We live in a world full of decisions, choices, options, and the corresponding chaos. It’s hard to know when we’re doing the right thing, or even what the right thing is. We are all on a path and are hard-pressed to ensure that we’re on the right one with the decisions we make.
What most people don’t talk about, though, is the psychology of our decisions. There is so much that goes on in our own heads in regards to how we choose things and how we narrow down the options that we simply don’t understand. While we don’t have to understand everything that goes on between our neurons and mental organs, knowing a few key things about the psychology of decision-making can go a long way.
“Waiting hurts. Forgetting hurts. But not knowing which decision to take can sometimes be the most painful…”
― José N. Harris
As a student of psychology, spirituality, and the way our world works at large, I’ve learned that there is no one right path for every person. It is about what you choose, and which version of yourself you choose to align yourself with. It is, ultimately, why you choose something that matters the most.
Decision-making is an inherent struggle we’ve been battling for quite some time now. As most of us understand, when we’re making a decision, we’re putting our welfare at risk. We are risking things emotionally, relationally, physically, and/or financially.
And we humans don’t like risk.
In reality, the part of your brain that maintains your impulse control is the same that controls your decision making. When you make a decision, you are getting closer and closer to the core of who you are as a person. You are having to align with your values, your morals, your goals, and your intentions — just as you have to do in impulse control.
The question is, what is it about this impulse control and decision-making system that can help us choose our path more wisely? Here are four key facts that can help you find, get on, and stay on some resemblance of “the right path”:
1 || Understand that everything is a choice.
William Glasser, the author of Glasser’s Choice Theory, argues that behavior and choice are not separate things. This basically means that we are constantly choosing how to behave and that nothing is automatic. Of course, some of these choices, like how to walk, are determined by pre-existing habits, but we are still constantly having to make choices.
This is where the idea of will-power and cognitive dissonance comes into play. Don’t dismiss your everyday activities, as well as the things you don’t attend, as unimportant or non-existent choices. Making better decisions starts when we can agree that every step we take, everything we don’t say, alongside every career and project we begin, is, in fact, a choice.
2 || Avoid Cognitive Dissonance.
During my senior year of high school, I was determined to get seriously involved in the youth group at my church. I had attended a different church in previous years and hadn’t been able to be apart of the group like I wanted to. I knew that, in this new group, I would have to make some sacrifices in order to hold myself to this commitment. Looking back, the process became a lot easier when I got my priorities straight.
cognitive dissonance — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
Every time throughout the year that something would come up at the same time a youth group event was happening, I would automatically choose the youth event — it was an automated decision. Even though this choice scared me, I saw the benefits. I became an integral part of that group and didn’t really miss out on any of the other activities I said “no” to.
“You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.”
― Michelle Obama
Automate things like your values, your habits, your goals, and decision making become much easier. Research shows that the most successful people in the world, those who have arguably made the best decisions throughout their life, don’t actually have more will-power then those of us who aren’t so “great”, yet. I think Ray Williams explains this pretty well in the following quote:
“The most successful people, Baumeister contends, don’t have super-strong willpower when making decisions. Rather, they conserve their willpower by developing habits and routines, so they reduce the amount of stress in their lives. He says these people use their self-control or willpower not to get through crises, but avoid them. They make important decisions early before fatigue sets in.” // Ray Williams: “How Neuroscience Can Help Us Make Better Decisions”
Make your choice before choices are made for you — as well as before the options become too overwhelming to objectively weigh. Automate what you choose, and you’ll ultimately automate the success and aspirational smooth-sailing of your life.
3 || Make decisions in the best way you know-how.
People who always told me to “trust my instincts” or “follow my heart” always made me mad. After all, I’m a flawed human being — how am I supposed to perfectly follow my instincts and/or heart? On top of that, how am I supposed to know that my heart and instincts are even correct in the first place?
While I definitely believe in making good choices and not always trusting your first (and potentially flawed) instinct, I do believe that there is a way that works best for all of us. The Enneagram, an ancient personality typology I write about in my book On Purpose: Discovering Who You Are With The Enneagram, divides people into nine distinct motivation-driven types. It also further divides those nine types into three centers — heart, head, and gut.
