What do you do when someone asks for advice about a decision they are making?
Do you just say what you would do in their situation? Or do you tell them the process that you would use in that situation? Or do you throw them some questions that would help them arrive at a conclusion?
Well, this week I was asked for some advice by a student and at first I didn’t know what to say. But by the end of our chat, I had done all three of the above. It got me thinking…
Decision making is such a big part of life, but do we ever get “taught” about it?
If we study at university, we might learn about risk-reward or cost-benefit analysis, but does that help you with everyday decisions? For me, it didn’t.
In fact, sometimes the more you know, the harder it is to make decisions.
I didn’t realise the extent that “decision making” has been studied and discussed until I looked into it this week. There are so many books about it (many are business orientated) and it seems to be a massive area of psychology as well as philosophy.
If I wanted to, it seems I could study it for a life-time. And, if I did, it seems I wouldn’t arrive at a conclusion about how to make decisions.
But surely there are some practical ideas to help us make decisions?
Well, here’s some of my thoughts…
1) Know What You Really Want
I think this is the most important thing to sort out in your mind. And it’s the hardest thing to sort out. Because to know what you really want, you need to know yourself really well. And many of us don’t know ourselves very well.
It’s easy to get swept along with the rat race of life and not know who you are or where you’re going.
Unfortunately, for many of us it’s not until we hit a brick wall that we choose to, or are forced to, take time out to have a good look at ourselves and sort out our priorities in life. But that’s how some people make a seemingly terrible situation into a beneficial one – they see hitting rock bottom as a good thing in hindsight because it was the beginning of their new life aligned to their values.
If you know what you value in life, then you can align your decisions with these values and be proud that you lived your life based on what you believed in.
So for those tough decisions in life, if you can narrow the options down to values instead of surface-level details, it can help immensely.
2) Principle Of Most Regret versus Principle Of Most To Gain
It is in our nature to fear the unknown. So it’s no surprise that we make decisions based on fear.
For example, we fear making the “wrong” decision that we will regret.
A strategy I’ve used to help me make decisions has been to ask myself, “What am I likely to regret the most?”
This question has made me think through the possible scenarios and think about the worst case scenario. In that way, I’ve tried to avoid the worst case scenario and make a decision that I can live with.
A different strategy is to focus on the potential benefits. Be a risk-taker.
Many of life’s great experiences are only possible when we choose to take a risk.
No strategy is perfect for everyone all of the time. It depends on your values and the situation. For some situations, overlooking risks could be a “mistake”. For other situations, overlooking potential benefits could be a “mistake”.
So how do you know when to use what strategy? That’s what makes a decision tough. And that’s why knowing yourself and what you really value is important. Some questions to ponder…
- Do you believe that life is about accumulating as many experiences as possible? In other words, is one person’s life better than another because they got to experience more things?
- Do you believe that avoiding pain is more important than seeking pleasure? In other words, if experiencing extreme pleasure could come at a cost of experiencing extreme pain, is that a cost you are prepared to live with, or would you prefer to avoid the extreme pain?
- Do you place society’s needs above your own? In other words, are you prepared to suffer for the sake of a bigger meaning?
Knowing your answers to these questions helps you to make the tough decisions in life because you can look at your options with your values in mind.
3) Ask Yourself, “Is There Really A BEST Option?”
I’ve spent too much of my life stressing about making the “best” decision.
When I have had lots of choices, I have often fallen into the trap of not being satisfied with my choice. Even if I chose a “good” option, I would always think that perhaps another choice could’ve been better. And if I chose a “bad” option, the only person to blame was me.
And sometimes I haven’t made a decision at all because I didn’t want to restrict my options, not realising that the point of having options is to have options! In other words, there’s no advantage in having options if you’re never going to choose one of them.
I didn’t feel I had enough information yet, not realising that I would never have enough information. Even if I had a magic looking glass that would tell me how my life would unfold, I wouldn’t be able to choose the “best” option. Why?
Because there is no best option – only different experiences. Different experiences are just that – different. One is not necessarily better than the rest.
So instead of agonising over decisions searching for the “best” decision, often it is “best” to just make a decision and decide to make the most of it.
Not making a decision is a decision.
Now, as I said earlier, there is heaps of information and ideas to explore when it comes to decision making. And I’ve got lots to learn. But some of the most important lessons I’ve learnt so far about decision making are…
“Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” ~ Dalai Lama
“Sometimes you make the right decision; sometimes you make the decision right.” ~ Dr Phil
And some final thoughts to ponder about decision making…
- Do you believe we only get one shot at life? If you do, you might place a huge pressure on yourself to get it right the first time, because you know you don’t get a second chance. Or do you believe in reincarnation? If you do, you might consider this life to be a learning experience and feel at peace with your choices.
- Do you believe in a God that decided to create humans and decided to give them free choice? Or do you believe in a God that is in control of everything, which means we are simply puppets on a string? Or do you believe in “science” and believe the universe somehow created itself with its fundamental “rules” and that we are bundles of organised “energy” and “mass” (whatever they are?) that somehow developed self-awareness? If so, do you believe that because we have self-awareness we have self-control? In other words, do we have free-will or are we just like everything else in the universe and are fully automatic (i.e. clumps of energy and mass that obey the rules of the universe)?
- Is consciousness the sensation of thoughts happening (i.e. the observer) or is consciousness the driver of thoughts (i.e. the maker)?
Well, that’s kept me entertained for a while. Now, it’s time for some food – what shall I eat? Decisions, decisions!