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Decision Making for Authors

Writing is decision-making – here's how to make the right choices.

How many decisions do you make in 24 hours? According to Psychology Today, the average person makes up to 35,000. Some are as small as deciding which snack to eat while others are as large as planning a nation’s economic policy. We make decisions every time we glance at our phones, make a meal, or write a sentence, and each one erodes mental energy. You’ll probably use less bandwidth selecting a Netflix movie than planning a crime novel, but both tax your brain. And decisions stack up like cholesterol each day, slowly plugging mental arteries until sleep flushes them clean. The only way to keep making good ones is to manage your mental clarity.

Doing so isn’t easy for authors, given the complicated nature of the publishing industry and the fact that most of us run our businesses around a day job. We understand; you’re frazzled. You’re plagued by your phone, you have too many commitments, little focus and you’re always answering questions. Knowing this, are you likely to have the clarity needed to make the best possible decisions regarding your books? It’s unlikely. Working unintentionally leads to mistakes and sub-optimal decisions. It makes it feel like you’re playing the author game on hard mode, daunted by too many moving parts and informed by incomplete data always analysed in a rush.

Not everyone works this way, though, and you don’t have to, either. Did you know it’s possible to optimise your mind and lifestyle to make better decisions? Doing so can mean having to make fewer choices and see better results — sometimes with less work. Understanding the process is what separates bestselling authors from their lesser-known peers. Yes, luck and hard work play a part, but those who make great decisions often massively outpace the herd. Follow the tips in today’s article and you’ll feel luckier, like the deck is rigged in your favour, and own extra mental tools that will leave you better equipped to make increasingly great decisions over time.

Ignore Your Brain

Your brain is a liar. It is — at least, the primitive, subconscious part that causes you to worry. Indeed, according to a 2007 New Scientist article, our brains “routinely overestimate the impact of decision outcomes and life events, both good and bad.” Our minds aren’t vindictive. They just blow possibilities out of proportion, telling us a lottery win will make us happy forever and that anything our kids do unsupervised will kill them.

Princeton University Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated how we cannot trust our brains well with an experiment. When asking study subjects to take a 50:50 bet to win £5, he discovered that most people refused the wager unless the potential win was roughly double their potential loss. They would only take the bet if the upside of losing £5 was potentially gaining £10, even when a £6 win would stack the upside in their favour.

What we can deduce from the New Scientist article and Kahneman’s work is that you cannot rely on your brain’s reflex reaction to make good decisions. It doesn’t consider the future with a rational view. The brain can’t factor in that we get used to novel success, nor that we can socially recover from failure. Hence, if you want to make good decisions in your author business, stick to data analysis where possible. You cannot trust your brain.

Use a Guiding Goal

Adding to the brain’s shortcomings is its tendency to think it can do everything, even if some items on its to-do list conflict. For instance, have you ever asked yourself if the vision you have for your author business contains competing goals? Many authors don’t. They have lots of goals but hold them all in isolation, deciding to pursue each one, even when they’re mutually exclusive. For example, many of us say we want to:

  • Be the face of our brand but also own a business that can run without us
  • Maximise our income but write artistic projects in niche book categories
  • Simplify our marketing strategy but start several pen names

It’s possible to achieve any of these goals, but it’s difficult to achieve all of them — especially at the same time. Deciding to try and get the best of both worlds splits your time and hamstrings your ability to make fast progress. Figure out your priority from the off, though, and it can provide you with a North Star to help you filter decisions. It prompts you to ask if a new opportunity conflicts with or complements your current goals, and helps you cut out distractions before you commit to them. Not only that, when you do commit to a project, a guiding goal informs your research focus and creative decisions. It can remove time-wasting deliberation and tangents.

Avoid Decision Fatigue

Creating a guiding goal to filter your decisions will simplify the process. However, even then, every goal contains thousands of possible micro-decisions. And as the aforementioned Psychology Today article suggests, we make up to 35,000 decisions on a standard day, each one negatively impacting our focus. As we progress through a day, our executive function — the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus and remember — deplete and we become less capable of making great decisions. But if you can reduce the number of micro-decisions you tackle relating to non-essential tasks, you can free up executive function capacity for more important ones.

Try scrutinising your current commitments and ask yourself, “Does this help me achieve my priority?” If it doesn’t, eliminate it. If it does but the impact is tiny, also eliminate it. That way, you can focus more on high-impact decisions. You could, for example, pre-plan your meals or outfits to remove daily decisions. Or you could totally cut out an activity that doesn’t serve you. Aim to remove 80% of your decisions. Then automate and systematise much of what’s left. Can software complete a task you do daily? If so, use it. If not, could a Virtual Assistant? Avoiding decision fatigue sounds extreme, but it frees up your mind to make higher-quality decisions.

Think in Experiments

Many authors pride themselves on their thoroughness. Ignoring irrational fear, they always do adequate research to make confident decisions. But what happens when there’s little data to research? It happens often, given that publishing moves quickly. Facing a decision that they feel could benefit them but has no historical data, many authors deliberate until someone else beats them to innovation. When you’re at the vanguard of the book trade, though, you have to act fast on little more than a hunch or risk having someone else get your spoils. Don’t let the fear of failure ruin your decisiveness. Instead, act as if you’re conducting an experiment.

On his blog, productivity expert Ali Abdaal discusses this mental model, explaining, “Instead of seeing every decision as life-changing and irreversible, think of yourself as a scientist running an experiment. […] Even if the experiment fails, you’ll still gain valuable data.” The prospect of making a mistake can be scary, yes, but imagine how much more effective your decisions become when you’re the first person to collect and see the data on a new tactic or market. Acting first can make you vulnerable, but it often means you work with no competition and lots of privileged information. And there’s huge upside to being the first mover in any industry.

Estimate Expected Value

Poker players can make dozens of decisions in a single hand, many of which they can decide by running statistical calculations. As authors, we can’t always use this trick. Unlike poker, there aren’t a finite number of cards in publishing and it’s impossible to predict the outcomes of some actions. However, we can draw on one concept poker players use to help us increase the value of individual decisions: expected value (EV). In the words of a 2021 Masterclass article by six-time World Series Poker champion Daniel Negreanu, EV is “a concrete way for you to check how well you’re playing.” You can calculate an EV value per hand or estimate it across multiple games.

Negreanu explains, “If weak poker players lost their money too fast they would soon get bored and never return to play with you.” To maximise your EV, you must factor long-term implications into your decision-making process. Sometimes that means losing the odd hand to give opponents false confidence. In publishing, calculating EV might mean giving up short-term royalties on a profitable series to start one in a bigger genre. Or it could mean running a free giveaway, knowing readers will repay your generosity when they read your sequels. EV calculations don’t always give a conclusive answer, but considering it can lead to better long-term decisions.

Bestselling authors with sticking power tend to be great decision-makers. That said, they do make bad decisions occasionally, and so will you. Ignoring your gut, optimising your bandwidth, collecting data and thinking long term, though, will improve the quality of your average decision. Remember this when you criticise yourself: your success is unlikely to come from one big decision but be the average of thousands across a lifetime. The more intentional your decision-making process becomes, the more likely you are to choose correctly on a consistent basis. As Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.