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Making Skillful Decisions

Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
 min read

A significant source of emotional chaos in anyone’s life is decision making. No doubt you have been faced with many decisions in your life and know full well how difficult it can be, at times, to choose between alternatives. The reason you may struggle with making up your mind is that you haven’t yet developed skillful means for making decisions. Without a clear path for making decisions, you can easily lose your direction as you try to resolve issues in your life. You can end up totally avoiding a decision that needs to be made; you can freeze out of fear of making the wrong decision; you can become distracted by factors that are irrelevant to your decision; and, of course, you can make poor decisions. Once you lose your way, your mind becomes fuzzy and your willpower weakens, which leads to a lot of second- guessing about your decisions afterward. The consequence of all this emotional chaos is that often you are not very effective in implementing your decisions once you finally make them. The good news is that you can develop a conscious, deliberate approach to making decisions (both large and small), which will give you greater clarity in resolving and implementing your choices.

Do You Really Have a Decision to Make?

I often counsel students seeking help with making various life choices. The most common decisions they present are about whether to take a new job, have a baby, leave a marriage, take an ethical stand against some wrongdoing, undergo a medical procedure, or make a life change in order to dedicate more time to their spiritual journey. The two questions they most often ask may well apply to you: “How do I clarify my thinking when it is muddled by the stress of deciding?” and “How do I stay in touch with my deepest values when I’m feeling anxious?”

Before you can begin to make a wise decision, you first need to be real with yourself about the situation: is there a genuine decision to be made, or are you just postponing the inevitable? For example, one student, Gloria, came to me for advice about her job, saying she was thinking about quitting. As I questioned her, Gloria realized that her choice between staying in the job and leaving was not real. In fact, she was at such odds with her supervisor that there was almost no chance of her staying. Meanwhile her self-confidence was being destroyed. She came to understand that believing she had a decision to make was actually a way of avoiding the anxiety and fear of job hunting. By thinking she had a choice, and getting stuck on it, she was denying herself the chance to proactively seek new employment. Gloria was ultimately able to transform her avoidance into an active decision, and she now has a job in which she is supported and stimulated.

Another student, Alicia, also wanted advice about changing her life, but she was in a very different situation and faced a genuine decision. Alicia’s company had just hired a new president, who valued Alicia’s abilities and wanted her to take on more responsibility. But Alicia felt burned out and wanted more free time in order to explore her spiritual life. The problem was that she wasn’t sure she could afford to quit and knew that if she changed her mind later she might not find such a great opportunity again. “Should I just hang in there a few more years, despite how I feel, or should I take the plunge, even if I regret it later?” she asked me plaintively. After many months of deliberation, Alicia decided to leave her high-profile job and now works for a nonprofit organization with a flexible schedule that allows her to pursue her spiritual interests.

Like Alicia, you too probably experience suffering in the form of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty when facing a genuine decision. However, it is possible to relieve the mental suffering you feel in connection with decision making by applying mindfulness.

Mindful Decision Making

Although I teach a number of skills to employ in decision making, they all rely on becoming ever more mindful of what is happening in your body, mind, and heart when you are making a decision. Mindfulness allows you to know what’s true for you now, keeps you focused in the moment, allows you to stay real with yourself, and helps you overcome the many emotional and psychological issues that may arise when you are dealing with a complex decision. I call this approach mindful decision making.

Mindful decision making enables you to go beneath the surface level of your moment-to-moment life experience, which is clouded with emotions, to see the truth of what is happening. In daily life mindfulness helps you see clearly what needs to be done, what you are capable of doing, and how it relates to the larger truths of life. Applying mindfulness to decision making leads to clearer thinking and to staying connected to your core values, which is crucial to your peace of mind. There are three stages in the mindful-decision-making process that I instruct students to repeat until a clear decision emerges. I consider these three stages to be the basis for all skillful decision making, and they will serve you in any situation, including when you are participating in a group decision. If you learn to be skillful in making your own decisions, you will automatically become more skilled at facilitating group decisions.

