The key to making better decisions is to respect your emotions and allow yourself to be informed by them, without letting them rule you.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you always knew the “right” thing to do in any given situation?
One of my “superpowers” is the ability to see multiple perspectives (no doubt enhanced by my experience as a lawyer), but the downside of this is that I can often get caught up in indecision. To make matters worse, I am a natural “optioneer” – I like to look for possibilities and can become overwhelmed by the paradox of choice. And the kicker is that I also have a strong need for certainty. How is this all going to work out in the end?
[Read more: How to kick your addiction to certainty]
I have spent many hours, days, even weeks chasing my own tail as I tried to figure out which path to take. I have used spreadsheets and complex rating/ranking systems to decide on job options (I wish I was joking!). I have researched restaurant and hotel options in infinite detail, cross-referencing TripAdvisor/Zomato/Google reviews until I could be confident that I would have a good meal or night’s sleep. And I have driven myself (and others) crazy in the process.
Can you relate to any of this?
A few years ago, I even bought a book called “The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking”. Fifty? Seriously? How am I supposed to decide which one to use?! While fascinating, it was not particularly helpful.
We’ve got it all wrong
The problem with the way most people approach decision-making is that we assume it's a rational process.
When it comes to breaking the deadlock in our own minds, we tend to rely on rational strategies – for example, the good ol’ “pros and cons” list or even a decision tree if we want to get a bit fancy. We seek and weigh up advice from friends, family, experts, and maybe even strangers. And – if all else fails – we might consider flipping a coin.
But these approaches are limited when it comes to making decisions that really matter.
Why? Because they fail to take account of our emotions.
Science shows us that our ability to make decisions is fundamentally emotional. In the early 1990s, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio challenged the long-standing belief that humans are primarily rational by demonstrating that people who have suffered damage to the emotional part of their brains (the limbic system) have difficulty making even simple decisions, like which restaurant to go to. We need our emotions to make good decisions.
You see, while reason (rationalising) can give us the pros and cons of a particular decision, our emotions reveal our desires – what we want, what we care about and what’s important to us. And even to the extent that we could make every decision analytically, our thoughts (including our perceptions) are strongly influenced by our moods and emotions. It follows that being aware of and having the ability to manage our moods and emotions is essential to making better decisions.
And yet many of us (especially in the corporate world) are strongly conditioned to ignore our emotions, treating them as pesky irritations at best or with deep mistrust at worst. I built the first half of my career on my ability to quarantine my emotions, barely giving them a chance to register before I locked them away as something to be dealt with – well, hopefully never. This served me well until it didn't - and then I learned a better way.
I learned to make “emotionally rational decisions”.
It happened a few years ago.
I was having a conversation with one of my mentors about why I was struggling to say a definitive “yes” or “no” to a job opportunity. The opportunity made sense on paper, but it just didn’t feel right.
My mentor then shared a quote with me, from the acclaimed Chilean biologist-turned-philosopher, Humberto Maturana:
“We live in the flow of our desires and preferences, which are fundamentally emotional.”
Hang on a minute.
Was he actually saying it was okay to make a decision emotionally???
That’s when the penny dropped.
Here I was thinking that my emotions were getting in the way of my decision-making when actually they were giving me loud and clear information about what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I just wasn’t giving my emotions the respect that they deserved. Suddenly, I appreciated that it’s okay (and even healthy) to honour my emotional preferences. And maybe I don’t even have to be able to explain or justify them either.
It’s okay to want what you want.
And it's also okay to not want what you don’t want.
Once I recognised the validity of my emotions, I started to develop my ability to identify and explore them in order to gain valuable information about my underlying preferences, which in turn has helped me to make much better decisions.
Now I have just one simple test when I make a decision about something:
“How do I feel about it?”
If that almost sounds too simple, let’s break it down:
1. Learn how to feel your feelings
Making “emotionally rational decisions” requires you to be in touch with your emotions – and this takes practice and patience, especially if you have a tendency to overthink things.
