Making Decisions That Stick

How many times have you faced a tough decision and asked yourself, “What should I do?” Or maybe, “What’s the right decision?”

Erin and I receive emails of this nature every day. The subjects vary from relationship issues (should I leave my current partner?) to career choices (should I quit my job to do what makes me happy?) to living arrangements (should I move to another city?). Despite these variations the underlying theme is the same. People want to make intelligent decisions and struggle with finding the right amount of clarity.

The challenge of choice points

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve racked my brain trying to gain clarity about a significant choice point. I’d spend hours analyzing various facets of a decision because I wanted to make the most intelligent choice I could. Then when I thought I finally had the best answer, I froze when I tried to move forward on it. Even though my logic said “OK,” the decision still didn’t feel quite right for some reason. Usually I could never reach the holy grail of perfect clarity.

After running this pattern an embarrassing number of times, I took a step back and began questioning the pattern itself. I wondered if the process of asking and answering, “What should I do?” was in fact a trap of sorts.

Words like “right” and “should” imply the existence of an optimal or at least near-optimal solution among the various alternatives. Life isn’t black and white, but we can certainly imagine that one outcome will be at least slightly better than the others, don’t we? For example, if you ask yourself, “Should I quit my job?” you wonder which will put you in a better life position: quitting or staying. “Better” is a subjective term, but if one option left you homeless and the other option wealthy, all else being equal, you’d be inclined to define the wealthier outcome as better.

Now it seems logical that a process of examining alternatives, projecting likely outcomes, comparing those outcomes, and making an informed decision should be fairly effective, shouldn’t it? But in practice this pattern has failed me again and again. And the more sophisticated I try to be in using it, the bigger it flops. I can use this process to produce a great-looking plan that would cause you to marvel at its depth of analysis, but you’d never see my real-world implementation follow the plan.

When a solution is not a solution

What’s going on? Why does this seemingly logical process fail me so often? Am I just a bad implementer? I explored that possibility, but I soon found another way of looking at this process that led me to a different conclusion.

I stepped back and asked myself, “If there was something entirely wrong with this problem-solving approach, what would it be?” I realized that if this approach was wrong, the most likely culprit would be the assumption that the quality of my life would depend on the particular branch of the decision tree I opted to follow. In other words I was assuming that my decision would affect the ongoing quality of my life experience.

As soon as I reached this point, I instantly realize that I had indeed fallen into a trap… and a very insidious one at that.

Let me ‘splain…

Let’s say I have to make a choice between two alternatives: A and B. My goal is to make the more optimal choice. But what is optimal? How do I define the right choice? What are the criteria for comparing one choice vs. another?

My hidden assumption was that the right choice was whichever one made me happiest. I could figure out how each decision would affect the various metrics of my life (money, health, etc.), but ultimately my personal choices were a matter of optimizing my happiness.

And that was the trap. I assumed that my outcomes in life were the source of my happiness, and that was a big mistake. That’s why this process failed me so completely. There is no correct decision if I use happiness as the criteria. And that’s because once you reach a certain level of conscious development, you gradually de-couple your happiness from external events. You loosen your attachment to circumstances and learn to feel good regardless of what happens. So instead of getting happiness from circumstances, you bring happiness to circumstances.

Another part of the trap is that I assumed that if I made a suboptimal choice, it would doom me to a lower level of happiness than if I’d made the right choice. That’s a very disempowering belief. The truth is that you always have power in the present moment — in fact, that’s the only place you do have power. So no matter how big any particular decision seems, the truth is that every moment is a process of decision-making. There really is no wrong path, no fatal decision that will totally disempower you. You can always choose again.

In practical terms this means that you can quit your job to start your own business, and if you don’t like it, you can find a new job, maybe even return to your old job. You can try a new diet and then switch back to your old way of eating. You can move to a new city and then move back to your old one. You may even leave your marriage and later reunite with a sense of deeper commitment — in fact, there’s a great book about controlled separation called Should I Stay or Go? that you should definitely read if you’re having doubts about a committed relationship you’re in. The truth is that many life decisions have an undo button.

