The above applies to simple things like choosing what to order at a restaurant, but what about bigger life decisions? How can we use the best of our critical thinking skills without becoming bogged down in over-analysis?
This is a book about conscious intention and will, so we’ll start there. Let’s reclaim our cognitive powers to use deliberately, rather than letting our brains get carried away with distracting or distressing stimuli. When we act from our own personal agency, we start from within. Once we clarify our own will and intention, then we can turn outwards to take in data and process it, according to our needs. This is different form merely reacting to information overload and external pressure.
To loosen the mental block of indecision and allow more intentional thinking to guide our actions, we need to connect more deeply to our values. Sometimes, indecisiveness is a symptom of not really knowing what you want. And this in turn is a sign that your actions are not being guided by your bigger purpose or sincerely held values and beliefs.
Values, purpose and beliefs may sound like insubstantial things, but in truth they are incredibly energizing in a practical sense—when we know exactly what we value, we know what we want and can focus on getting it. It’s like turbo-charging our will. Our will can do almost anything, but it doesn’t function without a why. If your reason, purpose, motivation and actions aren’t properly aligned, you’ll often find yourself unable to act decisively.
Maybe you can’t reach a decision because unconsciously, you know that none of the options actually leads where you want. Maybe you can’t decide because you’re lacking the inspiration and desire that come with a real purpose. When we have goals that speak to our values, we are clear about who we are and what we are doing. We may feel nervous, but we are seldom half-hearted or hesitant. In fact, we typically can’t wait to act.
The block of indecision can often be removed if we take the time to sort out what we really care about, and why, and what we’re trying to actually achieve in this life. Once we’ve determined our values, we should work hard to align our actions with our goals. It’s simple: are our choices working to bring us closer to who we want to become, or further away?
The great thing about centering your values is that it helps you to act even if you haven’t clarified your specific goals yet. Focus instead on what kind of a person you become by holding your values, then use this to inspire your choices. Do you value being a person who always acts with compassion and kindness? Are you the kind of person who always prioritizes their creativity? Are you an independent thinker who wants to arrive at their own conclusions about life?
Even without any particular goals, you can use your values to guide actions, instantly cut down on the noise and get to the heart of what you really care about. Knowing who you are and what you value helps you tune out data that doesn't matter—for example, other people’s opinions or information that you cannot change.
Commitment is then being able to say, “I pour all of my energy into this chosen goal, which means the most to me.” You are not left wondering if the other path was the better choice. You are too focused on the path you have chosen.
Finally, another aspect of information overload and indecisiveness is one you might not have considered: the issue of time. Have you ever sat down with a difficult decision and gotten yourself twisted in mental knots because of what’s already happened, what might happen if this or that comes to be, what could happen, what should have happened differently in the past, and what might have happened in the future if that had occurred…
In all this, you can overlook one important thing: what is happening right now in the present. We certainly need to consider the past and the future in our decision-making—but we need to remember that the present trumps this data, since in all cases the present is the only thing we have any real power to change, right now.
The past is completed and cannot be changed, and the future hasn’t arrived yet, and we cannot alter it no matter how much we stew over possibilities and potentialities now. Being overly influenced by the past or the future actually muzzles our power of intention, because this is a power that acts in the here and now. It cannot work anywhere other than the present.
It’s also disempowering to gather endless data that actually may have little bearing on the situation in front of you right now. In fact, dwelling on the past or future can be a sign of harmful self-narratives that are working against you.
The mindset of indecisiveness is one that gets bogged down in information and endless stories that don’t go anywhere. The only way out, the only way to inhabit your conscious will and intention, is to focus on your values, in the present, and gather only what data is necessary, with a deliberate intention to act.
As an example, a woman may find herself unable to decide whether it’s a good idea to up and move to another city for a job offer. She stresses herself out endlessly by “researching” the new city, her job, and so on. She confuses herself by asking more and more people for their opinions and drawing up endless pros and cons tables, but never really asks what she wants.
Uncover: With introspection, she may discover that her self-doubt and low self-worth is telling her that if she messes up, she will never get another good opportunity again, and so she has to optimize her choices now or risk being unhappy forever. (Yikes! That’s a lot of pressure.)
Remove: She can challenge these beliefs and remind herself that there are other jobs, and plenty of options—it’s not just A or B. She is free to act according to her values. She reminds herself to take her time, and see whether the new move actually fits the goals she has for herself.
Reduce: Knowing that she can never really predict what living in the new city would be like, she asks for a little time to explore the city beforehand before she makes her decision. Her caution is not wrong, but it can be better channeled into taking action that will empower her rather than make her more anxious.
Transform: Seeing how effectively she is able to pick apart the decision at hand, the woman can also appreciate that she is very detail oriented and organized. In a way, this is something that can bolster her self-esteem. Could she also use this skillset to practice better self-care, for example, keeping a journal where she tracks and challenges her most stubborn self-narratives?
If you’re seeking a simple set of guidelines that don’t require you to compute too much, let’s take a look at the following tips on simply taking action and getting into motion.
First, realize that almost every decision is reversible and you can backtrack to some degree. Therefore, it makes sense to dip your toe into one option to see what happens and gain some information, instead of standing at the fork in the road until you starve to death. You learn so much more by acting as if you are going to take one option instead of hemming and hawing about both. Only in the process of exploring an option will you learn more about it and how it feels.
If you are trying to decide between moving to New York or Texas, are you going to gain more information by visiting neither and continuing to debate with yourself, or by visiting one, seeing how you feel about it, and going through some motions to gain information? The point is that taking a few steps down one road is extremely reversible and worthwhile due to what you’ll learn.
Second, as we discussed in an earlier chapter, apply strict boundaries to help make the choice for you. This streamlines your process and reduces the amount of thinking you have to do. For example, if you are struggling with what restaurant to pick for dinner, you might apply filters of healthy, inexpensive, within a ten-minute drive, and not hamburgers. After you set these boundaries, you might only have one or two choices left over. It’s like when you shop online and apply filters for size, style, price, and color; suddenly you’re left with only two shirts to buy.
If you’re left with zero choices, remove one or two filters and work backward until you can make an easy yet satisfactory decision. You’ll be left with choices that are within your criteria, and at that point, what does it matter? You can choose at random at this point with no loss in happiness or effectiveness, and you’ve successfully ignored everything that you don’t care about.