Oh that pesky thing all of us have to do every hour of every day of every week. Year in and year out. Decision making. Do I say yes to the tea date with a friend or go to that new yoga class I’ve been eyeing? Do I take the job offer with more stability or the opportunity to express my creativity? Do I bring up that fight I had with my partner last week or do I just move on and stick with what’s happening with us in the present? Do I take a walk with my hour of free time, or do I make progress toward that deadline? Decisions, decisions. In our fast paced, modern, and–for the readers of this blog–Western world, the choices are seemingly endless and often confusing. We could all use a little help to make sure we’re making the best decisions possible, and on a regular basis.
So how do we ultimately decide what to do? How do we know our decisions are right for us?
I find it helps to understand first what typically gets in the way when we’re struggling to make a decision. It most often comes down to 4 different barriers.
Obstacles to Decision Making
- Your mind is giving you all the reasons you “should” or shouldn’t do something. Our minds are reason-giving machines and sometimes they push us around and “hook” us into acting ineffectively or unlike the kind of person we really want to be.
- You have too many goals! Or your goal was too big or rigid, and you got overwhelmed. Or your goals exceed your resources (you lacked the time, money, health, facilities, skills, or support necessary to follow through).
- You wanted to avoid discomfort. Because making decisions always includes a little bit of discomfort and it can be hard to make room for anxiety, frustration, fear, or failure.
- You forgot or lost touch with what matters most to you. You got removed from your values. You focused too much on making the “right” decision versus aligning your decision with your internal compass.
So how do we address these barriers? How can we glide over the normal hurdles that show up in the decision making process and proceed forward with confidence? I could write a blog post on each of these issues–actually I could spend a whole week with you helping you learn how to manage these challenges with finesse (i.e., want to go on a Luminary Retreat together?!) but here are my down ‘n’ dirty, go-to strategies for making good decisions.
Become a Decision-Making Ninja
- Get clear on what matters most to you. The kind of person you want to be. The ways you want to behave and that make your life better. Honesty. Compassion. Presence. Integrity. Kindness. Reliability. And let those characteristics guide your choices. Values are like a compass. A compass gives you direction and confirms that you’re headed in the right direction when you’re traveling through unknown territory. Our values do the same for the journey of life. We can use them to choose the direction in which we want to move and to keep us on track as we go.
- Accept discomfort as a normal part of making decisions. It’s a very rare decision that includes no difficult emotions or challenging thoughts. The act of making a decision means you’re saying yes to one thing, and saying no to something else. Saying no and letting go can be uncomfortable! So get good at naming your feelings, observing them, making room for them, breathing through them, and allowing them to be there. You can still make a good decision even if you don’t feel good all the time. As long as it’s values aligned, you’re moving toward something that matters and that will ultimately make your life richer, fuller, and more meaningful.
- Set smart, and realistic goals. Get specific about the actions you will take–make sure the steps are supported, reasonable, and meaningful to you. Stay flexible and allow your plan to adapt according to the changes you encounter along the way. Support your goals with accountability, resources, and time. Ask yourself: “What’s the smallest, tiniest, simplest step I can take in the next 24 hours that will take me a little bit further in the direction I ultimately want to go in?” Every little step you take toward your goals, no matter how tiny, is a valid and meaningful part of the journey.
- Develop strong mindfulness skills so you can notice the habits, stories, and reason-making strategies your mind produces on a continual basis. Learn how to “unhook” from the difficult thoughts that keep you stuck or move you away from the kind of person you want to be or the kind of life you want to live (e.g., “I’ll fail. It’s too hard. I’ll do it later. I’m too weak. I can’t do it.”). Develop a relationship with your mind that allows you to be present and observe when you’re getting pushed around by your thoughts, open up to the experience even if it’s uncomfortable, and then ultimately take action to do what matters most.
The more often you practice these skills, the more natural it will feel to actually make tough decisions, believe in the direction you’re headed, and trust yourself to do what matters, when it matters. Shine brighter and let your decisions fuel you forward to take better care of yourself and those around you. Because we truly need YOU and the unique things only YOU bring to our world.
P.S. Many of the concepts in this blog post come from an approach to behavior change called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I train with two incredible luminaries in this field–Dr. Russ Harris and Dr. Robyn Wassler.