When you own a business, you have to make hundreds of small—and large—decisions every day.

At some point, we all fall prey to decision fatigue. The more decisions we have to make, the harder each one is on our brains.

So how do successful entrepreneurs make so many important decisions?

Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, overcame four years of legal challenges by competitors to build Southwest into a $21 billion company—and amassed a personal fortune of $2 billion in the process.

Kelleher applies a simple framework to every issue, problem, and question. Here’s how to make a decision as a business owner—by copying his genius approach.

The one question that will help you make better business decisions

When Kelleher was at Southwest, he would ask himself this question multiple times a day:

“Will this help Southwest be the lowest-cost provider?”

If it would, the answer was “Yes.” If it wouldn’t, the answer was “No.”

It’s as simple as that.

Just apply the same framework to every decision you make, whether it’s personal or professional.

Ask yourself:

“Will this help me reach my goal? If not, I won’t do it.”

Take me. I’m often asked to do seemingly cool things. Serving on startup advisory boards. Appearing on podcasts. Writing forewords for other people’s books. I’m flattered. And tempted.  

But then I take a step back.

My goal is to grow my consulting business. So I ask myself one question:

“Will this help me be a more successful business owner?”

The answer is almost always “no.” My time is better spent writing a new book or crafting a new keynote speech for a client. That’s what grows my business.

How to apply Kelleher’s decision-making framework to your business

Think about something you do mainly because you think it makes you look important, smart, or cool. If it provides no other “value” to your business, drop it.

In business terms, that might mean spending lots of money on a fancy office setup that no customer or client ever sees. Or attending networking events that never result in making worthwhile connections.

Take a step back and reflect on what makes the biggest difference in your business.

  • Maybe, like Southwest Airlines, it’s price.
  • Maybe, like Rolex, it’s quality.
  • Maybe, like FedEx, it’s reliable service.
  • Or maybe it’s indirectly tied to your bottom line, like how you lead and develop your people.

The framework in action

If you pride yourself on treating every employee with respect, and a manager asks your approval for a suggested disciplinary action, ask yourself one question:

“Is that how a business owner who treats employees with respect would make someone feel?”

If the action is appropriate and also allows the employee to retain their self-esteem, then the answer is simple.

Let’s say you own an online store. Your goal is 100 percent on-time delivery, and you’re asked to approve the cost of expedited shipping, ask yourself one question:

“Is that what a company that always delivers on time would do?”

Then the answer is simple. You’ll incur the cost so you can deliver your product on time.

(Your next step is simple as well: Determining why your delivery schedule was in jeopardy in the first place, and fixing the underlying process issue so it won’t occur again—because ignoring problems that jeopardize on-time delivery is not what a company that always delivers on time would do.)

How to apply Kelleher’s decision-making framework beyond your business

You can also apply the “one-question” framework to personal goals that impact you professionally.

Say you’ve read research that shows how health and fitness play a major role in success. How exercise improves symptoms of fatigue by as much as 65 percent.

Since you’re a high achiever, you’ve decided you don’t just want to exercise. You want to get fit. And one day you’re dining out, and the waiter asks for your order. You ask yourself one question:

“Would a fit person choose this dish?”

If it’s not healthy, probably not.

Of course, if your dish still fits within your fitness plan, then the answer might be “Yes.”  

Either way, you know the answer—without thinking.

And that means you don’t need to worry about decision fatigue, because in effect you made the decision before the choice was ever presented to you.

Pretty cool, right?

Here’s another example. Say you’re saving money to buy an investment property. But you drive a 2009 Nissan Titan (that’s me) showing some signs of age, and you see this incredibly sleek Jaguar F‑Type, a car you’ve always wanted. (That’s me again.)

According to your budget, you can technically afford it. But should you buy it?

“Would a person saving money to buy an investment property buy a new Jaguar?”

Nope. Decision made.

The list of examples goes on.

  • “Would a person who wants to become a good CEO treat other people with anything less than dignity and respect?” → No, because that’s not the way good leaders act.
  • “Would a person who wants to be a good parent ignore their child who is struggling in school?”  No, because that’s not the way good parents act.

What do you want to achieve? Who do you want to become? Place yourself in that future

Say, “I run a $100 million business.” Say, “I launched a successful startup.” Say, “We make a real difference in the lives of our customers.”

Then, every time you need to make a decision, ask yourself the one question that reflects your goal:

  • “Will this help me build that $100 million business?”
  • “Will this help me launch that successful startup?”
  • “Will this help us make a real difference in the lives of our customers?”

Do that, and almost every decision will already be made for you.

And you’ll be much more likely to achieve the goal you set—because your actions will reflect what you really want to do.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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