How To Make Big Decisions

Making big decisions is incredibly difficult. When we are sixteen, we are asked what we want to do with our lives. When we are older, we are asked whether we want to rent an apartment. We are asked about whether we want to go to college. All of these decisions have a massive impact on our life, but most people struggle navigating this process. In truth, making big decisions is something we often try to avoid. We delay doing something until something else happens. Or we justify our maintaining the status quo by saying we will do something new tomorrow. But tomorrow is just an excuse. If we don’t commit to something now, then it will never get done.

There are a few different steps which our mind goes through when we are making big decisions. The first stage is being who you are right now. This stage is your equilibrium — your normal. This may be related to your routine, or your job, or whatever else. We are always doing something, and we are always being ourselves. We are writing emails, reading a book, dancing, singing, talking with friends. Or doing something else. Either way, you are in a state of doing. But we often get to the point where our equilibrium turns into a rut. Our job gets boring because we do it every day, or we get tired of reading books every evening because we want to do something more spontaneous. Before we make any big decision, we first reflect on our state of doing. We ask ourselves the question: what is it I am doing right now? We need to know what we are doing right now — what our life looks like — before we can even consider making a decision about anything. Doing is our default state, and we often let this question be answered by our subconscious mind.

The next stage is thinking about our life, and considering whether we are doing what we want to do. We ask ourselves where we would be if we could make a change. What would my life be like if I quit my job and started a company? What would change if I went on a plane tomorrow to SF? This stage is often where we are most creative. When we think about being in SF, our mind is set free to think about all of the amazing things we do. And as we continue to picture these amazing scenes, our mind starts to realize our state of doing is not optimal — our life could be better. We have realized that we do X in our life, then we go to think about how our life would be different if we done Y instead.

We then move to the preparation stage. This is where we are researching how to actually do what we want to do — how to make the change we want to make. Let’s say I decide to move to SF. I would first reflect on my equilibrium and consider how I am spending my time now. I would then think about what my life would be like in SF. Then, if I was dissatisfied with my current life, I would start to prepare. I would look for property listings, read travel guides, and reach out to a few of my friends who were in the city. My mind has now moved from the state of “imagine if I could do this” to “how can I make this happen?”. The final stage is making the change we desire. We leave our job and go move to another city. After everything has settled down, we move back to our default state of doing.

But most people who are making big decisions never reach the point where they have made the change they wanted to see. There are a couple of reasons why this happens.

1. We become comfortable

Indeed, some of our dreams can be too big to come to fruition quickly. But so many of our decisions get stuck because we are too scared to think a little bigger than we are used to. We develop a certain comfort zone from which we do not want to deviate. I was talking with a friend recently who likened this to complacency. We get so used to living our life a certain way that we do not want to make a change, even if doing so would make us happier. But most people who are complacent are not necessarily happy. Rather, they are afraid to take a risk that could pay off, but could also land them in a difficult situation. That’s why it can be so difficult for people to make the leap from a safe job to starting a company. They have to be willing to embrace insecurity and let their ambition guide them to success. And that makes us vulnerable.

2. Our brain tells us we are not good enough

Another reason why we resist making big life decisions is because after we do some research about a decision, our brain tells us we are not good enough to go through with it. Our mind tells us that we are dreaming too big, and that we need to take a step back to think about what we can accomplish. We rationalize our inaction by saying that things are fine the way they are. But they rarely are fine. It’s just because it is easy for our inner voice to question our abilities. Most of us get very excited when we contemplate making a decision, but when it comes to preparation, our mind gets stuck. We are unable to make any more progress because we think we are dreaming.

Our mind is also in the habit of thinking about how a big decision could go wrong. Let’s use the aforementioned example of moving to SF. My mind could say that I may become unemployed and become homeless after I move there. My mind could tell me I would have a poor quality of living. The inner voice inside my head would take over. But most of the time this is just our brain trying to trick us into not taking a risk, because we naturally avoid risk. If we want to make a big decision, we need to be willing to set aside our mental narratives and instead focus on the realities of a decision, rather than the fabrications which our brain has created.

So, how can we make big decisions? Jeff Bezos advocates for using the “regret minimization framework”, which states you should make decisions based on which will result in the least regret. Would I regret moving to SF next month? Perhaps it would be an unstable journey, but I would get to meet great people and experience the culture of the city. Would I regret not moving to SF next month? Most likely. I would always be thinking what would have happened if I had moved there. When we are making big decisions, we should consider which one will result in the least regret, and pursue that course of action.

Indecision should also be based on facts, rather than our internal narratives. Our brain likes to create its own storylines about particular decisions and situations. This mechanism makes it easier for the brain to avoid risk and predict what will happen next. However, it often becomes overactive. Our mind tells us we cannot do something based on some situation which will probably never arise. Our mind echoes “you can’t move to SF, you don’t like flying”, and tries to revert you back to your state of doing. Instead, we should think about our motivations and internalize them before we are making a decision. If I want to move to SF, that means I am not happy with how things are going right now. Thus, my mind should be focused not on the complex narratives it builds, but rather how dissatisfied I am right now.

Life is short, and there is no time for us to let our minds trick us into not taking a risk. Carpe diem is a Latin phrase which, literally translated, means “seize the day”. We should value each day highly, and should never run away from making a big decision. Sure, moving to SF is risky, but will we ever forgive ourselves if we did not make that decision. When we are eighty, do we want to look back and be saying “I wish I had moved to SF that year”? Seize the day, and do not be afraid to make big decisions. You are in control of your life — don’t delay in making decisions that would change your life for the better.

Blog, EssayJames GallagherComment