Deciding to be Decisive

“Decision making is about making a choice; about taking charge of our life; about feeling in control of our own destiny; about self-empowerment.”

– Neerja Raman

Last week, my sister took me to a screening of Jodie Mack’s latest handmade films (read more about Jodie here. She’s da bomb.) It’s not hard to fall in love with Jodie. At just 29 she’s made her way onto Dartmouth’s faculty through a dogged pursuit of her unbridled passion for experimental film. The best part about her is that she wears her genuine enthusiasm for her work the way that the typical professor often wears her accolades. There’s no name-dropping. Just joy-sharing.

Without a wall of pretension, the post-screening Q&A session was authentic and rife with hearty nuggets of wisdom. One that stuck with me in particular was about decision making.

The creative process – whether pertaining to writing, art, or otherwise – is a landmine of micro and macro decisions. What material do I use? What do I want to explore? What color should I use? What story do I want to tell? What tone? What paper should I use? Thick line or thin? Etc. Etc. Etc. The possibilities and therefore decisions are endless. At a certain point, you just have to go with one – which can often result in post-decision stress syndrome. Did I make the right choice!?

Jodie is not immune to this anguish. But she did tell us about an epiphanic moment that helped bring her some peace of mind. She had the opportunity to ask an experimental film idol of hers how he managed to make decisions with his work. His response: I assume that every decision I make is the right decision.

This was a serious “aha!” moment for Jodie. And for me too.

Can I just do that? Is it that simple? Can I just decide I’m always right? Do I really have that power?

I guess so!

This philosophy is a close cousin of the bigger-picture mantra that “everything works out as it should.” But I think it’s superior because it can be applied directly in the moment of decision. It’s a little more proactive and involved – dare I say empowering.

“Everything works out as it should” is akin to throwing your hands up in the air and admitting that you ultimately have very little control over what happens in your life. On the contrary, “Assume you made the right decision” means you took control, made a choice and it’s the right one!

When the emotional and rational sides of my brain align, I can usually make a choice without losing much sleep. Thankfully this is generally the case for me when it comes to the bigger decisions in my life. But on the smaller decisions that don’t really matter (e.g., what color to paint the bedroom wall), I tend to be somewhat indecisive. The rational side of my brain runs through all the practical concerns (cost, labor, time, ease, etc.) but ultimately turns to my emotional side for a final decision. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the emotional side of my brain isn’t all that invested in a sunshine yellow vs. a mustard room.

I’m great at narrowing down options. But I tend to leave the final choice to my husband. I don’t think this is inherently problematic. We play to our strengths. Research? That’s me. Decision making? That’s Jason. But I do wish I could be more decisive about the little things. Which seem to be the decisions that whisper my name in the middle of the night.

I’m hoping this “assume you’re right” mentality will go a long way. But here are a few more decision-making insights I’ve found that may help us all sleep a little better at night:

  • Less is more (satisfying). “Satisficers” (who look until they find an option that is good enough) tend to be more satisfied in their ultimate decision than “maximizers” (who consider every possible option). Why? “Maybe because a world of possibilities is also a world of missed opportunities. After surveying every option, a person is more acutely aware of the opportunities they had to turn down to pursue just one [option].” Source: Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice
  • Avoid over-thinking. Over-thinking a decision can lead you to make the wrong decision. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that thinking hard about what car to buy leads you to make a poor choice, or not the best choice. When given no time limit or distractions, people identified the best car of four ~25% of the time. When the researchers distracted the participants with puzzles before asking them to make their choices. More than half of them managed to pick the best car. According to Dr. Li Zhaoping of University College London, “The conscious or top level function of the brain, when active, vetoes our initial subconscious decision – even when it is correct – leaving us unaware or distrustful of our instincts.” Translation: think too much and you literally forget your initial instinct – which is usually the right one.
  • Your gut is usually right. In a study published in Current Biology, people were asked to pick the odd one out on a screen covered with more than 650 identical symbols, including one rotated version of the same symbol. People with less time to choose performed better than those who had endless time to analyze.
  • Know who you are. Striving to understand who you are and what you stand for can simplify future decision-making by giving you a “decision compass” of sorts. According to self-help author/speaker Steve Pavlina, “When we look at choices as being more than just paths — as being creative statements of self-expression — certain decisions become much easier to make.”
  • Wrong action can be better than no action. “Recognize that the risks of not making decisions are generally higher than the risks of making the wrong one, and then learn to move forward,” according to Liz Reyer, life coach/workplace consultant.
  • Dwell in ambiguity. As Neerja Raman writes in The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide, “Decision making is not a linear, precise, mathematical process. It is complex, ambiguous and often, a compromise of reason and emotion. Having a philosophical understanding of the universe and our role in it for the short time that we live in it, can be a way to reduce tension and conflict.”
  • There’s a loop for that.Stuck in circular thinking? Try the OODA Loop:
    1. Observe – collect current information from as many sources as practically possible.
    2. Orient – analyze this information, and use it to update your current reality.
    3. Decide – determine a course of action.
    4. Act – follow through on your decision.

And remember, in the end…

“The greatness is not what we do, but unavoidably it is always in how we do what we do.”

– Swami Chinmayananda

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One thought on “Deciding to be Decisive

  1. Eric Gittleman says:

    Sara, that was remarkably well-written. I need to take these insights into account. However, as you probably know, it will not be easy. Nonetheless, it is definitely going into the Bookmark List. 😀

    Somewhat off-topic, I had no idea you played in Die Frauen-Bundesliga. That is awesome! Upon further research, you guys got relegated without winning a single match. Yeah, that will certainly destroy your confidence. :-/

    Keep it up!

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