In life, we are constantly faced with choices. Some small, like what to eat each day. Some bigger, like what country to visit for our next holiday. And some that require sacrifice, like whether to choose love over your career, yourself over someone else, or time with your family over an opportunity abroad. These kinds of choices are never easy. If we choose one path, we give up something else (at least in the short-term), because the two options are usually mutually exclusive. What makes it even more difficult is that we cannot always experience both options or try them out temporarily before making the final choice. And then there are the hardest choices of all – those that both require sacrifice and are irreversible.
But why are these types of decisions so difficult to make? And what can we do to make this process easier?
We try to predict the future…
When we are trying to make a choice about some important issue, the first thing we usually do is consider the pros and cons of each choice. We make lists and ponder the implications and consequences of the choice we are about to make.
We try to make the “right” choice to diminish the possibility of regretting this choice in the future.
But here is why this way of making decisions is highly problematic. We do not know what is going to happen in the future. Consequences, per definition, are results or effects of something, and thus they always happen after an action. Simply put, consequences only exist in the future. And, as I have already mentioned, we cannot predict the future. Some research has even suggested that as human beings we are in fact pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy, even in the short-term. Additionally, happiness is relative, and when it is gained from external rewards, it is fleeting at best. Eventually, we always want more.
We can make an informed decision, based on the data that is available to us, but we cannot guarantee any outcome. We cannot guarantee that we will not regret our choice in ten years. And we cannot guarantee that this choice will make us happy. What makes decision-making even more complicated is that we cannot guarantee that we will be the exact same person in ten years as we are today. Are you starting to see the problem here? We are essentially trying to guess our way to the “right” choice, based on mostly irrelevant information.
… by consulting the past…
Some people might argue, however, that we can make “good” choices grounded in our existing knowledge that we have gathered over the course of our lives. Knowledge gained through past experience. Because every decision we have made in the past has led us to where we are today.
And while this has a degree of truth to it, looking to the past does not offer much help in our present decision-making dilemma. The past has already happened, which means that there is nothing we can do to change it. We have (hopefully) gained some knowledge and insight from it, but it still does not help us predict the future. In fact, past experiences are not always to be trusted. At some point, they became memories more than experiences, and memories are fickle, ever-changing, and self-serving.
Considering the past may however lead us to the realisation that we have already grown and evolved as individuals, and are therefore likely to continue evolving as time progresses. So we cannot make decisions based on how we used to be. Nor can we make decisions based on similarly unstable things, like regrets or predictions about the future. There is really only one thing that can help us make difficult choices.
… and straying from the present
The only moment that you have any true knowledge about, or indeed power over, is the present moment. Knowledge about the past is made up of memories and knowledge about the future is made up of predictions. But the present moment is made up of true knowledge, which is experience. This is the moment when the decision is being made. And here is the good news. You can make a decision based solely on how you feel in the present moment.
The decision you make right now will lead to some outcome, but you do not have control over that outcome, so worrying about it is fundamentally fruitless. You only have control over the decision you make. And if you tune in to your body and listen to what it is trying to tell you, you might realise that you already know what decision to make. Making a list of pros and cons, trying to predict the future, or worrying about the outcome may actually disconnect you from the present moment and from what your body is telling you to do. Indeed, most choices we have to make are not black and white or right and wrong. They all come with pros and cons, gains and losses. So instead of relying on such external cues and influences, try to rely on yourself.
How does your body respond when you consider one of the options? How does your body respond when you consider the other option? Tense, anxious, relieved? Often, the answer is already there. We just have to learn to listen. And mindfulness can help us do just that.
As cliché as it sounds, “trust your gut” is a well-established decision-making motto in most areas of life, from business decisions to relationships. Another common piece of advice is to ask yourself why you are doing something and what you would choose if money or social approval was not an issue. And now, meditation has started appearing on the occasional “how to” list for decision-making. Just maybe, all these aspects are actually interconnected.
Mindfulness strengthens our intuition and teaches us to tune in with our body (“trust your gut”), quiets the chatter of social expectations (social approval) and concerns about the future (e.g., money), and reconnects us to the only moment that is truly available to us – the present.