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Non-Binary Decisions: How to Truly Think Beyond Yes or No Decisions

March 8, 2021
• Updated
January 18, 2024
Read time —
11 Minutes
A scratch of the head from the woman evolves as she makes a non-binary decision.

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In this Article

I can’t decide.

Do I get up and go for a run, or do I stay in bed where I’m warm? I snuggle into the duvet, the comfort imploring me to stay. My ears prick up at the continuous patter coming from the windows mean one thing.

Should I leave the warmth behind? Should I, should I, should I…

For a while, my mind battles with the choice of yes or no. As I gravitate between running in the rain versus staying in bed, I realise I’m a fool. I’m limiting myself to an easy decision. I might as well spin a coin in the air – the only choice is whether the bed is heads or tails.

It’s another binary decision.

Of course, whether I go for a run or not shouldn’t be a binary decision. My morning choice means more than warmth or getting wet.

My thinking is wrong. I should be thinking about and making non-binary decisions.

What are Non-Binary Decisions?

A binary decision is a decision with two choices, and typically these are yes, or no. Computers run using a binary language, with a value either being a one or a zero. Strip the most complex of computers down to their simplest code and you’ll find a binary language of ones and zeros.

We use this binary code to dictate pathways in computers, with one being a yes and zero being a no. It is simple, easy, and fool proof.

Binary decisions in everyday life show themselves in much the same way.

My binary decision was whether to run or not. Likewise, we come up against the same types of decisions wherever we look. Do you want coffee? Will you wait for dinner? Can you pop to the shop for me?

Some of these are rightly binary decisions.

With non-binary decisions, the choices we make aren’t based on simple yes or no answers.

Instead, a non-binary decision holds a broader position of thought. Factors such as your viewpoint or the goals you’re working towards influence your choices.

Good decision-makers have options; like choosing from a display of ice creams, the greater the range, the more considered the choice.  Your decision-making becomes more informed, as you work with more information to make a better decision.

A yes or no decision limits your information, thus capping the effort you apply when deciding.

Logically, the bigger the decision, the more information you want to work with and that requires us to first change our questions.

The quality of your questions counts.

Every decision we make stems from a question.

Logic dictates the better the questions, the better the decision. And yet, we often find ourselves in situations where we don’t have much choice. Laziness bites as we take the easy path, and in turn, we limit our options – and further limit our outcomes.

Step back to the dilemma facing me earlier. With the rain against the window, and the warmth of the duvet holding me in place, one question was in my mind; Should I get up and run?

With the answer being either yes, or no, the decision is a binary one. I can’t answer the question any other way. The question is the problem because it is a closed-ended question.

Close-ended questions

A close-ended question limits the range of answers available to…yes or no. Commonly, you’ll find these on surveys as they focus on answers to gain feedback, as the researcher looks to guide you to focus on the answers they want.

Closed-ended questions start with can, did, will, should, or have. Can I…Did…Should…all lead to one of two short answers – yes or no.

Open-ended questions

Open questions supply information. They are, as you might expect the opposite of a closed-ended question. You can’t answer them with a yes or a no. Salespeople love open questions, as they fish for clues to help them find buying signals. There is no better way to convince someone to buy something than with their own words.

Open-ended questions are ones beginning with who, what, when, where, why, and how. Each one brings an array of information, arming you with data and insights which can enhance your decision-making.

But how do you use questions when making non-binary decisions?

How do you make non-binary decisions?

Good decision-makers have a process. Avoiding the trap of temporary feelings or not appreciating the easily forgotten dynamics of decision-making can damage the way you make your choices. They can also limit them too.

Therefore, the process you follow is vitally important.

I’ve already laid out a five-step decision-making process in an earlier article.

As a reminder, here they are:

Five steps form the foundation of a good decision-making process. Here they are: -

  1. Stop
  2. Assess your information
  3. Name your Biases.
  4. Gain perspective.
  5. Decide

Source: A Good Decision-Making Process Matters. Here are 5 Steps to Follow

Points 2, 3, and 4 are all steps where you can ask questions. Let’s look at each one in more detail.

Assess your Information.

Every decision needs information. Your job is to check the information you have, filter it, and gather more if you need it. You can do this by asking questions – open questions.

  • What do I know to be true?
  • What do I not know?
  • When will this take place?
  • Why is it happening?
  • How will it change things?
  • Who will this affect?

Open questions are open to change. You can be specific as you want to be, or you can zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Information needs checking, is it complete? Is it true? Do you understand?

From here, you might realise you don’t understand part of the decision facing you. Looking for the first principles might be a task you need to undertake. You’re seeing, assessing, and filtering your information.

Name your Biases.

Biases inhibit our view of everything we see. They cloud our judgement and spoil the most neutral of views.

Seeing these, by naming them helps us try and mitigate their effect.

Let’s take confirmation bias. It’s a deadly bias as it readily accepts information – regardless of whether it’s complete or not and goes with it. The good news is that you can beat it with questioning.

The discipline is in asking the right questions.

When we get one piece of confirming evidence, we must keep asking what else supports this? We must also ask what doesn’t support it.

Gain Perspective

Decisions fail because we accept how we feel today without thinking about how we might feel about it tomorrow. Every choice we make has a knock-on effect, but we rarely stop to pause to think about the ramifications of our choice.

The butterfly effect is one we are blissfully ignorant of.

Perspective helps us consider the future. How we gain perspective comes down to the questions we ask ourselves. Shifting our viewpoint so we are considering the decision from days, weeks, or months ahead gives is this window.

I’ll often ask myself how I’ll think about this decision in six days or six months from now?

All manner of factors changes when this happens. Emotion, the spoiler of today disappears when your perspective changes.

Making non-binary decisions

Of course, come the end of this process your non-binary decision is one not limited to a yes or no choice, but one built on substance.

You’ll have a flexible decision. One which offers the fluidity to test, see and revise as learn more about the changing world and how your choice sits within it.

My morning run wasn’t a yes or a no-decision. As I changed my questions, so I could see information old and new come to mind. I remembered why I was running most mornings. I knew how important it was to keep the habit I was building.

My bias alert told me the warmth of my duvet was a cheap signal and an easy one to defeat as confirmation bias tried its luck.

Perspective told me six hours from now, I’d feel annoyed at having missed my run. All because of a bit of rain – pathetic. But, if something else had come up, I could change when I ran, allowing me to achieve my goal.

The change from the binary decision I faced earlier looks completely different when you frame the choice through the lens of a non-binary view.

It’s far more powerful than just living with yes or no choices.

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A boy posing to thinnk before making a decision.

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