Making decisions is often one of the toughest challenges we face as human beings. And yet having the ability to decide is one of our greatest causes to rejoice, since it proves we are more than mere automata controlled rigidly by inflexible physical laws.
This article offers some advice on a number of decision making techniques that can be employed when faced with such an opportunity. Just as there is no universal right decision that would apply to everyone in a certain situation, so there is no singular technique that applies under all circumstances.
We are each a unique and complex mix of values, drives and goals that are frequently uncorrelated, and sometimes conflicting. In making decisions we are essentially attempting to optimize our position in relation to these many factors. If we are fortunate, there will be a clear choice that benefits us on all counts. Life is rarely so simple, and decision-making is usually a case of finding the most favorable (or least unfavorable) compromise.
Decisions may be classed in two groups: those we elect to face, and those which are thrust upon us. An example of the former would be applying for a different job just to see if we get it, and then having to decide whether to accept in the event it is offered. The latter kind would be losing one's job and having to decide what comes next. In the first case to do nothing is an acceptable response, in the second it is not an option.
Some decisions have a limited (closed) set of outcomes (eg deciding whether to move), in others the possibilities are infinite (open, eg deciding where to move). For 'open' decisions with many possibilities the technique of 'brainstorming' is useful to identify and narrow down options. Sit down somewhere you won't be disturbed, relax, and have a wine or beer if it helps loosen your mind, record whatever flows into your head. Either at the end of the session or at another time shortly after, try to summarize your ideas, identifying those that seem most useful. If time permits, repeat the brainstorming once or twice more as different ideas can arise as a result of the subconscious continuing to work on the problem.
Unless you're faced with a split-second situation, decisions generally come with a certain timescale from when you become aware of the opportunity for choice and when you have to actually decide. Sometimes you're faced with a "no-brainer"; the choice is that obvious you don't need to waste time and energy thinking, so don't! In most cases there will need to be some evaluation.
Use the timescale that's available, but don't dwell on the matter 24/7 for the entire period. There's a lot to be said for "sleeping" on decisions, or just focusing on other stuff instead. Your subconscious will continue working behind the scenes. You may reach a conclusion inside the deadline; you'll know that's the case when it simply feels "right" and you have no desire/need to expend further effort on contemplation.
Should you literally "sleep" on a decision be sure to record and examine your dreams on the night(s) on which you do so. Dreams provide the subconscious a graphic means of making its concerns visible to the conscious mind.
Head or Heart?
It is said decisions are made with either the head or the heart. The head refers to our rational, logical, intellectual analytical faculty. While the heart refers to that inner knowing or feeling that A or B is the right path, the so-called X-factor! In Jungian psychology the head and heart relate to the thinking and feeling functions respectively. Though as individuals we may tend to favor one mode over the other for a given situation, to make decisions most effectively both have a role to play in the process.
The modern world is filled with the products of science, from the electric light, automobile, to cellular phones and the Internet. We live in a technological age created by the powers of thought. And yet even in this realm of the rational, religion and other Spiritual belief and practice continue to play a major role. The very pervasiveness of scientific discovery serves to remind us of the limits of rational analysis. Consider that successful, hard-headed businessmen such as Donald Trump often claim to be influenced by their "gut." Human beings are complex entities - physically, mentally and Spiritually. There is a level of understanding below which matters can be understood only at the intuitive level and cannot be analyzed, rationalized or verbalized. Depending on your point of view, this level delimits the consciously inaccessible realms of the subconscious, or our Spiritual essence or source.
Listening to your heart, or going with your gut, doesn't demand placing your faith in some mystical unseen force. The human mind is immensely powerful with our consciousness at any time being akin to the tiniest tip of a gigantic iceberg, the vast majority of its substance lurks unseen beneath the surface. The hidden subconscious is a vast store of both data and processing power. How often have you struggled to recall some detail unsuccessfully, only to have it pop into your head some time after? As soon as we become aware of the opportunity or need to make a decision our subconscious silently but surely starts work on the matter. Its conclusions are revealed to us through non-verbalized feeling.
