By Katherine Laws (’20), Wake Forest Fellow in the Office of Personal & Career Development
Have you ever felt paralyzed by decision-making? You feel like all you need to do is just sit down and make a decision, yet when you give it your full attention, your brain goes in a million directions. You feel like you need more time to make the best decision, yet procrastinating only makes it more complicated. And some days, doesn’t it just feel like you’ve made way too many decisions than one human should make in a day?
I am no expert on decision-making. (Who is?) But, I am someone who has had to make many decisions in my first year post-graduation. I have learned a lot about decision-making this year from author Emily P. Freeman, of The Next Right Thing podcast, and many of my thoughts here have been influenced by her.
What a privilege it is to have so many decisions to make. I cannot talk about decision-making without acknowledging the root of why I have so many decisions to make in the first place. My education allows me to decide between many careers; my car enables me to choose where I go and when I leave; my salary enables me to decide between many dinner choices.
That’s an important primer for our conversation, and it is also one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about decision-making this year. There’s a lot to be said for a change in perspective, and remembering the joy of the opportunity in front of me grounds me and brings some gratitude into the decision-making process.
I learned this year that decision-making can be a soulful, thoughtful, systematic process, rather than a harrowing one, if you let it. That is not to say that it is easy. But these suggestions enable you to own your decision-making process rather than letting it own you, and that feels much more human.
1. Remember the big picture.
In this world of swirling choices, it is far too easy to feel like the decision before you is the most important thing EVER. But like observing a piece of art, taking a few steps back to see the full canvas can be not only a helpful reflective practice, but it can also create some space for your body and mind to breathe as you make a decision. At the end of the day, what matters to you? What does your “big picture” look like? No matter which way this decision goes, can you still accomplish those goals, care for those people, live out that purpose? If the answer is no– then, great! Sounds like your decision just got a lot clearer. But if the answer is yes, then good news: there is a lot less riding on this decision than you may have originally thought. Let this put your decision in perspective and take the edge off.
2. Ask trusted friends, and only take the feedback that works for you.
Sometimes, having a conversation about your decision with a few people who know you and between whom there is a legitimate trust can be a really helpful exercise. For me, this gives me a chance to externally process, and more often than not, I receive some helpful wisdom and feedback. The thing to remember here is that you don’t have to take all the feedback you receive. Talking to a trusted friend is not putting your decision in the hands of someone else. It’s welcoming others into your decision-making process to create a safe, evenhanded place to decide.
3. Listen to your body.
You may have heard to “trust your gut” or “trust your intuition” when making a decision. I think this is great advice. This article by Melody Wilding says that “Research shows that pairing intuition with analytical thinking helps you make better, faster, and more accurate decisions and gives you more confidence in your choices than relying on intellect alone.”
However, you may feel unpracticed in the idea of trusting your gut. So, I like to think of it as listening to your body. What is your body trying to tell you? How do your emotions sit in your chest, or wherever you hold stress, fear, excitement, anticipation, etc.? As you weigh your options, listen to your intuition through your body.
4. Construct creative constraints.
This is one of my favorite items from Wilding’s article. What can you do to limit yourself so that you can be more creative with what you have? Set a deadline of when you need to decide by and put it in your calendar. Personally, it is helpful to me to set this deadline before an activity or trip where I know I don’t want this decision hanging over my head. Set a timer for how long you’ll let yourself research a decision before deciding to stop taking in new information (because it could go on forever.) For all the little, everyday decisions, you can decide once. For example, maybe you make spaghetti every Monday, or maybe you decide that every wedding gift this year will be from the same small business.
One of the best creative constraints that you can set yourself is to hold yourself back from your perfectionism. When you realize that all decisions have consequences, good and bad, it frees you up to make a choice without being stopped by its inevitable imperfections.
5. Just do the next right thing.
You may have heard this phrase before– whether from your grandmother or from Princess Anna from Frozen II. But here’s why it is a stroke of genius: it’s productive reflection.
See how this works: If I am trying to decide where to take my next job, I could sit and reflect for days and still not come to a decision. But say I decide to just do the next right thing: update my resume. Now, I have some organized content to convert into a cover letter. With these materials together, I feel confident enough to apply to some jobs. Through the process of applications and interviews, I am going to gather much more information about the organization, maybe the location, maybe the people I would be working with. Now, I have all the information I need to make the best decision– and the chance to listen to my body as I go through the process– and I’ve wasted no time, because each “next right thing” moved me closer to my goal.
Here’s the most important thing to remember: all decisions, big and small, are an inevitable, frequent, and natural part of having a life. You can’t prevent decisions from coming your way. So, you can dread the process of making decisions, or you can embrace it as a messy, life-giving process that can grow you immensely as a person. Making decisions is how we walk through some wonderful open doors.