Making “Rules of Thumb” Decisions

We all have our own “rules of thumb” or heuristics that we use to make business, project and even personal decisions. Funny how using those rules can result in making poor decisions, isn’t it?  Over the years, I have found that decision-making always comes with an “it depends” clause and an optional “do nothing” clause. I have also discovered that sometimes my own “rules of thumb” can produce questionable decisions and results on my projects.

Recently, I read an interesting article about using heuristics to make decisions called “Decision Making 101: Rules of Thumb” by Dr. Woody. In this article, the author categorizes “rules of thumb” decisions in a very clear and usable way based upon his interview with Mitch Maidique, executive director of the Florida International University Center for Leadership.

According to Maidique, “rules of thumb” are a decision-making shortcut that people use versus a gut feeling or intuition. These “judgmental heuristics” are based upon each person’s personal experiences. Seems as though it is those personal experiences that can actually get the decision-maker into trouble. Like anything that is based upon one individual, the “rules of thumb” developed from those experiences range the gamut from being quite pertinent to being unrealistic.

In order to effectively use your own “rules of thumb”, you need to understand and sort your rules into a set of usable buckets. In some cases, you will need to challenge your rules and see if they hold up to logic and scrutiny. Maidique recommends that you sort your rules of thumb into three buckets: green, yellow, and red.

Green: Think of your green “rules of thumb” as your positive fallback rules when you are in a new situation.  For most of us, these rules were learned as children and reflect the basic values and manners from our upbringing. It is amazing how these rules can lead to positive outcomes most of the time.  For example, one of my own green “rules of thumb” is to always be honest with people. I have always found this rule to hold true in almost any decision-making situation – personal, project or business.

Yellow: Everyone needs to recognize that “rules of thumb” are often specific to a certain environment, such as our workplace, our business associates or our families. Yellow “rules of thumb” are context-driven and situational rules.  These rules can backfire on us if we use them outside of their specific context. One of my yellow “rules of thumb” is to remember that I am no longer the manager or the subject matter expert when I am at home eating dinner with my family.  The decision-making rules that work well in my office or client site do not always translate well at home.

Red: User beware! The red “rules of thumb” are in this bucket for a reason. Red rules are driven by our emotions versus being driven by logic and experience. You need to recognize and filter your “rules of thumb” that are driven by or impacted by your emotions, particularly the negative emotions like anger, revenge and fear. I can see how this happens, particularly in my personal life. It is easy to allow the red rules to govern the decisions you make concerning family or team members, particularly someone you are angry with or whom you think has wronged you in the past. According to Maidique, the red “rules of thumb” are often used by people who believe they are above the law or don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else. Does this describe anyone you know?

As part of identifying and categorizing your own “rules of thumb”, the author recommends that you ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are your typical fall back “rules of thumb” for making major decisions?
  • What life experiences do these “rules of thumb” come from?
  • When have these “rules of thumb” worked for you and when have they worked against you?

Making good decisions a mix of both art and science. Perhaps it is time to take a look at and categorize your “rules of thumb”.  Then you can keep the rules that work well for you and stop using the rules that do not work well.

Happy categorizing!

Susan Weese

Reference:   Decision Making 101: Rules of Thumb” by Dr. Woody, retrieved from

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