The technique of alternative futures involves speculating upon what might happen for each available choice if it were followed. For each option try to visualize not just the most-likely scenario, but also the best- and worst-case scenarios. As far as possible try to estimate the likelihood of each outcome. How do you feel about each?
Your decision will be influenced by the best best-case and most-likely outcomes, but also by the avoidance of unacceptable worst-case choices. Your unique personality comes into play here. How do you feel about this decision? Is your priority to minimize the risk of damage, or are you prepared to take risks and shoot for the stars.
It's commonly said two heads are better than one, a trouble shared is a trouble halved... Whether or not you take advice on a decision depends both on the decision and your personality (ie the degree with which you want to share your life with others, and are fortunate enough to have those you trust sufficiently to do so). If you do take advice, it's wise to take that advice from at least two, and ideally more, people with differing viewpoints. That way you avoid bias. Don't limit your advisors to those most likely to agree with you, try to solicit the opinions of a "devil's advocate". Ultimately remember though, taking advice is not, and should not be, abdication of responsibility. The opinion of others is a factor you may choose to weigh in your decision making process, it doesn't however remove the need for that process.
Letting God Decide
This is often employed a means of abdicating responsibility. In granting us free will God (in whatever form you subscribe to) has handed power to you. As such you are expected to make your own decisions employing both rationalization and intuition.
However, in some cases where, no matter how hard you try, you really cannot reach a definite conclusion you may resort to "fate", either by doing nothing and seeing what happens, or consciously delegating to some unseen hand by tossing a coin, rolling a dice, or something a little more meaningful such as consulting your horoscope or the I-Ching. In such cases test your feelings about the outcome, a distinct positive or negative reaction could indicate the right path.
The Paralysis of Fear
We are told that a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car is often frozen in fear, even though it has plenty of time to flee to safety. Decisions can have similar effects on humans. We are so afraid of getting it wrong we are unable to decide one way or another. But remember the adage: "Today is the tomorrow we worried about yesterday." In other words, however bad stuff might seem, we will meet it, pass it, and find that what lies beyond isn't nearly as bad as we imagined. We are remarkably durable creatures, and no matter how traumatic the experience we have the ability to quickly recover our normal demeanor.
Or perhaps our inability to choose is driven by the Buridan's ass paradox. This tells of an ass standing midway between food and water unable to make a rational decision as to whether to eat or drink first. Unless the ass decides one way or another, even by the toss of a coin, its extinction is certain.
The Potential Danger of Doing Nothing
Those that find it hard to make decisions often avoid the hardship by simply choosing to do nothing. In actuality the "do nothing" option is just that, an option exercised at the expense of other, more active, options.
There's nothing wrong in doing nothing, indeed in many cases it can be the best choice, particularly where the more active options fail to convince you of their merit. However, the important point in choosing to do nothing is recognizing it as a choice in its own right and with its own implications, ie the potential opportunity cost of abandoned alternatives.
A Decision-Making Framework
When faced with a decision, begin by making a rational analysis. List the pros and cons of each path, scoring and/or ranking each in terms of importance. If time permits carry out the exercise at least twice to eliminate bias of the moment. If it helps, draw a mind map, a visual diagram exploring the various options and implications and possible outcomes of each.
Alternatively make a list of key factors arranged hierarchically. Using a computer for these analyses allows you to edit and re-edit with ease. The simplest way to represent hierarchy is to indent subordinate terms in your favorite word processor.
But also weigh this rational analysis against your feelings; you'll usually find one way feels more comfortable than the other(s). In most cases head and heart will hopefully coincide, otherwise you'll need to give the casting vote to your primary faculty.
There are no inherently right/wrong decisions. Whatever path you choose will bring its own experiences, and ultimately all experience is positive because all experience serves as our teacher.
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