Friday, May 3, 2013

Decisions, Decisions...

Today is Thursday, May 2, 2013.

"Life is the sum of our choices."  –Albert Camus

Today I did a lot of research about the decision-making process, and I got some surprising information that seems to contradict accepted wisdom on the subject.  Here's what I found out. 

Most, if not all, of our decisions are made in the subconscious mind.  Decisions can be as mundane as what to wear today, which veggies to put in your salad, or whether to stop or go at a traffic light.  (Weight Watchers says that we make hundreds of food decisions each day.)  Decisions can be as weighty as what university to attend, whether to get married, whether to accept or decline a job offer, or how best to prepare financially for retirement.  Even when we think we are making a decision consciously, we access information from our subconscious minds.   Therefore it is a good idea to take the initiative to get to know ourselves and our subconscious beliefs, attitudes, and fears better.  

Take the time to profile yourself.   What are your habits, thoughts and actions?  How do you prioritize things in life (home life or career, money, marriage, children, spiritual life, etc.)?  What self-destructive behaviors do you engage in?  (Do you overeat?  Do you smoke?  Do you drive too fast?  Do you drink to the point of drunkenness?  Do you take unnecessary risks?)  What pushes your buttons, what makes you angry?  What brings out the best in you?  How have you helped others in the past?  What life-affirming activities do you engage in?  How do you make the world a better place?  (Do you exercise and eat right?  Do you spend quality time with friends and family?  Do you volunteer in your community?  Do you advocate for the poor, for environmental issues, for equal pay or marriage equality?  Do you contribute to charities?)   Are you doing now what you want to be doing?  If not, why not?   What are the strengths and weaknesses of your personality type?  (You can consult almost any personality sorting instrument for information.  Google "personality type" and check out the information.  There are a number of online tests you can take to determine your type. What's important is that these types will give you information about your preferences, but remember that you can acquire and process information in all types of ways.  You just tend to prefer some ways over others.)  The more you know about your personality type, the better you can work with a group in making decisions, because you can appreciate the strengths and weaknesses in the personality types of others.

Although the subconscious mind can contribute to your making bad decisions, it is still important to consult your subconscious, especially when you are in problem-solving mode.  Once you have examined the problem and figured out what your choices are, take a break and think about something else.  Better yet, sleep on it.  Chances are you'll make a much better decision when you do this.

Contrary to what many believe, emotions are essential to making decisions.  Sure, they can lead us into bad decisions, but so can our subconscious beliefs and fears.  If you take the emotion out of decisions, what happens is that you become incapable of making decisions; in other words, you tend to over-analyze or think too much.  Although emotions do play an important part in our decisions, the better we can integrate our emotions with our reasoning skills, the better our decisions will be.  Also, the better we can control our emotions, the better decision-makers we become.  This is why older folks seem so wise: they can control their emotions and integrate them effectively with the analytic part of the brain. 

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What causes us to make bad decisions?  There are a number of things that can cause us to make a decision we later regret.  

 You may be unaware of what your subconscious beliefs and priorities are.  Here's an example.  You may think you are deciding what kind of job to get so you can support yourself, but deep down inside you have already decided to get by with as little work as possible in life.  Can you see how that might cause you to make an unfortunate career choice?  Ruthless self-profiling helps here. Listing your life goals and prioritizing them is good.  It's also good to re-examine your goals from time to time and throw out the dreams that are using up your energy but not likely to come to fruition.

You might underestimate the importance of your emotions, especially your fears and your feelings about what has happened to you in the past, whether it is an earlier time in this lifetime or a past life.  You can avoid this if you profile yourself carefully, as described above.  Be aware, also, of whether it is a priority of yours to fit in with a particular crowd or make a strong decision that's best for you, no matter what others say, do or think.

Your information might be too limited or incomplete.  You might not have checked your information sources very carefully.  Being able to evaluate information and prioritize its importance is crucial to making good decisions. Watch how information is framed.  For example, when told that a certain surgical procedure is 80% successful, people tend to choose that surgical option.  When told that this same procedure may be ineffective or result in death 20% of the time, people tend to refuse the procedure.  Both of these examples have the same level of risk, but it depends on how the information is framed.  If you notice that information has been framed a certain way, it's worth trying to re-frame it in your mind first, so you can evaluate it more clearly.  Ask yourself: How reliable is this information?  Does my informant have any biases?  Do I trust the person who is advising me because he/she is an expert on the subject, or simply because I like/love the person?  Does my informant have an axe to grind?  Is he/she trying to convince me to do something?  How does information from this source compare with information from other sources?  What do I stand to gain by making a certain choice?  What do I stand to lose?  What might happen if I make this choice?  What might happen if I don't make this choice?

You might have a bias in determining the likelihood of something happening in the future.  If you believe that something can't possibly happen, it won't.  It's a good practice to stay as open-minded about things as possible.

You might experience information overload. This situation is much more common now than ever before.  The mind can only hold about seven pieces of information at once in the immediate working memory.  Information has to be stored in long-term memory, or it is lost.  Some people prefer to keep their options open as long as possible, and that's OK, but at some point it's a good idea to shut your computer down or turn off your smart phone.  Too much information will not cause you to make a better decision; it only serves to confuse.

You might have too many options from which to choose.  Studies show that when we have too many options, our fears of missing out by choosing the wrong option increases, which produces stress.  It seems best to narrow down options before making a final decision. 

You may be making a choice in which you value a quick decision over a more thoughtful choice.  If the decision is going to affect the rest of your life, it's worth taking your time to make the best choice possible.  How important is it to make a decision today as opposed to next week?  Be aware of deadlines, and try to give yourself enough time to process all available information.

You may be trying to make a decision without consulting your gut feelings, or intuition.  The soundest decisions are made by consulting our feelings and intuition as well as the facts.

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To prepare yourself to make the best decisions possible, do the profiling exercise described above.  Learn to meditate.  Practice gratitude.  Practice looking at situations from the point of view of others.  Practice making simple changes on a regular basis.  Eat new foods, take a different route to work, meet some new people, do something you've never done before, read a book in a genre you are unfamiliar with.  

Once you have made your decision, you have to live with the consequences.  If you are uncomfortable with the outcome, you will at least have some valuable information with which to make future decisions. 

Finally, remember that in the long run, there are really no bad decisions.  Unfortunate ones, yes, but not bad.  Everything that happens in your life is supposed to teach you something.  Life here on earth is all about learning to make decisions.  As long as you learn from your mistakes, you will be on the right track.  :-)

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