Stage One: Come into the Present Moment

When faced with making a decision, first direct your attention to the felt experience of this particular decision. How does it feel in your body right now? Do you feel pressure? Anxiety? Does your stomach hurt, or do your eyes burn? Do you feel as though you’ve left your body? Often you don’t notice what’s really going on and miss the body’s signals telling you what to do. By feeling the decision in your body, you connect with your intuition.

Oftentimes there is a vital piece of knowledge about the decision that your mind has not tuned in to, but your body knows and is trying to tell you. For instance, one woman who came to me for an interview during a meditation retreat told me that she had said yes to a marriage proposal and thought it would be great but also said that she felt a “strange tension” in her body whenever she was with her fiancé. As she stayed with the feeling in her body, she was shocked to discover that she didn’t trust her fiancé at all! After she left the retreat, she called off the wedding.

Next start to name the actual decision you are making, as best you’re able, which will help bring it into focus. At first you may not be able to clearly articulate what the decision is. Other times you will be able to name it right away, but then change that description over time, especially if it’s a big decision. For example, if you are weighing whether or not to stay in your current job, you may initially think, “I don’t want to stay in this job because there’s too much pressure,” then a week later think, “No, I don’t want to stay in the job because I don’t like my boss very much.” Another week goes by, and you realize, “Actually, I don’t like the values that are involved in this type of work.” By staying mindful of the decision over a period of weeks, you discover that your actual decision is whether or not you can work for a company when you are at odds with its values. You are able to see that it was the company’s values that led to the creation of an unlikable boss and unbearable pressure. Therefore, even if the boss left or the pressure eased, your unhappiness would not go away.

Naming may be the single most useful skill you can develop for decision making. By naming the question, you clarify it to yourself. You may be surprised at how hard it is for you to correctly name the decision in highly charged situations—no wonder you are struggling with clarity around it! I urge you to practice naming the decision even when it seems obvious what the decision is and even if you know what you are going to decide.

The act of naming alone can help release some of the tension around making a decision. One Life Balance client was offered a major job with the federal government and had spent many hours agonizing over whether to accept it but was unable to decide. As we explored his dilemma, it turned out that he did not have a question about the job—he definitely wanted it—but taking the job meant that he had to give up his current lifestyle, which he was very attached to. He had been asking himself the wrong question. His decision was not whether to take this job, but whether he was willing to take any job that would require him to change his way of life. Naming the correct decision led him into a deep exploration of what he wanted the remaining years of his life to be about. Many valuable insights arose from this process for him. He recently told me that he now helps other leaders name the decisions that they are facing in their organizations.

Another important step in being mindful of a decision is to notice if you’re obsessing over the decision instead of engaging in making it. If you are replaying the same thoughts over and over in your head, this is often a sign that you’re avoiding making the decision. Your obsessive thinking means you are focusing on your fear of not getting it right rather than focusing on the decision. When you become mindful that you’re just recycling your same old anxious thoughts about the decision, redirect your mind elsewhere. Often just noticing obsessive thinking and naming it will help you to stop obsessing.

Stage Two: Clarify through Investigation

After becoming present to your decision, the next step is to clarify the decision through investigation. First consider the scale of the consequences of the decision. There may be times when the long-term effect of a decision is minimal and you’re getting distraught over something that’s really not all that important. Or maybe it’s not a genuinely hard decision; you just don’t want to face it, and that’s creating stress. Also, be realistic about the deadline for when the decision needs to be made. Are you becoming stressed about a decision that doesn’t have to be made for a long time?

One Life Balance client kept bringing up a purchase decision in session after session, so I finally asked her how much money was involved in making this decision. I was surprised when she said fifteen hundred dollars. I pointed out that she made that much money in two days of work, therefore her anxiety about the decision could not possibly be related to money. As soon as I said this, her anxiety immediately disappeared. She then made the decision with ease. So, what was her real issue? My guess is that she was concerned what other people would think if she made the wrong decision, and more important, she couldn’t admit to herself that she lacked the confidence to make the decision. She had such a strong need to do everything right that it was a self-limiting attitude and caused her to exaggerate the import of her decision—it was just an opportunity for her to practice mindful decision making.

