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4 Steps for making smarter decisions

WOMAN,HIKING
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Balance these elements to make better choices in your career and in your life.

Wouldn’t it be great if they had an app that could alert you when you’re about to make a really, really dumb decision? I’d definitely appreciate a flashing red light and a siren to make me stop in my tracks and recalibrate. Or conversely, a green light with a soothing voice saying “Great decision! You got this, girl!” when I’m making the right choice.

Choosing between something obviously good and something obviously bad is not the issue. What is often harder is choosing between two possibilities that are both morally good but may end up having very different consequences, which often happens in career-related decisions. One might open up a world of new skills, enthusiasm, and growth … while the other could bring you stress, boredom, financial issues, or a sense of wasted time.

Making good decisions is often a matter of balancing many parts of ourselves and drawing insight from each one. Let me explain with the four tips below.

1. Balance your mind and your heart

It’s not always possible to see what the future holds, but sometimes our hearts do have a built-in sensor that tells us whether a specific choice aligns with the desires we carry in our heart.  But we need to develop our own capacity to listen to our heart and mind. This is especially true for women, since we sometimes squash our feminine intuition in favor of more “rational” arguments, which can end up being mere rationalizations based on who we think we should be, not who we really are.

Or, on the opposite side, the nomad inside us might throw caution to the wind and follow our “heart,” which ends up meaning that we blindly followed our feelings even though our more rational self was saying, “Stop! Slow down!” Both are problematic; we have to learn to walk the tightrope between head and heart.

So here’s a way to avoid both extremes: when you have a decision to make, lay all the pros and cons out on paper or on your computer screen where you can see them. Sometimes our thoughts become clear to us only when we put them in writing and can see the physical length of the two columns. Don’t just notice whether you have more reasons in one column or in the other. Also pay attention to the relative weight of each reason. Are the pros more superficial and lightweight, while the cons are heavy and consequential? That’s something to take into account. Are the pros mostly short-term, while the potential cons are long-term? Another red flag.

Use your list as a tool for thinking through your options more dispassionately, but don’t turn off your heart, either. As you look through the list, pay attention to how you feel when you carefully consider pursuing option A. Does it make your heart feel more full, more alive, more enthusiastic? Or does it leave you with a cold, heavy sense of obligation, but no joy? This is also valuable input and should not be left out.

Gretchen Rubins, author of The Happiness Project, says that she sometimes asks herself the question, “Does this option lead to a bigger life?” as a way of clarifying her own desires for a full, happy, connected life. That question is also a good way of winnowing out motivations that may be more rooted in fear or laziness, which are not good guides for long-term happiness.

2. Balance others’ advice with your own insight

It’s good to ask other people for their insight, especially if they know you well, are familiar with the circumstances at hand, and have wisdom and insight to share. But here, too, we have to find our way between two extremes.

When making decisions, we might distrust our own innate sense of what is best for us and end up deferring too much to the opinions of other people, thinking they know better than us. Don’t shortchange yourself that way — you are not an idiot and you are capable of making good decisions. You can listen to and trust your own heart and mind. (You can trust it even more if you make your lists!)

Or maybe we go to the opposite extreme by rashly disregarding the warnings of good friends — only to discover later that they were right all along. If all of your friends and family are saying that your idea of joining the circus at age 52 is not a great idea, then that’s something to consider.

So we need to listen to others’ input but evaluate it wisely, and always compare it to what our own heart and mind are telling us.

3. Balance faith with practicality

Even in day-to-day, seemingly non-transcendent decisions about our job or our career, we can and should open ourselves up to God’s guidance.

Sometimes we never pray about these types of decisions because we think it’s all up to us, and we try to go it all alone without ever offering God a chance to speak in that quiet voice of the heart. We might forget, or think it’s irrelevant or too practical for God to care, but that’s not true. All of the hairs of our heads are counted — trust me, he cares. So if we know we have someone with infinite wisdom and love in our corner and we don’t ask for help and insight, that would just be… dumb. Ask him!

Or maybe we pray diligently for guidance, but then we never act because we never got a booming voice from heaven telling us exactly what we should do, or a pink rose at the end of the novena, or a Bible verse that just jumped off the page and spoke exactly to our circumstance. We can end up with analysis paralysis in our prayer life, and delay so long that the opportunity passes us by. Well, sometimes the answers aren’t clear. So here as well, we need to open our thought processes to God, but also take responsibility for our own choices when the time comes.

Often, God will speak when we pray for guidance, but it will be in the quiet of our heart. He will clothe his guidance in the form of joy and peace when we consider one option versus the other. St. Ignatius talked about receiving feelings of “consolation” (joy and peace) as a confirmation of a decision he was thinking about making. You may also experience that same feeling, and you should pay attention to it.

4. Accept that life is a journey

One more thing: you will make mistakes, and not every decision will lead to awesome outcomes. Sometimes we’re just plain wrong. We jump the gun and lose money on a stupid gamble, or we hesitate when a great offer comes our way … It happens to everyone. As a song lyric says, “I’m old and wise and dumb and young at the same time.”

Having faith doesn’t mean we will never make mistakes. But it does mean that God will be walking with us through it all, and will bring good out of all our bumbling. If you pray but don’t get absolute clarity, maybe you just need to do the best you can and keep entrusting the daily walk to him. God knows we can’t see around the corner, but that’s why he’s always there to hold our hand on our way.

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