“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien
Truth be told, making decisions stresses me out. But the other truth to be told is this: not deciding stresses me out even more.
I started out 2012 realizing I had this problem with decision-making. My indecision was causing undue stress in my life, but I didn’t know what to do about it. So I decided (yes!) to explore decision-making as a concept. I didn’t call it a resolution (hate that “r word” so much…), but as a problem to analyze.
Over the course of the year focusing on this problem I learned a few things. As background, I should tell you that my consideration of decision-making was mainly in the context of writing, though I believe my findings are broadly applicable. Also, the context is generally in deciding between two or more good or neutral options. Most choices that paralyze those of us who get paralyzed by choices are of this type, not of the moral “good versus bad” type. While there are moral choices to be made in writing (and plenty of them to be made elsewhere in life), my points in this piece are solely in the context of the good-neutral type.
So, here are my big take-aways from a year of considering decision-making:
- Contrary to popular opinion, deciding is actually not about choosing one thing over another. Tolkien was right: it’s about choosing what to do now, “with the time that is given us.” Decision paralysis sometimes comes as a result of thinking, “If I choose A, I can’t choose B.” But if it really is about what to do now, maybe you can choose A now and B later. Maybe. Maybe not. But the quicker you decide and do it, the quicker you will know. Maybe you won’t get back to B, but if you stall in decision-making before you even get to A, you can guarantee you never will.
- In most cases, the choice itself doesn’t matter. Of course, this is in the context of choices between good or neutral options, as mentioned above, not with moral decision-making. What matters is that you follow through with your decision. Keeping commitments to yourself matters more than what you have committed to do. It’s making respect for your will (as expressed in your decisions) a way of life.
- Every time you make a decision, no matter how small, the better you get at it. Really. Try it. Would you rather have vanilla or chocolate ice cream for dessert tonight? Come on, don’t even think about it. Because remember, the quicker you decide and do, the quicker you can move on to the chocolate… or vanilla. Whatever. (See how easy that was?)
- Due dates are awesome tools for decision-making. They help you choose what to do now. If you have a report due to a client tomorrow and an essay to a journal next month, and both are equally unfinished, guess which you should choose to work on now… Right. Now put it in the context of something you want to do for yourself. In other words, if it’s not for a client, employer, or other person you’ve made a commitment to, but something really important you want to do for you (like write a book or something), put it on the calendar. Treat yourself as an important stakeholder in your life, someone you want to impress. Meet your own deadlines.
- Most “go/no go” decision-making can be expedited with a simple three point check-list. Here’s what’s on mine: Do I have the talent/ability to do it? Do I have the capacity (time, space, resources)? Do I have the desire? If I can’t say yes to all three of those questions, it’s a clear “no go.”
- A decision is a gift to yourself. Whether you are giving yourself permission to explore the “what if” or to focus on current projects (and pass up the “what if”), good for you. How exciting! You are taking command of the present, which is indeed a present.
I made “decide and delight” my theme for 2012, because I wanted to turn my decision-making into a joy-filled strength rather than an anxiety-filled weakness. And while I can’t say I am now 100 percent confident in how I make decisions, and I sure can’t say I am delighted with the outcome of all my decision-making, I can say that my theme-based analytical approach helped.
For example, take this here blog post as a case in point. I started out today wondering what I was going to write about. I felt that old anxiety starting to well up – “What to write about, what to write about…” – the bane of a blogger’s existence. But I shut it down pretty quickly. What would have a year ago taken me several days of stewing and stressing about, and a last-minute late-night writing session, I have taken down in an hour(ish) of focused choosing.
I hope you are delighted. I am, mainly because I can now move on to the next thing. And I assure you, it will be, decidedly, chocolate.