just because you want them to. You may need to offer to do something for the person in exchange. Here are some other alternatives for our example.
- Ask Bob to keep his bike out of the hallway.
- Help Bob find a better place to keep his bike.
Remove the problem
Focus first on the problem, not the people. Once the problem is well framed, think about how it could be removed. Ideally the problem can be solved to the satisfaction or all.
In our example, the problem is the bike in the hallway. Here are some possible alternatives (clearly, some better than others, but right now we want a rich list).
- Throw the bike out the window.
- Get management to institute a rule against storing bikes in the building.
- Put the bike in Bob’s cubicle.
- Find someplace else to store the bike.
Remove the source
Think about what is causing the problem, then how it could be mitigated. Do a causal analysis. That is just a fancy way of suggesting that you look for the causes of the causes. In our example, Bob has caused the bike to be in the hallway, so he is the source of the problem. But if we dig deeper, we find that Bob stores the bike in the hallway because there is no other safe place to keep it. Also, the problem arises simply because Bob rides a bike to work. Perhaps he has no car or he wants the exercise. Here are some more alternatives:
- Get Bob fired.
- Have the company install secure bike storage.
- Buy Bob a car.
- Buy Bob a gym membership.
It’s sometimes more effective to avoid the problem than to fix it. Leave a bad relationship. Check out early from a dirty hotel. Quit a dead-end job. Avoid a business that gives your poor service. Often this is hard to do, especially if you’ve put a lot of yourself into trying to fix the problem. We don’t like to be quitters. That’s why it’s especially important to add this option to your list of alternatives. Empower yourself to walk away if it makes sense. Here are some more alternatives for our example:
- Quit your job.
- Work exclusively from home.
- Ask to be moved to a cubicle in a different location.
Change the problem
Try to think of ways that the problem can be less of a hindrance. Suppose you can’t solve or remove the problem and you’re unwilling to leave. Can the problem somehow be contained or reined in?
In our example, if we accept that Bob will always be leaving his bike in the hallway, is there anything we can do to make it less of a hindrance to those walking by? Here’s a possibility:
- Find a way to mount the bike to the side of the cubicle or otherwise get it out of the flow of traffic.
Change the way you deal with it
Again, suppose you won’t be able to remove yourself or the problem. Can you change your own behavior to keep it from bothering you so much?
Accept that Bob will always leave his bike in the hallway next to your office. Is there a way that you could avoid it or make it easier for you to get by it?
- Find a way to approach your cubicle from the other direction, avoiding the bike.
This should always be on your list of alternatives. It’s remarkably liberating. Accept that people won’t change their behavior and the problem will persist in its current form. Choose to live with it.
Accept the fact that Bob will always leave his bike in the hallway and you will need to squeeze past it to get to your cubicle.
Two of these alternatives, the first and last, are superficially the same. You can wait for someone to change or you can accept the situation. In either case you do nothing at all about the problem. But there is a world of difference in how it makes you feel and how effective a decision-maker you can be. In one case, you waste a lot of energy on something that may not change, resenting the person causing the problem and building stress. On the other, you have the peace of knowing that you made a conscious choice for acceptance and can focus your energies elsewhere. On one hand, you are at the mercy of someone else’s choices. On the other, you have taken charge by making your choice after considering all of your other options.
When you put together your list of alternatives, you’ll be tempted to drop some of them immediately. Many of the alternatives in the example are intentionally ludicrous. Buying Bob a car or destroying the bike is clearly overkill. For now, resist this temptation to throw out options. You want to keep yourself in a mode of divergent thinking. Evaluating the options is convergent thinking, which inhibits the open-mindedness you need right now. A good list will include one or two preposterous ideas. You’ll get to evaluate your options later.
Some of these options appear ridiculous when looked at dispassionately in an exercise. For example, it would be stupid to wait passively for Bob to move his bike and build up a level of resentment and anger to the point that you throw the bike out the window. Yet people do things like this all the time. You can probably think of several examples in which a petty problem led to rage and destructive behavior far out of proportion to the original annoyance. Take charge of your decisions before the rage builds.