You learn how to make a right decision by making wrong decisions, and what matters most is that you stay mindful during and after the decision-making process so that you learn from the decision. If you are mindful in this manner, you will always receive a meaningful return from making a wrong decision, and sometimes it may be even more valuable than if you had made a better decision.

The next step in clarifying your decision is to ask, “What kind of decision is this?” (See “Five Kinds of Decisions”.) More than likely, you don’t realize the nature of the decision you’re making—you just experience it as pressure. Identifying what kind of decision it is can in many instances immediately ease your mental suffering or make the best choice obvious. For example, let’s say you’re trying to choose between two options that you’re neutral about, such as moving to a new home, which your spouse would like to do, or staying where you are. You may well be getting tied up in knots because you think you’re supposed to care a lot about the decision and be passionate about one of the choices. In fact, it’s not that big a deal to you, so you relax and just let the decision go either way. But beware of telling yourself that you don’t care when in fact you are avoiding the pressure and hard work of having to make a decision. Likewise, avoid saying to yourself, “Since my partner cares so much, I will just ignore what I care about and will just go along with whatever he wants.” Both of these situations represent quitting on yourself and do not work out well in the long run. It’s okay to allow someone else’s preference to count more, but it is not wise to deny the truth of your own feelings.

You will also benefit by clarifying how others who are involved in the decision feel. Oftentimes, when you’re making a decision that affects other people whom you really care about, you can become enmeshed in their feelings without realizing it. Or you may project what you think they want, which clouds your thinking. Simply restating the decision without a view to pleasing anyone else can help you discover what’s true for you. One student took a job she wasn’t all that thrilled about because every single person close to her kept telling her that she could not refuse such a great opportunity. Did she ever regret it!

It may seem obvious, but an important step in clarifying a decision is to determine whether or not you have all the information you need to make the choice. It’s surprising how often people don’t make the effort to gather all the information they need or don’t organize the information in a way that facilitates making a decision. If you’re prone to either tactic, it could mean that you’re avoiding making the decision (or you may have developed lazy habits regarding decision making). Sometimes you discover that you are postponing a decision by claiming you need more information when in fact you don’t, or you find that it isn’t possible to obtain more information; therefore you just need to go ahead and decide.

As you continue your investigation, ask yourself, “Why is this decision so sticky for me?” Your struggle with the decision may have to do with factors other than the question at hand. For instance, maybe you can’t decide which house to buy because your real decision is whether or not you’re going to stay in your relationship, but you haven’t been willing to admit that to yourself. The decision about the house is an opportunity to face your true question, but will you? So often people don’t; they simply go along rather than face up to the decision that truly needs to be made.

If you’re facing a really difficult life decision and you can’t embrace any of the options, you may be stuck because there’s some inner change that needs to happen before you can make the decision. When I suggest to someone that they simply aren’t sufficiently resolved within themselves to make a particularly difficult outer decision, I am often met with hostility, as though I were saying they weren’t good enough. You too may feel that admitting to such a situation in your life is a sign of inadequacy, but it’s not true. It simply means that you are being called to resolve a conflict between competing priorities or to clarify some ambiguity or ambivalence you have about the direction of your life.

The final step in clarifying your decision is to restate the decision and write it down on a piece of paper, along with what you perceive the inner and outer consequences of your choices to be. Cross-check your options with your core values and ask yourself whether they are aligned. You will be much more likely to feel at ease with your decision, no matter what the outcome, if you have made a choice based on your values.

Stage Three: Surrender to the Decision

Observe whether you’re clinging to the idea of making the right decision. When you insist on a perfect outcome, you’re only deluding yourself and procrastinating. Applying mindfulness, you’ll recognize that there is no perfect outcome and that it’s impossible to know what all the consequences of your decision will be, no matter what you choose. Consciously let go of your attachment to the decision being right. You’re never going to know if you really got it right. It may be that it is the right decision for a while, but then it turns out to be wrong later; or maybe you made the wrong decision now, but it leads to making a much better one in the future.