[Read more: How to stop overthinking]
I am a highly analytical person and taught myself at quite an early age that it was beneficial not to feel my feelings (in my case, to limit/avoid the pain of childhood bullying and racism). What began as a psychological survival strategy as a child turned into emotional numbness as an adult – and, consequently, difficulty in making decisions. It was like my GPS was on but the volume was turned right down so that I couldn’t hear it.
Over the past 3-5 years, I have re-learned to feel my feelings, mostly by engaging in somatic practices (including yoga) and journalling to identify and enquire into bodily sensations and explore their relevance to my life. Not only has this provided me with a rich source of data for making better decisions, but I am also able to experience life in a deeper, more engaged way – including Kleenex commercials with those damned cute puppies!
I’ve noticed that listening to my emotions requires me to be very vigilant about the first thing that comes up when I am faced with a decision (in other words, present). That first impulse, which can be quite subtle, is often the most “pure” signal of the decision I want to make. If I leave it too long, I can become easily confused as my head intervenes and tries to take control of the process.
2. Treat your emotions with respect
Your emotions are a legitimate and healthy part of the decision-making process.
Once you learn to feel your feelings (if you weren’t feeling them already), the next step is to respect them. This means all of them – even the ones that you wish you didn’t feel. Your emotions are telling you something, even if that something is that your thinking is flawed (more on that below).
3. Listen to your heart and validate with your head
Now I’m not saying that we should always act on every emotion that we experience.
Emotions can definitely be misleading when they are based on a flawed premise. For example, if someone swerves in front of you in traffic, you might experience an immediate emotional reaction of anger. But if you later discover that they were swerving to avoid a hazard on the road, you might feel less aggrieved.
Our emotions are based on our interpretation of what’s happening around us (our perception) – and that can change as we learn more about what’s actually happening.
I find it helpful to distinguish between desire-based emotions and fear-based emotions. (Some may see a parallel with the “moving towards” and “moving away from” distinction from neuro-linguistic programming.) Sometimes, fear-based emotions can suck our attention towards a particular doomsday scenario so tightly that we develop tunnel vision and can’t see the other, more positive possibilities that are also available to us.
[Read more: How to cultivate courage and make fear your friend]
It can be tricky to disentangle desire-based emotions from fear-based emotions (using the mind that created them!), and that’s where having a coach, mentor or trusted friend to support you can be useful. But don’t substitute their opinion for yours – the value of another person’s opinion is to gain a more objective perspective on the situation; to gather more data before referring back to your own emotional experience.
4. Accept that there is often no “right” decision
Life is not a multiple choice test. There is no answer key.
Sure, if you are approaching an amber traffic light, the preferable view is to slow down and stop if it is safe to do so. But it depends on the context, doesn’t it? And we don’t always have the full context when we are making big decisions.
That means that the only reasonable strategy is to make a decision, take a step forward in that direction, and then re-assess when we have more data.
The other thing I've learned is that the definition of a “good decision” depends on whether you care more about the immediate, short-term outcome or the learning and growth it produces. For me, the latter is infinitely more valuable, which is why I believe that the only "bad" decision is to make the same decision over and over again - which includes continually making no decision - if this is not getting you the result that you want (a variation on Albert Einstein's quote about the definition of insanity).
5. Finally, the key to making good decisions is to make them yourself
Yes, of course, there are times when you’ll need to consult others for expert advice and guidance. But it’s more important that you learn to recognise your own legitimacy (that is, taking ownership of your own decisions) and trust yourself to make a wise decision.
If this basic premise of legitimacy and self-trust is missing, you will needlessly struggle with decision-making because you’ll probably be paying undue weight to the opinions (or assumed opinions, because sometimes we just make this stuff up in our heads) of others whose experiences, values and priorities may be different to your own.
When I look back on the significant decisions I’ve made over the course of my life, I can see that most of my better decisions have come about when I allowed myself to be informed and guided by my emotions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those situations unfolded easily or worked out perfectly. Life is a journey and sometimes the best decisions are the ones that take us into new and challenging terrain; the decisions that give us the greatest opportunities for personal growth.
"Decision is the ultimate power." (Tony Robbins)