Sometimes all we need to overcome inertia or fear is a plan. There are no step-by-step rules for making good decisions, but there are guidelines which will help reduce the fear and increase your chances of success.
Is it Your Decision to Make?
The easiest way to improve some decisions is to realize they’re not ours to make. Sometimes that’s obvious. You can’t sell the book you borrowed from a friend, the house you rented or the Brooklyn Bridge.
Sometimes it’s not so easy. If you know what your boss wants you to do and you know the right thing to do and they’re not the same, you have an authority dilemma. While proper business administration ties authority and responsibility, in the corporate world it doesn’t always work that way. Even if you feel you’ll be held responsible for the outcome, the decision may not be yours to make. (Though you may find yourself facing an employment decision: whether or not to continue working someplace where decisions like this even come up.)
One particularly challenging arena I have entered recently is the way my senior citizen mom manages her money. Frankly, I think she wastes quite a bit of money and spends much of it only half wisely. Thing is she’s not mentally or emotionally incompetent. She’s completely alert, in possession of her faculties. She just makes decisions which I find financially disagreeable.
Because she’s my mom it’s occasionally a subject of conversation. But it’s not my decision to make.
Sometimes we get ourselves in trouble by skipping this first step. Before you invest time and effort in the other 5 decision-making steps, ask yourself if this decision is even yours to make.
Now that we’ve decided this decision is our responsibility we have some work to do to prepare to make the best decision.
Some decisions are childishly simple. Most of us can pick what to wear, what to eat, where to go on vacation without much mental or emotional stress. Choosing who to marry, where to work and live, what to believe–these decisions warrant deeper investigation. Most decisions fall somewhere between these extremes.
Gather information pertaining to your decision from reliable sources. The weightier the decision the more information you want to gather and the more time you want to spend pondering it. During this stage be especially aware of the scientific fact that decisions are made in the emotion centers of our brain, not the logic centers. Your goal here is to create an emotional attachment after you’ve done research. If you have a gut feel for what you want, your research will be biased toward the decision you’ve already unconsciously made.
For some decisions this is the stage to ask for help. Seeing ourselves clearly is like reading the label when you’re inside the bottle. Qualified outside help can read your label to you. Consult with a friend who knows their stuff. Pay for a professional opinion. Hire a coach to work through a particularly important decision.
Pareto’s principle, the 80/20 rule, applies here. You will get nearly all the relevant information with a very little amount of research in most cases. You may know if you’re the type who has an itchy trigger finger or are more likely to research the decision to death. (The latter is much more common.)
Make a chart with clearly stated pros and cons on either side of the page. When you realize there aren’t any more significant pros or cons to add to the list it’s time to be done with the research phase.
We’re almost ready to make the decision. One last thing: finding why.
Remember I mentioned that decisions are made in our emotions centers, not our logic centers? This is your chance to be excruciatingly honest with yourself about what you want and why. Telling yourself that you’re buying the house you can barely afford because of the neighborhood or the schools when it’s really because you’ll finally have space for a workshop will be backfire in the long run. We’ll endure a tight budget if we have a good reason to. If we’ve lied to ourselves about our motives, about the why, when times get tough we’re more likely to bail on a decision which may in the long run have been right for us.
Know that it’s okay for decisions to be emotional instead of logical if they still make logical sense. Sure, a nice neighborhood and a good school are great aspects of a new home. But if you’re choosing between two homes that both have all the basic requirements, know you’re real reasons. Life’s big decisions go through a dip; a point where we can push through because we truly believe or give up and back out. Knowing your motives will give you the strength to push through when it matters.
Of course, knowing your motives might also move you to act like a grown up and make the right choice, the best choice, instead of the one you’re secretly wishing for.
Make the Decision
Yes, deciding is one of the steps. It’s human nature to reach this point and then waffle. What if there’s something we’ve overlooked? Maybe more research will help. Maybe someone else should decide. Maybe we can ignore the whole thing.
The longer you wait to make the decision the more likely you are to find reasons to choose the most comfortable option or to choose simply not to choose. (Not deciding is a decision).
Resistance wants you to make decisions based on fear. Even if you are being chased by a hungry lion, fear is not a good decision-making tool. Don’t give Resistance time to wear you down and frighten you into submission.
You see the target. You’ve drawn the bow. The arrow is aimed.
Let it go.
Decisions happen inside our heads. Like the arrow there must be action for decision ever to mean anything.
Resistance isn’t finished with us yet. If we’ve decided to start the healthy habit of walking every day but we never set an alarm, don’t buy decent walking shoes, don’t go to bed early enough, don’t make plans to meet with a friend, we may kid ourselves that the universe is conspiring against our decision.
During your research phase you should have seen what resources (time, energy, attention, finances) will need to be allocated to implement your decision. Their availability will affect the decision you make. Now you just have to be willing to spend what you promised yourself when you made the decision.
The biggest decisions meet the strongest Resistance. Sometimes “biggest” means bearing the greatest risk. Often though, “biggest” means carrying the most emotional impact.
If this decision is about creating something remarkable, unexpected, personally important, creative, Resistance will work hard to stop you from implementing it. Your unconscious will protect you from the perceived risk of emotional exposure the way a mother bear protects her cubs.
Keep your copy of The War of Art handy. Review the underlined, dog-eared, highlighted, note-covered passages. Don’t let Resistance make you back down.
Reflect and Adapt
Decisions worth spending time and effort on are rarely “set it and forget it”. During and after implementation, review the decision. Does it still make sense? Once again, expect a fight from Resistance. Know your enemy. Look him in the eye and push him out of the decision.
If new information comes to light, revisit the research phase. Check again to be sure that the facts support your decision.
Ask yourself why for the hundredth time. That vague feeling of unease may be the conflict between your real motivation and the lie you told yourself.
Some decisions are fundamentally empirically right. Some decisions we know should never be unmade. When facts or feelings seem to challenge these, know that it’s Resistance trying to ruin your life. A sword through his liver does the trick nicely.
Most of life’s decisions aren’t necessarily permanent. If new facts, greater awareness, or new circumstances warrant a change, don’t let stubbornness, our innate need to appear consistent, prevent you from humbly acknowledging the changes and making whatever adjustments are necessary to be true to the right decision–even if it turns out that’s not the decision you made.
Decisions rarely involve life and death. But any decision requiring more than a moment’s thought probably involves risk. Your goal in this decision-making process is not to avoid risk, but to understand, minimize and accept it. Growth and change always involve risk.
It’s my experience that the bulk of bad decisions are caused by fear-driven inactivity. Most of life’s regrets come, not from what we’ve done, but what we’ve failed to do.
Get the boat away from the dock. Head out into the blue. There will be hard work, challenges, perhaps storms, maybe even shipwreck. A life worth living can’t be lived sitting on the dock.
This post was contributed by Joel D Canfield.