The Art of Making Decisions
When I was a kid, my answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was usually President of the United States. I now look back on that admirable answer with pity; to think that I, arguably the worst decision-maker to ever live, once desired to be the country’s most important decision-maker, is laughable.
In sixth grade, I spent four days crying because I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to run for student council. In high school, it took me several weeks of ambivalence to decide whether to take an honors science research class or AP US History. The decision became such a source of stress that I began losing sleep, losing weight, and I cried in front of my school dean. To think of myself making decisions about matters of war or healthcare for an entire nation is quite inconceivable.
Decisions are unavoidable, of course. From the food we cook each day, to the classes we take, to the college major we pick, our lives could quite simply be boiled down to a series of decisions -- and college is the first time we’re making those decisions entirely on our own. And, really, what bliss to make one’s own decisions! To exercise agency and free will! But with such freedom comes a substantial amount of power and responsibility. For myself, that decision-making power can be quite overwhelming.
One of my recent battles was whether to stay in my current living situation. The other option was relocating to an equally great living situation for an equally great price a mere two blocks away. There were more factors of course—-the people living there, the house culture—but either situation would have created a marginal difference in my life. Yet, it felt as if I were deciding to push a nuclear missile launch button or not.
I had 24 hours to make the decision, but each day I cajoled my way into extending the amount of time I had to decide. Each time I pushed the decision further off into the distance, I felt a surge of temporary relief (along with immense guilt for making the landlord wait). But that prolongation of the decision-making period became a form of self-inflicted torture.
During what turned into a week, I fell behind in classes and in my social life, and I spent most of my free time on the phone with my parents, verbalizing my thoughts and asking for advice. I was ill-tempered with friends and I couldn’t focus on our conversations because I was too consumed with my own anxieties. In French class, instead of pondering the great works of Voltaire—something of real value and importance—I was picturing my life in each potential alternative universe and scrupulously analyzing the hypothetical pros and cons of each. My mind was an echo-chamber of worthless, vacillating thoughts.
I eventually made the decision to stay where I was. The day after making the decision felt post-apocalyptic. It was if I had temporarily left the world as I knew it, became consumed by an abyss of darkness and confusion, and then re-entered, a bit dazed and unsure as to what I had just been doing for the past week.
My inability to make decisions like these is a huge source of insecurity for me. The logical part of my brain knows that these are easy decisions to make. I als oftentimes feel immense guilt because I realize how much privilege I have once I’m able to take a step back and realize that I’m stressing over something so trivial. The “problem” I’m faced with stems from the wonderful reality that I have an abundance of opportunities and choices.
In hindsight, none of these decisions mattered that much. Even the really big ones. Because what made these decisions difficult was that there was no right or wrong option, no good or bad; it was roughly 50/50. So if there wasn’t a bad option, then why was the decision so excruciating to make? Well, if there were a bad option, then the decision would be easy, wouldn’t it?
Granted, while I can acknowledge the triviality of these 50/50 decisions, I can also acknowledge that the reason these decisions were so anxiety-inducing was because they represented something of deeper meaning to me about myself. In the instance of deciding if I should take a science class or a history class, I realized that this was my way of working out whether I wanted to be a STEM or humanities person (a naïve binary to establish, by the way). It was my junior year of high school and I was beginning to think of myself in the context of college and the world beyond high school. Too much weight to place on a frankly irrelevant decision, of course, but it was important for me to realize that all of the crying and self-destruction was less about the decision, and more about a process of evaluation and exploration of my own identity.
My poor track record has caused me to deeply analyze my own decision-making practices. By no means am I a master of decision-making, but through some research and self-reflection, I believe I have found some insight that may be useful to others who struggle in the same way.
- Write down your thoughts. For some, that takes the form of a list of pros and cons. For myself, I keep a running list of thoughts on my phone or in a notebook -- it includes pros, cons, questions, anxieties, long trains of thought, anything. Whatever form it takes, it’s helpful to purge those thoughts that have become toxic buildup in your mind and put them elsewhere.
- Talk to people. Exchanging thoughts with friends and family members can help you gain some perspective or learn new information. But there’s also such thing as having too much discussion or compiling too much information. You may reach a point when there’s no more information to learn or advice to receive. You’re no longer being productive, and you have to realize when you’ve reached that point. Use the advice and consider the opinions of trusted confidants, but remember that in the end, it’s you who must make the decision and live the reality of it.
- Acknowledge that there may not be a “best” decision. One of the reasons I become paralyzed in the face of a decision is because of my perfectionist tendencies. I want to make the choice that will yield the most positivity in my life and bring me the most happiness. The “best” is oftentimes impossible to quantify, and reminding yourself of that can free yourself from being hung up on making that “right” or “best” decision.
- As cliché as it sounds, go with your gut. But what does that mean? Take a moment to imagine that you’ve chosen one option. Just sit with it for a moment. Perhaps, even, go about your day, keeping the decision you’ve made in the back of your mind. Do this with each option. Choose the one that makes you feel relieved, as if a weight has been lifted off of your shoulders. Sometimes when you’re stuck, logic fails you. Instead, you have to get in tune with your body to find answers.
- Realize that sometimes you’re not going to feel relief with either decision. If the previous tip works for you, great. But sometimes it doesn’t work for me. I make a decision, yet that unsettled, anxious feeling in my stomach persists. I begin to focus on the negative aspects of my choice and I can’t help but remember all of the positive aspects of the option that I abandoned. If you had chosen the alternative option, there’s a good chance you’d be feeling exactly the same way. Only time and moving forward will give you relief.
- Be nice to yourself. The possibility of making the “wrong” decision terrifies me, mostly because I fear that I may be mad at myself for choosing the “wrong” option. To harbor anger at myself, of course, is irrational. It’s impossible to calculate the future with certainty, for the future is always uncertain. So once you make a decision, stick with it, and be proud of yourself for making it, regardless of how it turns out.
I’m still in the process of learning how to employ my own strategies and become a better decision maker. But maybe one day I’ll get there, and the idea of me as President won’t be so far-fetched.