Which job should you take? What car should you buy? Should you ask him to marry you? Are you ready for another baby? Is this house right for you, or should you keep looking before you make an offer?
Life is full of hard choices, and the bigger they are and the more options we have, the harder they get.
As it happens, our brains are fairly binary. They can react very quickly when presented with two options, especially when one’s clearly better. Stand here and drown in the rising waters or jump onto that big rock and be safe? Easy choice.
When presented with more options, though, we choke up. Jump onto the rock or climb the tree? We don’t know which is clearly better, and research shows that most people will not choose at all when presented with several equally good options.
Practice, experience, and rules of thumbs can help us to make those split-second decisions (for example, “When in doubt, go left” has done pretty well for me so far). Fortunately we don’t normally face immediate, do-or-die decisions – we usually have the luxury of working through a decision.
Getting Past Pros and Cons
The old chestnut of decision-making is the list of pros and cons. You make two columns on a piece of paper and write down all the positive things that will come of making a choice in one column and all the negative things in the other. In the end, the side with the most entries wins.
But this strategy doesn’t take into account the different weight that each positive or negative might have. If one of your pros is “will make a million dollars” and one of your cons is “might get a hangnail”, they don’t exactly cancel each other out.
Some people counter this problem by assigning point values to each item in their list. A huge income might be worth +20 points, while a tiny risk might be only –1. This helps make a more realistic assessment of your options.
But pros and cons aren’t always apparent or obvious, and the whole list-making process doesn’t sit well with many people – especially impulsive, “seat-of-the-pants” who might feel unnaturally hampered by the formality of the pro and con list.
Here are some other strategies for making big decisions. Not all of them will work for every person or for every decision, but they all have something to offer to help you clarify your thinking and avoid “decision paralysis” while the water rises around you.
Working through a big decision can give us a kind of tunnel vision, where we get so focused on the immediate consequences of the decision at hand that we don’t think about the eventual outcomes we expect or desire.
When making a choice, then, it pays to take some time to consider the outcome you expect. Consider each option and ask the following questions:
- What is the probable outcome of this choice?
- What outcomes are highly unlikely?
- What are the likely outcomes of not choosing this one?
- What would be the outcome of doing the exact opposite?
Thinking in terms of long-term outcomes – and broadening your thinking to include negative outcomes – can help you find clarity and direction while facing your big decision.
Ask why – five times
The Five Whys are a problem-solving technique invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. When something goes wrong, you ask “why?” five times. By asking why something failed, over and over, you eventually get to the root cause.
Why did my car break down? A spark plug failed. Why? It was fouled. Why? I didn’t get a tune-up. Why? I was too busy playing GTA4. Why? Because I’m miserable and lonely and the people in the game are the only ones that really love me.
See? Your car broke down because you’re a sociopath.
Although developed as a problem-solving technique, the Five Whys can also help you determine whether a choice you’re considering is in line with your core values. For instance:
Why should I take this job? It pays well and offers me a chance to grow. Why is that important? Because I want to build a career and not just have a string of meaningless jobs. Why? Because I want my life to have meaning. Why? So I can be happy. Why? Because that’s what’s important in life.
Notice that you sometimes have to change how you’ ask “why” to keep the questions focused inward rather than outward to irrelevant external factors. It wouldn’t do any good to ask “Why does this job pay well and offer me a chance to grow” since the important thing is that it does, not why it does.
Follow your instincts
Research shows that people who make decisions quickly, even when lacking information, tend to be more satisfied with their decisions than people who research and carefully weight their options. Some of this difference is simply in the lower level of stress the decision created, but much of it comes from the very way our brains work.
The conscious mind can only hold between 5 and 9 distinct thoughts at any given mind. That means that any complex problem with more than (on average) 7 factors is going to overflow the conscious mind’s ability to function effectively – leading to poor choices.
Our unconscious, however, is much better at juggling and working through complex problems. People who “go with their gut” are actually trusting the work their unconscious mind has already done, rather than second-guessing it and relying on their conscious mind’s much more limited ability to deal with complex situations.
The Choice is Yours
Whatever process you use to arrive at your decision, your satisfaction with your decision will depend largely on whether you claim ownership of your choices. If you feel pressured into a choice or not in control of the conditions, you’ll find even positive outcomes colored negatively. On the other hand, taking full responsibility for your choices can make even failure feel like a success – you’ll know you did your best and you’ll have gained valuable experience for nest time.
What strategies do you use? I know I’ve left out a lot of sound techniques — share your own decision-making strategies in the comments.
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