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How to Make the Right Choice

How to Make the Right Choice

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.

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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.

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Analyze outcomes

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.

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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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Last Updated on June 18, 2019

15 Ways to Cultivate Continuous Learning for a Sharper Brain

15 Ways to Cultivate Continuous Learning for a Sharper Brain

Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

Here are some tips for installing the habit of contiuous learning:

1. Always have a book

It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

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3. Get More Intellectual Friends

Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

4. Guided Thinking

Albert Einstein once said,

“Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

5. Put it Into Practice

Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

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6. Teach Others

You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

7. Clean Your Input

Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

8. Learn in Groups

Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

9. Unlearn Assumptions

You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

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Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

11. Start a Project

Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

12. Follow Your Intuition

Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

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13. The Morning Fifteen

Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

14. Reap the Rewards

Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

15 .Make Learning a Priority

Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

In fact, you can train your brain to crave lifelong learning! Here’s how to become a lifelong learner:

How to Train Your Brain to Crave Lifelong Learning (And Why It’s Good)

More Resources About Continuous Learning

Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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