The 37 Percent Rule: The Mathematical Trick for Making Much Better Decisions

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Inside every major decision nests another smaller decision: When do you give up on information gathering and decide you have enough data to make a choice? Spend too long probing your options and you fall prey to analysis paralysis or let promising opportunities go by. Close out the process too quickly and you risk regretting options you never considered.

This is true whether you’re looking for a spouse or looking for a storefront for your business. How do you decide when to explore further and when to pull the trigger on a choice?

What if I told you that there is a single, mathematically derived answer to this question no matter what domain your decision falls in? Would you believe me if I told you it was the oddly specific number 37?

The mathematically ideal way to make important choices

It seems strange to think that there would be one right answer to the question: How long do I keep exploring my options? Marrying the right person is perhaps the most consequential decision of your life. Surely, you should test the waters longer than if you’re choosing a new swag supplier, right?

But, as a fascinating recent Big Think article explains in detail, no matter what choice you’re trying to make, mathematicians claim the 37 percent rule applies. Here it is in a nutshell: Spend the first 37 percent of your decision-making process gathering information and committing to nothing. After that period, choose the next option that comes along that’s better than everything you’ve seen before.

This oddly precise recommendation actually has a formula behind it (the mathematically inclined can check out a more detailed explanation here), and mathematicians insist this rule gives you the highest probability of making the optimum choice.

Applying a precise rule to messy reality

Applying this rule will, of course, look different in different situations. If you’ve given yourself a month to look at real estate, the 37 percent rule suggests you spend the first third or so of that surveying the market and making no decisions. If you’re hiring an assistant and plan to interview 10 candidates, let the first three go by. Then choose the next person who beats that first bunch. If you’re hoping to be settled down by 40 and start dating in high school, take the first third of your dating life — up to around age 25 — to casually check out your options.

At this point, I am going to bet some of you have objections. What if an absolutely stellar candidate (or romantic interest or real estate play) just happens to be the first one you come across? Follow this rule and you might end up spending your life cursing math and wondering, “What if?”

It is true that matters of the heart aren’t logical, and this rule only maximizes probabilities. It doesn’t guarantee success. So if lightning strikes or the angels sing and you’re absolutely sure you’ve found the perfect match for you, don’t let abstract formulas stand in the way. (Though do think back to how sure you were that your high school crush was The One and approach infatuation with an appropriate degree of skepticism.)

But even if it’s unwise to blindly follow the 37 percent rule in every instance, that doesn’t make it invalid or unhelpful. Knowing that spending roughly the first third of your decision-making process gathering information is generally optimal can help you resist both FOMO and analysis paralysis. Knowing that you should snap up the first candidate who beats the options you previously explored can help you muster the courage to pull the trigger.

The trick to great decision making is balancing exploration and decisiveness, and that’s exactly what the 37 percent rule helps you do.