This helps make the advice of “trust your instincts” or “follow your heart” or “follow your head” a bit more useful, if you know which category/personality you fall into.
Follow your best instincts, thoughts, OR feelings.
People who are in the heart center should do some heart-searching and determine how they truly feel about something and also remember to take note of their instincts and the intellectual side of the situation and choice.
People who are in the head center should follow their logic, but also their emotions and gut. People in the gut center should trust their instincts if fine-tuned, and allow a little input from their feelings and thoughts.
The idea here, though, isn’t just to blindly follow whatever you’re guided by. It’s to figure out what your main operating center is, and make sure that it is as accurate and properly leading as possible.
I would sum this up in — “Trust your [instincts/head/heart], but only if they’re trustworthy. The truth is, when we follow our initial ideas, we actually do better.
4 || Cut down your options.
The “Paradox of Choice” in psychology-speak is something you might not be familiar with, but you’ve most likely encountered the idea of. The Paradox of Choice refers to the anxiety, fear, worry, and otherwise indecision that arises when you are faced with too many options, something that happens a little too often in our society.
Seniors in high school and college, and I can attest to this given my recent experiences, struggle with the Paradox of Choice in an extreme way as universities, teachers, parents, friends, and strangers alike provide them with what appears to be an infinitive number of options for what they can do with their life.
“The straight line, a respectable optical illusion which ruins many a man.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
One of the best ways to counter the Paradox of Choice and the perpetuation of endless options to do this is to set rules for yourself. In the Wall Street Journal article Simple Rules for Escaping Infinite Decisions, author Eugenia Cheng suggests really the only way to solve the axiom of choice (as defined in Mathematics) — have and utilize an algorithm.
Of course, this is not to suggest that you should have an algorithm for your life, but you can definitely steal the principles of having one for your own decision-making process. We discussed this briefly under the recommendations for avoiding cognitive dissonance.
algorithm — a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer
However, designing an “algorithm” for every choice is different. Here you are not setting out your choice beforehand, you are instead making a choice of how your choices will be made.
Unlike math problems, the decisions we are faced with on a daily basis don’t always have the right answer — we can only hope to find the most well-calculated answer and choice.
(1) How this choice will impact the future plans I have? (2) Have you considered all possible alternatives and other options? (3) Have I researched this enough to make a confident and informed decision? (4) Am I sleep deprived? (5) Is this decision easily reversible? (6) What would I tell a friend to do?
Decision making is all about asking the right questions and looking into your intentions behind doing something. Many mindfulness experts and researchers have written on the concept that intention-journaling can radically improve the quality of your life. Figure out how you make decisions, why you’ve made decisions in the past, and which questions worked vs. which questions didn’t.
In the end, you’ll be able to come up with a personal, plausible, and productive algorithm that you can quickly pull out and use every time you have to make a tough (and sometimes seemingly easy) choice.
5 || Be willing to make the wrong choice.
The final psychological lesson we can learn from what we know about our brains is decision making is the hardest one to learn and practice. Making decisions is one of the most difficult and vulnerable things we do as humans because we might make the wrong choice.
“Part of the decision-making process involves letting go of the perfect image we had hoped to achieve.” — Alison Thayer, Psychotherapist
You cannot make the perfect decision. That’s why, in the moment, you have to make the decision that’s best for you and your future self. Like we discussed earlier, there are an infinite number of paths that you can start on.
The only way you’ll ever feel comfortable with your imperfect decision-making systems and your decisions themselves is to ensure that you’re making the best one possible. Use your system, ask the right questions, and be vulnerable with what you decide. It will never be perfect, but you can always choose the best option presented to you.
You are a beautiful, magical, and infinitely amazing human being. Just remember that you have a faulty mind, a tendency to make gutsy and irreverent decisions, and regret what you do. Use good systems, depend on your principles, and let the best choice win in the end.
Make good choices!
Stay tuned for more articles featuring the morning, evening, and daily habits of leaders of the past and of the present. Also, if you’re interested, click the link below to read my new Kindle book, On Purpose: Discovering Who You Are With The Enneagram.