Many people have trouble making decisions. Some agonize endlessly, in a fruitless attempt to find “just the right” solution. Others, perhaps trying to avoid becoming like the first group, blindly follow their initial impulses, without reflecting upon the possible consequences of their actions. Then there are those who, convinced that any choice will lead inevitably to catastrophe, cannot make a decision at all.
Let’s face it: life sometimes hands us difficult decisions, ones we would prefer not to have to make. Unfortunately, we often don’t always have that choice; we are forced to choose, and not choosing is not an option. So how can we make our best decision in any given set of circumstances?
There are several things that can help. The first is to consider what makes a good decision. When I ask most people, they tell me something like, “How it turns out.” In other words, a positive outcome equals a good decision, while a negative outcome equals a bad one. I couldn’t disagree more. Since there is no way to accurately predict the future, the ultimate outcome depends upon many factors that are often not within our control. To me, a good decision is one that is well-made. That’s all. And while it is true that wise, well-made decisions tend to lead to better outcomes, positive results are certainly not guaranteed. Life is unpredictable at best.
So what is entailed in good decision-making? We have to start with emotional reflection. One of the most important functions of emotions is evaluation. They tell us whether something is good or bad, dangerous or friendly, and whether we are best moving toward it or scurrying away for safety. Therefore, a key element in a good decision-making process will always be to allow space for reflection on our emotional reactions to the various options at hand.
One of the ways I find best to reflect is to sit or lie quietly by myself with my eyes closed. I think about the decision I’m facing, and I imagine that I’ve chosen one of the available options. I let that decision sink in and try to register my emotional responses. Are they good? Bad? Mixed? How? What’s good or bad about them? Once I’ve sorted out my reactions, I do the same with the other options, until I’ve “lived” in all the different choices and walked down all the different paths, at least in my imagination. Then I try to feel my way into which one might be best. And sometimes it’s still very close, but at that point, I tend to trust that my gut feelings will tell me the best choice to make.
I say “best”, rather than “right,” because there may not be a perfect choice. In fact, there generally is not, or the decision would have been easy, and you would have made it long ago. One option will have certain costs and benefits, while another option will have different ones. If there are additional options, they will have their own plusses and minuses, ad infinitum.
To go a step farther, it is useful to remember that there is no path one can take that does not carry a price. That is because by going down one path, you did not go down any of the others. If you go into a restaurant and order the steak, you didn’t get the lobster, and if you order the lobster, you didn’t get the steak. Often there isn’t surf-and-turf on the menu. But even if there is, and you order that, you didn’t get the lamb chops or the duck a l’orange. And if, by some miracle, you could order and devour every single thing on the menu, you didn’t eat at the Thai restaurant around the corner or the deli down the street. All choices have a cost.
That last observation leads to another helpful approach to making a decision. In addition to “What do I want” you can ask yourself, “What price am I willing to pay.” Sometimes the benefit you gain is simply not worth the risk you would be taking or the amount you would have to lose.
As a last observation, I would strongly suggest that in the final analysis, it is impossible, no matter how hard you try and how good your decision-making process might be, to avoid making mistakes. None of us has a crystal ball, so we all must live with a certain degree of uncertainty. And if that triggers some anxiety, then that has to be tolerated as well. When I experience anxiety, I say to myself, “It’s only anxiety, and it’s natural, since I made a decision that involves some risk.” Then I accept that I’m anxious and go on with my life. Whatever happens then, I will handle it. And if the situation permits, I’ll make another choice.