The Art of Making Big Decisions

With the new year upon us, ‘tis the season for making big decisions: should I work overseas for a few years? Should I take a year off to travel? And, most commonly, should I stay the course in my current role or accept an exciting external opportunity?

I must be getting old (at least in other people’s eyes) because I increasingly get asked to dispense some wise counsel or advice. 

First some advice to those inclined to give advice. Avoid giving advice unless you are expressly asked for it (please accept my advice on this). And even if you are asked, please bear in mind the observation of the poet-philosopher Khalil Gibran: “Most people who ask for advice from others have already resolved to act as it pleases them.”

So, with these significant caveats in mind, I share below some principles that I’ve found useful in the art of making big decisions.

Principle 1: Sleep well, eat well and exercise regularly. 

Big decisions involve you listening intently to your heart and mind and achieving some kind of synthesis. This is very difficult to do if your body is not in a state of positive alertness. The pessimism and mood swings associated with lack of sleep, unhealthy diet and/or poor levels of fitness are well documented. Avoid making any big decision until you are (for at least one month) sleeping well, eating healthy and exercising regularly.

Principle 2: Relax, it’s not as big a deal as you think.

Too often people put themselves under unnecessary pressure by supposing that the big decision they are about to make will “disappoint others” or irreversibly alter the course of their life forever. Fear not. You are never disappointing anyone that matters when you are clear about what you want and you speak and act with conviction. The more calmly assured you are with your decision, the more others will sense that and cheer you on. And while big decisions are important, they are far less important than your values in shaping the course of your life. There are very few decisions that can’t be quickly reversed. So relax – if you remain true to your values, you will always end up where you’re meant to be. So what if there are a few twists and turns along the way? It’s not where you start that matters, it’s where you finish. 

And while big decisions are important, they are far less important than your values in shaping the course of your life.

Principle 3: Appease the conscious mind.

The conscious mind suffers from the illusion that it can solve any problem by scientifically weighing up all the pros and cons. But this is impossible to do for big decisions because you are dealing with a lot of unknowns and imponderables – many of them outside your control. But the brain is a calculating machine, so it will continuously try to calculate the solution by going over the pros and cons (much like a CD ROM caught in a spinning loop). This is why a lot of people report sleepless nights when making big decisions. To silence the mind, I’ve found it helpful to create a comprehensive master list of all the pros and cons and to add to it whenever the mind thinks of a new point. This puts the conscious mind at ease that it’s done its job, and you can now get on with making the decision using your intuition (a much higher level of reasoning than mere deduction).

Principle 4: Activate the subconscious mind. 

Freud likened the conscious mind to the tip of an iceberg: the subconscious mind, although submerged, is far larger and more powerful. To activate the subconscious mind, you need to clearly, honestly and repeatedly articulate your intention. Just ask the creator of the Dilbert comic, Scott Adams. Way before he became a famous cartoonist, he wrote the following sentence fifteen times every day for 3-years: “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.” Once an ambition of this kind is earnestly and repeatedly affirmed, the subconscious kicks into gear and starts to filter the morass of data in your environment and draw your attention to anything that can assist you. You experience it as “coincidences” or “signs” but it’s known in psychology as “reticular activation”. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to this podcast interview of Scott Adams by Tim Ferris.

Principle 5: Put people first.

When making your decision, write down the names of all the people you will interact with most under each option. Go with the option where the people are smart, ambitious and of high character. This is because the company you keep is a good predictor of your future. Role and remuneration are your short-term potential. The people you work with represent your long-term potential. Play the long game.

Principle 6: If in doubt, choose the bolder option. 

If, after doing all of that, you remain unsure about which option to choose – then you should choose the bolder option. This is because the option that excites and scares you more has more to teach you. And in the long-term, the only thing that really matters is how much you grow as a person and as a professional. And the way to maximise growth is to adopt Nelson Mandela’s mantra: “I never fail. I either win or I learn.”

Principle 7: Try before you buy.

Once you’ve made a big decision, it’s a good idea to live with it quietly for two weeks. Each morning when you wake up, ask yourself how you feel. If your gut is at ease and there’s no sense of foreboding regret, then you’re good to go.

Principle 8: Be decisive, don’t dither.

Once you’ve made a decision, announce it with confidence and commit to it with gusto. Fire, don’t fall prey to the “ready-aim-aim-aim” syndrome. Indecision is a debilitating disease and stems from taking yourself and/or life too seriously. For this, read my blog: On The Importance Of Being Unimportant.

And when you’ve done all that, don’t forget to have fun. Making decisions, big or small, should be fun. Don’t turn it into a sombre affair. It’s the way we navigate ourselves through the game of life. Make it a great adventure. Dr Seuss said it best: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

Happy New Year, everyone, and happy navigating.