The art and craft of decision-making

We make decisions from the moment we wake up until the moment we let ourselves turn off for the night. What we eat for breakfast, if we cycle or take the bus to work, which yogurt to buy in the supermarket. If we move cities this year or not, which university to study in, whether we leave this job or not. Some have minor effects in our lives, others have major ones. One way or another, decision-making is a skill like most, it requires time and practice to master.

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Decision-making can be easy and natural sometimes and energy-consuming, painful and hard at other times. That’s normal. It is, after all, an art and a craft. It has much intuition to it, as well as a fair bit of technique. It is not entirely a rational process, it doesn’t always obey the laws of (any) logic, and yet it can be learnt, improved on over time. Someone who is usually good at it can be stuck at some point; someone who tends to have a hard time doing it can be suddenly pretty much at ease with a decision.

Some decisions can be easily understood as the source of much attention and thought – they are life shaping. If you are asking yourself if you should marry your partner or not, or which professional path you wish to take, what you are ultimately asking yourself is who you want to become, how you wish your life to be. That is serious business. An existential issue par excellence.

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However crucial these things are, they should not mean anguish. That’s the essence of life: choosing, consequently abdicating, and thus bit by bit making yourself, your priorities and standards. Anyway, even when they have important consequences, very few of the decisions we make are final. Most of the time, we can go back, or change our way forward, if we didn’t get it right. All we need is to admit it and make the necessary move. Also, there is rarely right or wrong, like in our school exams. All the options are valid, they will just, through different journeys, take you to a different place in life, with distinct positive and negative sides each – not unlike different chocolate boxes.

If you are having a hard time deciding, or if you’d like to be better, here are some tips:

Identify the decision clearly.
Sometimes, we struggle with doubts around a dilemma, but the main problem is we can’t name it and what it entails – if there really is one. What is the question you’re asking yourself? Which aspects of your life will be affected by the decision, what will any of the available options mean for you, in very concrete terms? Identifying that, can help looking the matter in the face and move forward.

Limit your options.
And the decisions themselves. Have you ever heard that presidents or CEOs have several shirts of the exact same style, so that they don’t have to choose their outfit for the day? That is a way of concentrating efforts and energy. It is much easier to decide if you do that, and don’t juggle several decisions a day – be it micro-decisions of everyday life or meaningful ones. And, of course, if you have one, or just two or three options from which to choose, you have less things to consider than if you have six.

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Find your way of organizing your mind. Some people need to talk to bring clarity in the fuzziness of a difficult decision. In a couple of minutes of conversation, even if the other person says very little, they’ve understood themselves already. Some, on the contrary, search for silence. Others again are more visual and need to write things on paper, make maps or notes, with different colours for pros and cons, with arrows for directions. Notice what works for you and take time doing that.

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Give yourself time. And also a deadline. Thinking is an activity on itself. It may seem stupid to say such an obvious thing, but many don’t realize that. Rather than waiting for sudden clarity and confidence it often is wiser to reserve some time specifically to think about it, to build your answer within yourself, be it sitting in silence, or taking notes, or talking to people, as above mentioned. It may be just one day, or a couple of hours a week, depending on the decision to take, and your schedule. That doesn’t exclude, on the other hand, being alert to signs and realizations that occur to you in your daily life, sometimes when you least expect them. Finally, it helps to give yourself a time-frame by which you have to decide, after that don’t think anymore. Again, like to any other task that needs to be finished.

Legitimize your feelings and listen to your intuition.
We are creatures of many dimensions, and it is important to try to harmonize them. When we have trouble, it can be that they are in conflict. Consider things rationally and emotionally. Close your eyes, imagine yourself living each of the possibilities. How comfortable do you feel? Is there one in which you can’t see yourself?
Maybe that tells you something. If one of them gives you shivers… Maybe that’s not for nothing either. Which option is more aligned with your values? What do you expect will happen? What does your body indicate you about one situation or the other? We can sometimes feel if something is good or bad for us. Take that into account.

All in all, it is also a question of disposition to do your best and make the most of whatever you choose. And if a key to the art and craft decision-making can be forged and named – that, for sure, would be self-knowledge. As the classics said millenniums ago: know thyself. That can save you much pain and bring you much joy.

Vitória Acerbi

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