I spend a fair amount of time helping people make better life decisions. I’m humbled they find me a trusted counselor when deciding on some very important aspects of their life. Because I spend this time helping people learn to consider their options I’ve developed an understanding of decision making that’s holistic in nature. My experience and education has taught me we are not merely cognitively detached creatures who can reason our way into a perfect decision. In fact I would argue being overly rational will NOT lead you to the best decision you can make.
My approach to decision making flows from my belief human beings are “discerners” more than “deciders.” Taking that one step further, we are holistic discerners. The best decisions are made when we listen to our physical response, cognitive processes, emotional feelings, social input from others, and our spiritual sense. If our decision negatively interacts with any of these elements it’s not a good decision. Because we’re physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual creatures everything we do and everything done to us impacts these elements of being human. So, if you want to make the best decisions make sure you’re as physically well as your condition in life allows, mentally strong, emotionally healthy, socially engaged, and as spiritually disciplined as you can be. The best decisions are ones made when we’re working at our maximum capacity in all these areas. Here are some tips to help you maintain good health and proper functioning in all these areas to make the best decisions you can make:
- While it sounds redundant and I know it’s something you hear all the time, be sure you exercise, eat well, get the proper amount of sleep, and take good care of your body. If you’re not taking care of yourself doing so is only a decision away. Here are some things I do to stay at least functionally healthy. Walk for 30 minutes everyday. Studies show walking 30 minutes a day will at least help you cut down on your chances of diabetes and heart disease. Your body was made to move so make sure you move it regularly. Along with daily walking stretch every day. If we don’t stretch our muscles they tighten up and limit our range of motion. You have to stretch everyday to keep your body limber and your blood flowing. Be sure you cut out sweets and only enjoy them once a week. I’m not saying you have to get rid of them completely, but limit them to a Sunday treat, not an everyday part of your diet. Get rid of soda as your regular drink choice. Water is what your body needs, not more sugar. Go to bed at a regular time and wake up after a good eight hours of sleep. Make sure you eat something God created every day like peppers, carrots, beans, etc. You need vegetables and fruits so be sure you get a good daily supply of them. These are simple things you can start doing to make sure your body is at least in minimal health. Your brain depends on your body so make sure your body is functioning well.
- Be familiar with what I call your “cognitive profile.” A cognitive profile is a pattern of thinking you demonstrate when asked to think about things. We all think a little differently. Some of us are very systematic analytical thinkers requiring a review of all our options and the data for each option before we make a decision about anything. These people are called “maximizers” because they need to make sure they’ve made the maximally beneficial decision before moving forward. Generally maximizers make the best decisions BUT they’re usually never happy with their choice because they always believe there’s a better option out there they haven’t had the chance to consider. Other people are called “satisficers.” Satisficers make decisions quickly and don’t feel compelled to go through EVERY option. Rather, after reviewing a few, satisficers choose what they believe is best based on this short list. Satisficers make decisions using cognitive shortcuts referred to as heuristics and rely on “gut feelings” more than rigorous analytics. Satisficers tend to be more happy with their decisions but of course without the rigorous analysis they sometimes make poorer decisions than maximizers. Know your cognitive profile so you can understand why you’re paralyzed in decision making (i.e. you need to go through every option when deciding) or why you’re rushing a decision instead of taking your time to be more thoughtful. Sometimes it’s helpful to consult with someone who has a different cognitive profile than you to make a better decision. That leads me to the next tip I believe important in decision making which is to include other people in decision making.
- If you want to make good decisions discuss them with people you know and trust. My circle of trusted advisors includes my wife and one or two other people at the most. Generally this group is small because you want input from people who really know you and aren’t afraid to tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it. We need to talk with other people because we’re social creatures and function best when engaged in healthy relationships. Because we can get stuck within our own cognitive profile we need someone else to help us step outside of it and show us another way to look at things. Additionally, we were created for relationships and people work best when they have healthy, encouraging, and loving relationships. Most individuals suffering with depression and anxiety find if they engage in relationships with other quality people their symptoms become less severe. From the time we’re born we were meant to exist in relationships with other people. When we have decisions to make we make them best with the support of people who care about us and our well-being.
- Too often we think our emotions get in the way of making good decisions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our emotions are often a good indicator of whether or not what we’re doing is in line with our values and with what matters most to us. In fact there’s more and more research demonstrating our emotional gut feelings provide a better indicator of what we should or shouldn’t do than the exercise of pure reason. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, they’re made in the context of lives lived in the midst of many things. If you only rely on reason for decision making than you may ignore the need to consider other people when making that decision. Sociopaths are actually very good at reasoning to get what they want. However, because they’re emotionally disturbed and experience no emotional empathy, they’ll readily disregard people to reach the results they desire. Empathy toward others and developing properly ordered love can be the best guide for decision making. You want to be sure you develop a good sense of how and what to love. You want to develop a better understanding of your emotions and those of others to be a good decision maker.
- Finally, never forget you’re a spiritual creature and therefore your spiritual life impacts your decisions. A spiritual person is one that understands meaning and purpose in life and knows their decisions transcend the immediate and have eternal ramifications. I’m not merely saying your decisions determine whether or not you go to heaven or hell, I’m saying there’s a transcendence in everything we do that impacts the world in numerous ways. Martin Luther King Jr decided to start a movement to raise the consciousness of America in regards to the rights of black Americans. His decision was transcendent and reflected the meaning and purpose he believed God placed on his life. Everyone needs to know the “why” of his or her existence. Too often we focus on what we want to do in life and how to do it, but you need to discover the “why” of your life. This is the spiritual transcendence I’m talking about and when you know this each decision you make will either bring you peace or trouble your soul. This is a perfect guide for making sure you’re living the life you were created to live and your decisions are reflecting that purpose and meaning.
People want to make good decisions and for some that means making purely rational decisions based on hard cold facts. Computers do that, humans don’t. In fact, thank God we don’t because if that were the case we might make purely rational decisions negatively impacting the needs, feelings, and concerns of other people. If you want to make good decisions then make holistically informed decisions. You make holistically informed decisions by making sure you’re physically well, you know how your mind reasons and makes decisions (i.e. cognitive profile), you develop your emotional life and love things properly, you’re embedded in good social relationships, and you have a strong understanding of your transcendent purpose in life. If we continue to develop every one of these elements of who we are we can make good decisions that serve us well and make the world a better place.