We all make 100,000,000 decisions a day.
Ok, that’s a totally random and unscientific number that I just made up, but you get the point.
With every sunrise, there are tons of little choices to make. For instance: What should I wear? Are these leftovers safe to eat? Should I approach and try to befriend this bear, or should I respect his dominance as the overlord of the forest and gtfo before he tears my face off?
And then, there are the big ones, the ones that have the power to alter the course of your life. Should I leave my job? Should I spend six months in the rain forest learning to be a shaman? Should I leave my husband/wife/partner, or stay? Should I go back to school? Should I move to British Columbia and become a fisherman/poet?
With big decisions like these, there’s always a lot of stuff to sift through in order to see the answer clearly. Doubts, possible outcomes, hopes, conflicting information, the opinions of others, emotions, etc., can end up creating an insane traffic jam in your head and leave you unable to think straight.
In the past year, I’ve had to make some tough choices. There were sleepless nights and questions of identity. For a while, I felt really lost, adrift in a sea of uncertainty.
I realized I had to come up with a solid strategy for making decisions, a good set of rules to come back to when I was really in doubt. So, like a total nerd, I spent time researching the subject. I read articles. I watched TED talks. I spoke to friends to see what they did. I also re-examined some of the choices I’d made in the past, looking at why I’d made them and what the outcomes had been.
In the end, I think I came up with a few good questions to ask yourself before making a big decision. Some of them are very similar, even overlapping, but in the end it’s worth taking a look at all of them before you make a really important move.
Examine your Motives
WHY are you doing this? Are you doing it because you truly want to, or because you feel it’s what other people think you should do?
We’re only human – it’s really tempting to do something just to get the approval of others, to have to that warm feeling of safety and acceptance. But that wears off, and you’ll be on your own again and living with your choices. I don’t mean this in a sad depressing way, but at the end of the day, it’s just you and yourself. The people who influenced you will not have to live in your skin.
Are you really going to be happy in law school, and in the career that follows? Or would you rather be traveling around Norway deciphering runes carved into ancient rock? Maybe the latter sounds impractical and crazy, and maybe people will question how viable a living that is, but if that’s where you want to be every day of your life, do it.
It’s also important to look at what is motivating any fears you have. If you have worries about doing something, look at what’s really behind them. Are they realistic? Are they caused by events in the past that don’t, when you really think about it, apply to the situation? Or are they legitimate, with a real foundation, signaling a true warning?
Sometimes fear is nothing but a mental construct, something to break through in order to move forward. But, it can also be a good thing, a warning or message from ourselves that tells us to steer clear of something. Take time to sit with your fear and think deeply about where it is really coming from.
Talk to the people who love you
Sure, too many opinions from others can overload you, and might lead to even more confusion when you’re trying to make the right choice. Sometimes, as I mentioned above, it’s just better to ignore people.
But talking to the people who really know you and have your best interests at heart can be invaluable. They can call you back to reality and help you see things the way they really are, instead of through the veil of worry or guilt or pressure you may have put up around yourself. They might see things through a different lens than you do and have a totally surprising perspective on things.
Return to your core values
What do you believe?
When you’re really in doubt about something, go back and look at what actually matters to you in life and think about how the choices before you align with that. Sometimes, just thinking about the things you truly find important will trigger a realization, even an epiphany about a situation.
You may see something with fresh eyes and think Nope, that’s not right for me.
Or, it could give you the courage to do the right thing, even if it’s something you’re scared to do.
What would your child-self have done?
Ok, so maybe this is kind of a weird one, but there have been times when it really helped me see things in a clearer light.
I think there’s a time in everyone’s life, somewhere right after becoming a conscious person and right before we start to feel self-conscious, that we are 100% ourselves. We’re these pure little spirits that haven’t been broken yet, lights that have just been lit. We know who we are and what we like and what we want. We’re not weighed down by guilt, embarrassment, past hurts. We’re just us, still covered in the shimmer of true Self that we came into the world with.
Go back and look at pictures of yourself when you were little. What did you love? What were you doing? What was really interesting to you? Did you still have a defiant light in your eyes? That Self is still there somewhere.
Did you love butterflies when you were little? Did you know their names and hang pictures of them on your walls? Were they all you wanted to learn about? That was a seed of who you are. It was true. So if you have the chance before you, quit that shitty job and go learn about butterflies.
What is the impact of your decision 10 years from now? 20? 30?
This really applies to the absolute biggest decisions, but I don’t think it hurts to consider it for the smaller ones, too.
Think about the life you want to be living years from now. Do you want to be a loved, respected doctor? Do you want to tend bees and sip iced tea on your porch? Be honest with yourself. Is this decision going to throw you off course, or keep you on it?
Talk to yourself like you would a friend
This is pretty similar to the whole “get advice from friends and family” thing, except it might come off as kind of insane, so you should probably do it in private.
Take yourself out of the situation for a minute. Try to distance yourself and think about what you would say to a friend who was trying to make this choice. If you try advising yourself as you would someone you care about, things might occur to you or sink in that otherwise might not have.
For example: Jimmy, I really think you don’t actually want to be a squirrel therapist, you’re just feeling the pressure from your family and friends to follow in the footsteps of your father. Go to culinary school instead, I think that’s what you really want in life. Trust your fatty heart and learn to make the perfect duck egg omelet.
Go with your gut
It’s hard to say where intuition really comes from. Is it God/Morgan Freeman trying to tell you something? Is it some primal warning system from our inner selves? Or is it from somewhere else?
Whatever the case may be, intuition is the ringing of truth. It might tell you not to go down that particular street at this particular time. Or It’ll tell you yes, take a chance and go to that job interview.
If a deal looks great on the surface, and it squares with everything you want, but something feels wrong…don’t do it.
If you wake up in the middle of the night and just know what the right thing to do is, even if it seems impractical or wrong to your normal, daytime mind, trust that inner voice.
Intuition is sometimes hard to recognize, and it can actually take practice to really cultivate it and let it guide you. If a feeling about something, a doubt or worry, comes and goes, then probably it’s nothing, just a fragment of thought, a natural pause, cold feet. But if the feeling comes back again and again, trust it. If you push away doubt and it returns over and over, listen to that. If you keep thinking you have to call your sister, stop what you’re doing and call her.
The more you listen to it, the stronger your intuition will get and the easier it will be to listen to it.
Bottom line, trust yourself
Ok so really, what does all this boil down to?
If you make choices that push you in the direction of who you truly are, you’ll never make a mistake.
Or, you can skip everything and just use this binary decision chart: