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Will I or won't I? How to make big decisions

Making a snap decision is often easy. The ball is coming at us – we decide in a split second whether to catch it and how. We hardly even have to think about it; it's a reflex action. Sometimes we might drop the ball or fail to catch it but the decision to try is made without us having to even think about it.

A little stress (or emotion in general) can help us to take the leap of decision making – in fact you literally can't make a decision without the limbic system (or the emotional brain) being involved. People who've had this connection severed find that they can't make a decision about anything, including what to have for breakfast.

However too much stress can flood the brain with stress chemicals and make trying to decide (or think straight at all) a fuzzy experience. If you're overly stressed delay making that life-changing decision until you are in a better space, otherwise you might get pressured (by yourself or others) into making a decision you'll later regret.

Another problem is that we have so many choices in our decision making today and so many options. A couple of hundred years ago the ordinary citizen only had a choice of about two sets of clothes – one for every day and one for Sundays. Now you can stand in front of the wardrobe for ages without being able to decide what to wear (and that goes for men too). Even in big decision making, we often have too many choices now.

But what about those big, hard-to-make decisions, the kind we agonize over, procrastinate over and dither about? That's much harder. Will we buy or move house? Will we change jobs? Will we ask that man or woman to marry us? - Decisions, decisions.

Professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, L.A. Paul in her book 'Transformative experience' says it's one thing to imagine what to do and another to actually know – for example - when we ask other people about their experience we can never really know what it's like for them. She says in the end it comes down to a subjective leap (or intuition if you like). She also says we should enjoy making decisions instead of agonising over them (or words to that effect).

We can certainly find out a lot about what we're trying to decide by using our imagination and also by doing research – including asking family and friends about their experience. The internet comes in handy for evidence on what we're trying to decide about too. I'm not sure I entirely agree with L.A. Paul about the enjoyment part, although I think she's definitely onto something with the subjective leap of faith.

Having thought about this, I have come up with some guidelines for how to make life-changing decisions.

How to make a life-changing decision

  1. Think about the outcome you want. What's your ideal scenario? How would you like it to be when it's all over? Especially, how would you like to feel? Write this down with as much emotional detail as possible using superlatives like 'wonderful', 'beautiful', thrilling', 'happy' and so on.
  2. Research all the options and create scenarios you can live with and then do a cost benefit analysis for each one (draw a line and write costs on the left and benefits on the right). Choose the top two or three scenarios.
  3. Make sure you take enough time to make the decision. Don't be pressured into it by yourself or others. This just creates stress and as we've already found out, too much stress is not conducive to good decision making.
  4. Try not to make decisions through fear. Fear is all too often not real and besides, even if it is a bit scary, accept the discomfort and do it anyway.
  5. Make the decision. You'll be happier with it if you've taken time, researched it, looked at all the options and found evidence for and against. The bottom line is often what your gut feeling says, that 'leap of faith'.
  6. Have a back-up plan. You know the brain loves a plan and in the case of big decisions, it's good to have a fall-back position. Since you've got two or three scenarios you're happy with, then use your second-best scenario as a back-up plan. For example if you're deciding which bank to borrow money from, rate them in order of 1 to 3 and choose the second one. Of course if you're deciding whether or not to ask that man, or woman, to marry you, there is only one choice, so your back-up scenario might be some other relationship arrangement that you can live with.

So there are some ideas for me on how to make big decisions. Of course there's always the option of not making a decision at all and sticking with the status quo and there's nothing wrong with that either, as long as it's what you choose and not through avoidance or fear.

Happy decision making and may the best scenario win.