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Decision-Making Made Ridiculously Simple!

8 key factors to help you make those tough choices

graphicStock with permission
Source: graphicStock with permission

Every day we are challenged with making decisions. Our brains are subject to 400 billion bits of information per second of which 2,000 bits are processed, many of these resulting in decisions. How many decisions do we make each day? Several internet sources suggest that adults make about 35,000 decisions per day (about 3,000 for young children). A study from Cornell (Wansink and Sobal, 2007) found that we make 226.7 decisions each day, just about food! In total, one can reasonably extrapolate to estimate that we each make about 1 million decisions per month!

Some decisions innately seem important, like those involving relationships, family, careers, education, children, parents, health, health insurance, money, living situations, diet, friends, vacations, major purchases, what to wear, and what to believe. Other decisions that may be classified as minor or trivial, don’t tend to invoke as many emotions, such as which cat food to buy, what TV show to watch; Cheerios or Cornflakes? As in the case of whether something is negatively stressful, whether a decision is major or minor, has less to do with an objective reality than our perception of that reality. In the case of decisions, it often involves the impact this decision will have on our future.

graphic stock with permission
Source: graphic stock with permission

The most common question that I’ve been asked by clients is “I’m having trouble deciding...”

A few common examples:

  • “Should I stay at my current job and make more money with little chance of promotion, or take a chance at a smaller company with less money, but greater chance of advancement?”
  • “Should I stay in this relationship, because it’s comfortable even though I’m not that happy, or break up and hope for something better?”
  • “Should I move to be closer to my parents as they’re getting older, or make arrangements for an elderly care facility?”
  • “Should I go back to school and get a degree in ??? and start a new career at my age or just keep doing what I’m familiar with?”
  • “Should I take a fair portion of my savings to go on this trip to Asia or keep saving my money for a potential future need?”

The questions are easy to come up with. The trickier part is how to think about a solution. How to systematically make a “wise decision.”

graphicStock with permission
Source: graphicStock with permission

Here are 8 important issues to consider when making decisions.

  1. Base decisions on currently available information. The future is unsure: There are no crystal balls and no way to accurately predict the future. Trying to do so will leave you frustrated and disappointed as anyone who has tried to predict the stock market will tell you. That being said, you can only base your decision on currently available information.

  2. This is not the final decision. The world and all that we know in it is constantly changing. While we may believe that this is the final decision about some issue, most decisions are rarely those involving birth, life, and death. We often tend to catastrophize. This decision will most likely lead to other “forks in the road” and opportunities for change. In other words, maintain a healthy perspective that even though it may not seem likely, this single decision will not affect humanity as we know it. Appreciate the power of serendipity and that things often have a way of working themselves out. That reflection should reduce the enormity of the situation and limit the stress and anxiety that would naturally follow.
  3. Use an objective lens: Look at the situation through an objective lens with the available information. Will staying in your current job, really mean no opportunity for advancement in the future? No, not really because other job offers will come along. Will breaking up this relationship, really mean that for sure you’ll be alone for New Year’s Eve? And if so, would that be the worst thing in the world to spend it with friends?? Would you really be destitute if you took a pay cut to start a new career or would it be a little more financially challenging? Don’t base your decision on the worst case scenario. Analyze the true probable impact and implications of this decision on your personal mission statement. Try to remove some of the emotional attachment.
  4. Values: What kind of life to you want to lead. What are your priorities in life? What do you truly value? As Stephen Covey used to say, establish value (or principle)-based goals. Don’t just take the popular path of least resistance. Do you value relationships, marriage, being a good parent, being healthy, friendship, material things? After focusing and assessing your values, does a decision one way or the other align with your principles? Your specific goals may change, but your values are deeply embedded principles. Tapping into this and bringing it into a conscious level often helps clarify which path to take.
    graphicStock with permission
    Source: graphicStock with permission
  5. Happiness: This seems like such an obvious factor to consider that it should almost go without saying. However, we often confuse material success and financial remunerations with happiness and the picture gets muddled. Focusing on living a purpose-filled life in which you are living passionately doing things you love will more likely bring about happiness than focusing on which job pays more. Yes, more money may bring you some happiness if you are now able to pay bills that you couldn’t in the past. However, if you are substituting freedom and family time for this extra money, the happiness will likely be short-lived.
  6. Intuition: Deep down inside, you may know what to do. It probably won’t seem like this at first, but when you get in touch with your inner self and remove all the clutter that is extraneous information, you may have a “gut” feeling of what is right for you. My coach, Emily Carman encourages her clients to visualize the outcome of the various decision pathways. Try them on for size. Using all of the factual knowledge that you have about the decisions, picture yourself going down each decision tree. Now the important part she stresses is to sit for a few moments without thinking and start feeling. How do each of the decisions affect you emotionally, spiritually and even physically? Do they bring a sense of comfort and calm or does one decision carry with it more trepidation or an ill feeling? Appreciate how often going with your gut is the right thing for you to do. Realize that this is not an impulsive decision. This is one based on visualization and truly getting in touch with your inner core and intuition. It also requires confidence in your ability to access this instinctive knowledge.
  7. Regret: This next factor I call the regret principle of decision-making. On the surface, it sounds like focusing on regret may be a negative way of looking at the world. However, it does in fact derive from a positive psychology view of the world. Let me explain. If you happen to believe and practice positive psychology and incorporate cognitive behavioral practices into your daily life, it may be very difficult to make some decisions based on what will make you happier. When you picture yourself going down either path, it may rather easy to see yourself being very happy with either decision. You are a positive, optimistic person and can easily see that you could be happy doing choice A or choice B. That’s what makes this a difficult decision. Deciding which one would make you a little happier? That’s tough. So after visualizing both decisions, think about what kinds of things you have the potential to regret if you are living life A versus life B. Time is one of our most precious commodities. We can never get it back. One of my goals in life is to live without regret. If I look back at my life, I have practically no regrets regarding things that I have done. My few regrets are regarding things that I did not do and chances that I did not take. Hospice patients on their death bed rarely regret not working harder, spending more time with family, taking vacations. Assuming, you will be essentially happy with either choice, does one decision involve missing out on something that would satisfy one of your values? Decision: (A) work a job for the summer to make extra spending money or (B) go with friends on an exotic vacation that you can barely afford. I’ll be happy if I have that extra money to buy a new car or pay for college – choice A would make me happy. I’ll be happy if I’m with my friends on this exotic destination. Happy either way. If I go on the trip, how much might I regret working during the school year or getting a loan to pay for the car? If I work for the summer, how much will I regret not having this experience and adventure with my friends? Years from now when I am financially secure and I’m looking at their photo albums, I can easily see myself saying, “I wish I had gone with you.” Avoid regret at all costs, if possible.
    graphicStock with permission
    Source: graphicStock with permission
  8. No bad decisions: As a competent, optimistic, intelligent person, in general, the more difficult the decision, the less important it is. In other words, you are probably fortunate that you have the opportunity to make this decision. Either outcome will be beneficial to you, either in terms of rewards or in the worst case scenario, life experiences.
graphicStock with permission
Source: graphicStock with permission
graphicStock with permission
Source: graphicStock with permission

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Neil Farber

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