How do we make decisions? And what is a decision anyway?
A decision is an intervention into possibility. Every day, as soon as we wake, we find ourselves with choices. it is possible the day will include just lying in bed. It is also possible it will involve some hard work. Or some play. All these things are possible. Our decisions narrow down those possibilities. Our lives are like fields, where we can nurture a number of different crops or flocks. But not everything can grow in the same place. We are like a farmer, choosing what to grow.
THE FUTURE IS IMPORTANT
‘Being present’ is very fashionable. And it’s a very important part of mindfulness. But this does not mean being blind to what the future might bring. When we make decisions, we are taking responsibility to look forward, and to use our knowledge of the world to consider what is likely.
We have three good tools with which to consider the future.
- We can keep in mind an expectation, a forecast if you like. We can consider what is likely, given our current trajectory. Well-run businesses have a running forecast, so that they can see how the future is likely to pan out.
- We can produce scenario analyses. In other words, we can construct clear pictures of possible alternative situations. Scenario analysis involves being able to contemplate more than one possible outcome, and test each one to see how it looks.
- We can daydream. This is a more creative way to look at the future, in which we can let our minds run a bit more free. Daydreams help us to see things which existing rational projections can’t see so easily.
HAVING PRIORITIES IS IMPORTANT
However much we can see into the future, it is useless without a sense of priorities. If we do not want to influence the future, then there is no point in making decisions – we may as well leave the universe to itself, and not think about anything.
Our priorities do not have to be perfect. They can be working priorities, liable to change. I know many anxious people who seek so much perfection that they can decide nothing. It is better for them to adopt some guidelines, and try them for a while. The human mind likes a little purpose, a little direction.
GUIDING THE SHIP
We can perhaps think of ourselves as boats on a journey across the sea. Firstly, we need to know something of where we are going – it helps to know the territory, to ‘see’ it in advance. Secondly, we need to know something of ourselves and our priorities, so that we can decide where we are headed.
If we are all knowledge and no priorities, then we will always be the victim of other people’s plans. If we are all priorities and no knowledge, then we will often act unwisely and fall short. If we have something of both, then we are fit for a journey.
LEARNING TO MAKE DECISIONS
Some of us are used to delegating decisions to other people. It can be a characteristic of anxiety and depression, that we ask others to decide for us. (Our cognitive power to see ahead, and our belief in our own priorities, are damaged, so this is not surprising.)
Start small. Choose something you would like to change, and begin your investigations. Do two things:
- Do some external research. How do other people solve the problem? What products are out there to help you? What would different outcomes look like? Ask around.
- Do some internal research. How do you feel about each option? What are your deeply-held values and wishes? What are your working priorities?
Then decide. If a big decision seems too much, divide it into smaller parts, until it seems manageable. If a year seems too long, decide for next month, or next week. There is always something you can decide about and work on.
We are all like farmers, and our lives are like fields. Our decisions determine what grows in those fields. Or, if you prefer, we are like captains of a ship, and our decisions determine the journey.
To make decisions, we can be mindful of two things:
- How the future will look under different possibilities
- Our own priorities
Our decisions, at first, don’t need to be grand or perfect. They can be small and imperfect. But, as we grow and develop, we all have the ability to change things, to make them a little better.