So, you’re deciding between taking a job near you that pays less but keeps you closer to your family, or one on the West coast that pays more but where you don’t know anyone. Or maybe you’re trying to decide about whether to end a relationship, or what refrigerator to buy. It’s easy to feel flooded with all the information, overwhelmed by all the conflicting emotions. But at its base, decision-making is about problem-solving in the dual sense that the decision you are trying to make is a solution to an emotional or practical problem, and the process itself is a problem-solving exercise.
Here are some suggestions to help get you get off the fence on both fronts regardless of big or small your decision may be:
Figure out what is at the top of your list
This is the most important part of the process and often the most difficult; once you figure this out everything else more easily falls in line. Here you want to think big — what’s most important to you about a job, a relationship, a refrigerator? Money, experience, career ladder, location. Calm personality, has the same vision of future or same religious beliefs. Has a side or bottom freezer or doesn’t cost a million dollars? What is the problem that you are looking to find a solution for? Take your time sorting through this.
Sort out means and ends
Taking the job on the West coast may be the means to get more experience in your field; leaving the relationship may be the means to handle relationships problems that don’t seem to have any other solution; buying the refrigerator is the means to keeping food cold. Or they may be an end — living on the West coast has always been a life goal; leaving a relationship gives you the independent life you have been craving for years; buying the perfect refrigerator, after struggling with whatever one you inherited, has been a dream.
Sorting out the wheat from the chaff, the means from the ends, can help you further define what is at the top of your list. If you find that one factor is more a means than an end, you now can stay focused on what you ultimately are seeking, and begin to brainstorm other ways of getting there.
Sort out shoulds, wants, values
But wait, there’s more. You also want to sort out your motivational drivers, shoulds vs. wants. The perpetual conflict between these two and can leave you confused and torn. Shoulds are about rules and expectations that you likely inherited from parents, etc.; they fill up your head, can cause you to feel guilty if don’t follow them. If you base your job decision on the notion that you should live near your family, you’ll avoid guilt — you are, after all doing the right thing. But shoulds can carry you only so far; if your wants — those desires, those gut reactions — are left out of the equation, you may eventually begin to feel regretful or resentful because the life that you’re living, though a "good"one, is not your own. It’s often best to start by being clear about what you want.
And then consider your values. Unlike shoulds, values aren’t inherited from those other people, but instead are your core beliefs about what is important in life, how to best live your life. If your values say that, yes, being near family is always important, that relationships are about commitment, then you are running your life the way you want to.
The challenge here is sorting through this. If you start to get overwhelmed by too many choices, too contradictory pro-and-con lists, it’s time to take some deep breaths, settle, and drill down to your emotions. What do you want? What are your values, your vision of life? See what registers in your gut.
What’s the worst that can happen
Figuring out the top-of-the-list, the shoulds and wants, the means and ends can help you zero in on what you are most striving for. But there is often another hurdle in this decision-making process: being stopped in your tracks by imagining what will happen if you make the wrong decision — that you’ll move to the West coast, miss your family, and lapse into a depression; that you will leave the relationship, never find another partner, and forever regret that you didn’t try harder; that for all your careful research, the refrigerator will turn out be more expensive but not much better than the ones you disliked all those years.
The way to put this worst-case-scenario thinking to rest is to solve the worst-case scenario in advance. Come up now with a Plan B if you find that being away from family is just too difficult, if you regret leaving the relationship, or you find that you don’t like the refrigerator after all. By brainstorming options and having a plan in place, you reduce the pressure of making the perfect decision or the worry about feeling forever trapped by whatever decision you make.
And if you can’t get what you want
You decide on the West-coast job, to leave the relationship, to get that side-by-side refrigerator, but then find that you’re blocked from getting what you want — you aren’t offered the job, you feel you can’t financially afford to leave the relationship, the company that makes the refrigerator you want goes out of business.
This, too, is about having a Plan B, but often about transforming the dream. Ask yourself what what you wanted represented to you, what larger psychological and emotional need it filled. Here you may find yourself thinking that the West coast represented and offered an opportunity to break away from your past and become your own person; that leaving the relationship would free you from responsibilities that you no longer wanted to deal with, and lead to a simpler lifestyle; that the refrigerator wasn’t really about refrigerators, but getting, for a change, what you wanted, rather always having to settle for what you got. Once you realize the larger need underlying your decision, you can now begin to find other ways of bringing these larger needs into your life.
Decision-making is not only about sifting through choices, but sifting through your needs and fears. Ultimately, decisions are steps towards creating the life you want.