Should we move to a country X or stay here a little longer? Should I do changes that allow me to spend more time with the kids? Should I start my own business? Should we try to have a child? …
Big life decisions evoke big emotions. They make us stop and think. Decision making is especially challenging when the choice affects many people. For example, if you decide to move to another country with your family, it doesn’t only change your own life but also your partner’s and kids’ lives – and on many levels. The move also has an impact on your relatives, friends and other people in your social circle. So, it’s no wonder if one freezes in front of the options and possible outcomes!
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
KNOWING YOUR ‘WHY’ CAN HELP YOU TO KNOW YOUR ‘WHAT’ AND ‘HOW’
What is your why? Knowing your core values makes the decision making much easier, as you can see if the choice you are about to make reflects the things that are important to you. Let’s say, for example, that one of your top values is environment friendliness and you’re trying to make a decision about a new job. If the company that is offering work values nature and acts in sustainable ways, you may more likely be happy there compared to some another place that doesn’t share your value. Or if adventure is a value of yours, moving to an exotic place with travel possibilities can be just the thing for you. With defined values you know that, yes – there are endless options out there, but only some of them are for you because they go in line with your values. Think what you want instead of what (you think) you should want.
ASK ADVICE FROM THE WISE
Sometimes it’s good to ask advice from thinkers. For example, the first formulation of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” can often be a useful principle but it may not work for unique situations like whether one should move to a certain country. Deepak Chopra advises that “The real key is to live in an environment where the mind feels free to choose the right thing instead of being compelled by habit and inertia to choose the wrong thing.”
Science can help us to understand our decision making and risk taking. For instance, the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is full of studies of these topics. One example there is the Gorilla study about selective attention that demonstrates how we may not notice the obvious. In his book Kahneman describes how we use our “automatic system” and “effortful system” in decision making, and that becoming aware and accepting the things affecting our thinking and behaviour can help us. Already remembering some psychological phenomena can be useful. “…labels such as ‘anchoring effects,’ ‘narrow framing‘ […] bring together in memory everything we know about a bias, its causes, its effects, and what can be done about it.” he writes.
One example in Kahneman’s book is about moving to another place, in this case about moving to California: “…living in California is like having ten toes: nice, but not something one thinks much about. Thoughts of any aspect of life are more likely to be salient if a contrasting alternative is highly available. […] People who recently moved to California will respond differently. Consider an enterprising soul who moved from Ohio to seek happiness in a better climate. For a few years following the move, a question about his satisfaction with life will probably remind him of the move and also evoke thoughts of the contrasting climates in the two states. The comparison will surely favor California, and the attention to that aspect of life may distort its true weight in experience. However, the focusing illusion can also bring comfort. Whether or not the individual is actually happier after the move, he will report himself happier, because thoughts of the climate will make him believe that he is. The focusing illusion can cause people to be wrong about their present state of well-being as well as about the happiness of others, and about their own happiness in the future.”
LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF INTUITION (HEART?), REASON (BRAIN?) AND FEAR (OUR INNER ANIMAL?)
In the book Yes Yes Hell No: The Little Book for Making Big Decisions, Brian Whetten explains that “In terms of making Big Decisions (and sometimes even small ones), the three most important voices to discern are the voice of fear, the voice of reason, and the voice of intuition. […] When you are thinking a big decision, you need to listen carefully which of the voices is speaking.” Whetten encourages to look if the choice evokes these internal responses:
“Yes!”, says your Intuition.
“Yes!” confirms the Reason.
“Hell No!” screams the Fear.
“Whenever your three voices say, Yes Yes Hell No! – go forward. You’re making a great decision. You’re on your soul’s path.”, he writes.
“Sometimes, the voice of reason says, ‘Go forward,’ but the voice of intuition disagrees. It’s not that it says no; it just doesn’t light up. […] When this happens, you’ve hit a Wall, and your best bet is to look for other options. […]” He explains that many times the Fear has the loudest voice and the intuition can be the most difficult voice to hear and the hardest voice to trust. “Of the three voices, the voice of intuition is the surest guide to your highest good. It’s the best advocate for your enlightened self-interest. It’s a compass needle pointing directly toward your greatest joy.”
To make things less simple, Kahneman then again in his book says quite the opposite about intuition: “[…] cognitive illusions are generally more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions. The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision.”
SO HOW CAN YOU KNOW WHICH VOICE IS TALKING?
In her video, Marie Forleo answers to a question “How can you tell if the anxiety you’re feeling over a decision is an intuitive “no” or a sign of a comfort zone you need to break through?” that you can do these four tests:
1. A physical test
When you are thinking about the decision, ask and listen: Do I feel expansive or contracted? Pay attention to your inner sensations. If inside you notice feeling lighter, brighter, bigger or moving forward – expansive – then it’s more an intuitive ‘yes’ than a ‘no’.
2. Worst-case scenario and can you deal with it
Ask yourself: What is the very worst thing that could happen with this decision? How would you specifically deal with it (emotionally, financially etc.)? Write down also exact steps how to get back on your feet if this scenario would come true. Are you still willing to take the risk?
3 Best-case scenario
Think and write down the possible positive things and payoffs that the decision would bring.
4. ‘Work it’ test
“Clarity comes from engagement, not thought.” reminds Forleo. Test your decision by doing a small-scale experiment. For example, rent an apartment from the place that you are considering moving or otherwise immerse yourself in the place’s culture, do an internship, take classes etc.
THE WIKIHOW APPROACH
Wikihow has a comprehensive list of advice for making a decision. The steps are briefly these:
Understanding the Source of Your Fear
1. Write about your fears.
2. Identify the worst-case scenario.
3. Consider whether the decision you make will be permanent.
4. Talk to a friend or family member.
Considering the Decision
1. Stay calm.
2. Get as much information as possible.
3. Use the “five whys” technique to understand the problem.
4. Think about who’s affected.
5. List all of your options.
6. Make a spreadsheet to weigh the potential benefits and losses of your decisions.
7. Let the space between thoughts to arise.
8. Learn to distinguish between an impulse and intelligent decision.
Making the Decision
1. Advise yourself as if you were a friend.
2. Play devil’s advocate.
3. Consider whether you’re feeling guilty.
4. Think about the future.
5. Trust your instincts.
6. Have a backup plan.
7. Make a choice.
And if all the techniques and advice seem too much, or after trying them you still don’t know what to do, of course you can always make a decision by flipping a coin!
“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“IN THE END… We only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have,and the decisions we waited too long to make.”