Decisions are omnipresent. Every day we have to deal with thousands of them. Wear the red shirt or the blue one? Hair up or down? We make decisions. Mostly we forget about them the moment we made them.
But then there are decisions that take up more of our mind. Shall we spend the money on that yoga class or rather save for a vacation? Or shall we look for a new job or stay where we are? Shall we continue to pay rent or buy a house?
Sometimes they haunt us even after we make them. Was that the right choice? Should I go and try to change it?
How do we know whether we made the right decision? How do we figure out what the right decision is? And how do we know what option to go for and which to cast away?
Especially in our society today, where we have everything available just a mouse click away, decision-making has become more rapid and overwhelming. Keeping the focus can be hard and many people suffer from what the psychologist Barry Schwartz calls analysis paralysis.
Instead of making the decision we should make, we regress to the state of a toddler who wants to hide under his covers. As an adult that might be watching TV excessively, emotional overeating or drinking.
To overcome this paralysis and all the stress that comes with decision-making, we can use a simple tool, that all of us already own: Our inner compass.
I work with a compass that consists of three needles, which point us towards the ‘right’ choice: our core values, core strengths and ideal life vision.
Let’s have a look at what these concepts are and why they help us with our decision-making.
First Needle: Core Values
To make the most beneficial decision, we need to know what really matters to us: Our core values. I like to work with the top 5 core values. It’s a simple list of the 5 things that matter the most to us.
While it is a simple list, it takes a lot of inner work to get clear on what our core values are. The best way to get to that list is by asking powerful questions, for example:
What are the 5 times in my life that I felt most alive? Why?
Second Needle: Core Strengths
We enjoy doing what we are good at. According to the positive psychologist Martin Seligman, we feel the happiest, when we use our core strengths. He developed a testthat determines your top 5 strengths. It’s a good place to start the journey of discovering your core strengths.
If you want to explore your core strength through journaling you can ask the question:
What have people thanked me for? What exactly did I do in this moment?
Third Needle: Ideal Life Vision
The last needle of the compass is our vision of the ideal future. To be able get ‘there’, we need to know where ‘there’ is. The ideal life vision is a snapshot of the future you desire. It guides us in our decision-making by giving us ideas for skills that we could develop, relationships we could create or destinations we could travel to.
How would a day in your ideal life look like? (Pick a date 6 months from now.)
The role of our brain in the decision-making process
A little glitch in our brain is that it can’t decide what is important information and what isn’t. If information is absorbed, the brain classifies it as relevant. Whether that is an email from a friend in need or a tweet about Johnny Depp. All this information is processed as relevant.
In this process the most recent information is seen as the most relevant. Through constant intake of information our working memory experiences information overload.
As studies, have shown this information overload leads to the shutting off of the part of our brain that enables us to make smart decisions, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain also controls our emotions. When it shuts off our emotions wreak havoc. Anxiety and frustration take over and we become paralyzed.
What role does the compass play in this?
The brain cannot distinguish absorbed information, however there is a structure in our brain that decides what information to absorb and what to ignore: The reticular activating system, short RAS. It is a system in the brain that focuses our attention.
Have you ever been in a room full of people? You notice nothing but white noise and suddenly you turn your head because you hear your name. Have you ever wondered why, after you bought that new shirt, you suddenly see it everywhere? The reason for that is your RAS.
The good news is, that this system can be trained. By getting crystal clear on our values, strengths and ideal life vision, we identify the things that matter to us and we focus on those. It helps us recognize the irrelevant information and consciously decide to focus on the information that matters. Our inner compass preserves the capacity of our brain to make more creative, empowered decision instead of reacting to the incoming information from moment to moment.
Our core values show us what information to absorb, while our ideal vision helps us to take a long-term perspective. Then our strengths help us build the competence to make the right decision.
Imagine a camera: Our values are the lens through which we process information, the ideal vision is what brings it into focus and the strengths tell us when it’s the right moment to hit the shutter – meaning, when to make the decision.
While the lens and the focus are doing their job, it is hitting the shutter that is going to make the difference. The ability to know when it’s the right moment to hit the shutter is a skill that needs to be practiced. We need to do it and try – and even fail sometimes – to get better at it.
Now your turn
Find out what your values and strengths are, create your ideal life vision and then go out in the world and try them out.
I would love to hear your thoughts! What was one of the hardest decisions you ever made? How did you know what the right decision was? Share a comment to let me know about your experiences.