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Hats, Haircuts, and Tattoos

The amazing writer James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits, has developed a decision-making tool that I think is freaking genius. He divides all decisions into one of three categories – HATS, HAIRCUTS, or TATTOOS. (See the graphic below.)

Decision Making

Hats are low-risk, low investment decisions, like what t-shirt to wear to a meeting. If they don’t work out, there’s little cost to making a change (or damage done). Haircuts require a little more investment, but not that much. For example, if you paint your office that beautiful aqua you once loved but now hate, changing it takes some money and sweat equity, but it won’t break the bank. There are a few decisions, though, that are like tattoos. Once you make them, you have to live with them.

Most of the decisions we make on a daily or even monthly basis are simply a hat or haircut. If they don’t work out, it’s not that big a deal. We can simply change the hat or wait six to eight weeks for our bad bang decision to grow out.

Hat decisions sometimes need to involve a couple of other people, or even your whole team, but often they can be made on your own. One of my hat decisions went wrong this week. I invited too many people to a key meeting, and it turned out to be a “hot mess express.” So what? There will be other meetings, and I can make changes. I will choose a different hat next time and move on.

And what about those haircut decisions? They can be things like hiring a new employee or converting the office to a new project management software. If it doesn’t work out, it will take time for you and your team to recover, reassess, and move on to the next best decision (bangs, bobs, or extensions – who knows?). But here’s the thing…I very often see groups get stuck on haircut decisions. They discuss, discuss, and discuss some more when what they really need to do is ACT. Better to take a risk and try something than to have the same horrible haircut you’ve had since the ‘90’s.

Finally, those tattoo decisions…the big, hairy, scary ones. The ones that are incredibly hard to change. The ones with truly lasting impacts on you and your organization. Decisions like, should we merge with this other nonprofit, or not? Should we expand into a new state (or states), or stay where we are? Is it time to expand our mission and take on a new role? As Clear emphasizes, “When you’re dealing with an irreversible choice, move slowly and think carefully.” For these types of decisions, we need to seek wise counsel and really consider all of the consequences before getting the ink and needle out. I don’t have a single tattoo (and don’t plan to add one), but I know from going to water parks that a lot of folks have not just one, but several. I sometimes wonder if they regret any of those permanent additions to their body’s landscape. If they do, getting rid of it will be costly and painful. Be patient and keep that tattoo item on your agenda as long as you need to until you and your team have all the input you need to make the best decision possible.

In conclusion, I want you to revisit your last board meeting or team agenda. Think about what items are hat, haircut, or tattoo decisions. Let’s take the hat decisions off the agenda for you to figure out by yourself or after talking one-on-one with a colleague. Keep it simple. Let’s act and get clippin’ on those haircut decisions and remember that they’re not forever. Finally, let’s slow our roll on tattoo decisions. They’re permanent and deserve our time, attention, and deliberation. That’s easiest when we’re not bogged down with hats and haircuts.  

Holly Hayes

Holly Hayes, President & Founder
ISI Consulting