What do you want to experience now?

Instead of asking questions like, “What should I do?” or “What’s the right decision?” consider asking, “What do I want to experience now?”

Life is an ever-unfolding experience, not a collection of right and wrong (or optimal and suboptimal) decisions. When you focus on the experience a decision will bring you, you’ll stop seeing life as either-or and begin seeing it as and.

For example, if you’re considering starting your own business, realize you don’t have to commit to it for the rest of your life. You can run a business or work a certain job for a while just for the experience, and you’re free to switch to something else whenever you want.

At age 23 I started my game development business. Designing and programming my own games was a dream of mine since I was 10 years old, so starting that business was truly a dream come true. But even then I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. However, it was something I wanted to experience at the time, and it truly enriched me. I’m really glad I did it — it feels incredible to have written and released several of my own games. But at the age of 33, I was ready for a different experience, so I switched from game development to personal development as my primary career. And this wasn’t a matter of right or wrong. I was simply ready for the experience of running a personal development business. And even though I can easily imagine doing this for the rest of my life, I remain open to the possibility that I can stop at any time and make a different decision if I choose to experience something else.

In terms of relationships, there have been times where I’ve made a new friend and really enjoyed spending time with that person, but eventually we drifted apart. I still cherish those relationships. A relationship doesn’t have to be permanent for it to have value. Nor does a career, a diet, a home, etc. Your human life won’t be permanent either, but it still holds value for you, and that value lies in your ever-unfolding experience.

Easier decision-making

I found it much easier to gain clarity about a decision when I began asking, “Which option do I want to experience?” This has been especially helpful to me in business. Previously I had a tendency to want to maximize and optimize various metrics, but often that would lead me to a situation I didn’t really want to experience. So even after I’d made such a decision, I’d resist it because I knew on some level it wasn’t right for me. But when I started making decisions that would enrich my experience of life, such as by helping me grow, I could implement them far more easily.

For example, recently I was offered the chance to do a full-day presentation on blogging to the Las Vegas National Speakers Association, of which I’m a member. I’ve never done a full-day presentation on this topic before, so this would involve a lot of prep work for me. NSA events don’t pay anything, so I’d be doing this for free, and I don’t have any products to sell. I’d also be speaking to an audience of professional speakers.

Initially I fell into the pattern of my old model, so I asked myself, “Should I agree to speak at this event?” or “Would it be a good idea to accept this engagement?” The logical answer was a fairly easy no. I’ll spare you the details, but essentially I felt this engagement would require too much effort for what it was worth to me professionally. I also want to build experience speaking on personal development, not blogging.

Then I pulled out my new decision making model and asked myself, “Is this an experience I want to have?” Instead of thinking of the decision in terms of right or wrong, good or bad, optimal or suboptimal, I considered whether or not it was an experience I wanted to add to my life. For me that was an easy yes. It would still be a lot of work, but it would undoubtedly be a growth experience for me.

Ironically I still evaluate my choices in terms of which option is better, but instead of evaluating the outcome, I evaluate the experience. This may seem like a subtle shift, but in my experience it’s been a very empowering one.

Consider the difference between these pairs of questions:

  • Should I quit my job? -> Would I like to experience another job?
  • Should I start my own business? -> Would I like to have the experience of running a business?
  • Should I stay with my current relationship partner? -> Would I like to continue experiencing this relationship?
  • Should I exercise? -> Would I like to experience a different level of physical activity?
  • Should I earn more money? -> Would I like to experience greater financial abundance?

What kind of experience are you having right now? Are you having experiences that are aligned with your desires? If not, what would you like to experience instead? What else would you like to experience in your lifetime? What decisions must you make right now for those experiences to manifest?

Don’t fall into the trap of attachment to outcomes. Your life is what you are experiencing right now; it isn’t a mere chain of one-time outcomes. When you focus on attracting desirable experiences, the outcomes will take care of themselves, since outcomes are a part of experience anyway.