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How Not to Screw Up Your Decision Making

How Not to Screw Up Your Decision Making

You have a problem, but you’re indecisive. You can’t even buy a pair of jeans without agonizing—should you get the skinny, regular, or boot cut? Should you get faded or colored? Maybe you want the ones with the holes, or maybe not? Should you do low rider or high waist?

You’re driving yourself crazy, not to mention everyone else around you. Decision-making shouldn’t have to be that difficult, so if you’re ready to say goodbye to the “eenie, meenie, miney, moe” mentality you’ve allowed yourself to resort to, here are some concrete dos and don’ts you’ll want to pay attention to in order to make a solid decision.

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decision making

    DO

    Relax. If you’re stressed, you’re more likely to overlook something important. When you’re relaxed, you can think clearly, weigh your options and make a better choice. Make sure you’re on your “A” game when you make a call, and learn to relax by using deep breathing, muscle relaxation techniques and exercise.

    DON’T

    Be impulsive—making a quick decision is never the way to go. Weigh your options, and think things through, since impulsiveness leaves too much room for mistakes. If you have a general tendency toward being impulsive, take note of it and be intentional about slowing down and stilling your mind. Remember, you can’t change what you don’t notice.

    DO

    Consider all the options. This is the old pros and cons approach: if you want to take the old-fashioned approach, get a pen and paper and list all the pros and cons, or, if you like a more high tech approach, get the Great Decisions app on iTunes for six bucks: it will help you analyze your options.

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    DON’T

    Make a decision under pressure. Pressures can come in subtle forms, so watch out for suggestions like this from well-meaning people:

    • I need a decision by the end of the week
    • Time’s running out
    • If you don’t do this, someone else will 

    DO

    Seek wise counsel: this means consulting those whose opinions you value, or those who have faced similar circumstances. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, and be willing to listen.

    DON’T

    Over-analyze. This is the part where you agonize needlessly over your decision. Once you make the call, have confidence in the fact that you did your research, thought things through and trusted your instincts. Then chill out.

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    DO

    Trust that even if you blow it, you’ll learn from your mistakes—growth happens when we’re challenged, not when we coast through life. Ask yourself “what’s the worst that could happen if I make a wrong decision?”

    DON’T

    Think you know it all, as that can lead to disaster. Adopt a humble attitude and a teachable spirit. Learning from others can provide you with valuable information to augment your decision making process.

    DO

    Have an alternative plan. Remember that things don’t always go smoothly in life, and even our best attempts to make wise decisions can backfire through extenuating circumstances that are no fault of our own. Plan for obstacles, and learn to be flexible.

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    At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee that all your decisions will be home runs. However, if you’ve taken time and followed the steps outlined above, you can rest assured that you’ve done all you can to leave your “ennie, mennie, miney moe” strategy behind you.

    The more you practice making small decisions, the better you’ll become when it’s time to make the tough ones. Personal growth and development will be a rewarding part of the process—now go get those jeans!

    Back at You: What do you find is the most difficult thing about making a decision?

    Featured photo credit: Path by the beach via Shutterstock

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    Rita Schulte LPC

    Licensed Professional Counselor

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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