As a further act of surrender, write down what your mind is telling you to do, then what your heart seems to want, and finally what your intuition seems to be saying. People are often surprised to discover that these three centers of knowing are in conflict and that the conflict is paralyzing them. My usual advice is to go with your heart and intuition, if they agree, but to do so utilizing the practical planning capability of the mind. One Life Balance client was trying to find someone to be the president of her company while she remained the chief executive, because she wanted to be able to spend more time away from the business that she had built. When she came to see me, she was on her second president, and he was frustrating her and making her paranoid; the first one had been a failure as well. When I asked her how she chose people for the job, she described a process that was very rational and primarily based on the candidate’s previous experience. She had not allowed her gut to tell her whom to hire or let her heart say who would be fun to work with. It was no wonder her selections failed her. She resolved that she was going to let the current president go and choose a replacement that “felt” right to her.

Before implementing your final decision, you can try it on for a few days without acting on it, to test how it feels. Oftentimes valuable insight will arise from an imagined trial run. I describe this process of living with a decision as acting as though it were true. For this active-imagination process to work effectively, you must completely step into the reality that this choice is your final decision and there is no turning back. You hold to this pretense and maybe tell a few trusted people what you’ve decided, or perhaps write something to yourself about what comes next for you, or maybe interact with someone involved in the decision as if you have made your decision but don’t tell them. After a few days of acting out your decision, the body may send you signals, or you may suddenly have a new perspective on the situation that hadn’t occurred to you before. You may also discover heaviness in your heart if the situation isn’t sitting well with you, or peacefulness if it’s feeling good. I have used this process in making a number of major decisions, and it has helped me avoid making decisions I would have regretted later.

You’re now as ready to make your decision as you possibly can be. The one thing you may not have done is to make the decision knowing that you have done so as best you are able and to surrender to living with the ramifications of the decision, whatever they may be. You will ultimately discover that it is not the decision but rather how you live it out that truly matters.

Even if the outcome of your decision is disappointing, there’s still meaning in it because you were developing throughout the process of making it. You were being genuine and acting from your core values; therefore you’ve grown. You have more confidence in your decision-making ability, and others will feel this maturity in you. The result is that you will be wiser when making future decisions and more relaxed about the whole process.

Obstacles to Implementing Your Decision

When it comes time to implement a decision, some people freeze. They can’t pull the trigger, say the words, sign the paper, or walk out the door. This may happen to you if you have trauma in your back- ground, or have lost all confidence in yourself, or the stakes of the decision exceed the limits of your nervous system. At this point you may appeal to others to make the decision for you, which is seldom a good idea, and one that undermines your ability to make decisions in the future. Or you may frantically go around asking one person after another their opinion about what you should do and waffle after hearing what each person says. I’ve only ever seen poor results from doing this.

If you happen to freeze, don’t feel ashamed or guilty; your paralysis is coming from impersonal causes and conditions. Eventually these conditions will change, and you will find the agency to act once again. In the meantime, you will have to bear the feelings of helplessness or inadequacy, so please do so with a compassionate and forgiving attitude toward that part of you that is immobilized. You are suffering enough from being in a freeze; there is no need to punish yourself further.

You can freeze up over decisions that have either small or large consequences, and it can happen when making decisions about work, relationships, or your inner life. What matters during this period of feeling immobilized is that you stay connected to your intentions and that you not abandon your goal to make a decision. If you’re really paralyzed, I recommend talking about what’s going on with someone you trust or a therapist; otherwise keep your mind state to yourself. I once worked with a young man who froze on the day of his wedding. It created quite a drama. But once I helped him feel that he could say no, he was able to unfreeze and say yes.

One last piece of advice: Making difficult decisions is hard work and there is tremendous uncertainty in it. It can be physically as well as mentally exhausting and can overload your nervous system. Therefore, when you are dealing with a decision, it is critical that you cultivate a nonjudgmental, forgiving, and kind attitude toward yourself throughout the process. Not only does such an attitude provide the calm space necessary for making the decision, it ripens these qualities, which are crucial for a meaningful and joyful life, within you.

You may be interested in reading “Five Kinds of Decisions” which you can find here.