Making Decisions

Here is a selection of items from my main pages of ideas, stories and questions that I hope are of help when there is a decision you have to make.


Choice is not the same as freedom

Choice usually operates within a framework, eg, we have a choice of careers, a choice of films to see. Freedom, true freedom, involves stepping outside of all frameworks and creating a world entirely of our own making. It may still be like the one we are already living but we will own it as ours.

If you are good with a hammer you may treat everything as if it were a nail

We tend to rely on what we are good at and yet sometimes that is not the best approach and we need to venture into areas where we are less competent. There are many first rate business people who find that business skills are not much appreciated by their family. There are many deep thinking people who leave it too late when speedy decisions are required. Many a good giver of dinner parties has lost a lot of money when trying to run a restaurant.

Sometimes our best skill is not the most appropriate one for a particular situation. 

You can't cross a chasm in two small steps

Sometimes a bit by bit approach can get you where you want to be, such as weight loss, saving money, learning a language. Other times change requires a leap of faith, such as major career move, resolving a broken relationship.

It's good to be aware of which approach is most appropriate. Starvation diets rarely lead to consistent weight loss and those who edge towards marriage can find later they feel they never made a proper decision.

Everything in life

"Should be as simple as possible---but not more simple." (Albert Einstein)

There is an elegance in true simplicity, be it a solution to a problem or the design of a building.

When things are more simple than they should be there is often a sense of something missing.

You can have anything you want

But not everything you want, there just isn't enough time. Our lives involve choices. Letting go of dreams can be painful but sometimes we have to do this so other dreams can thrive.

Since there is not enough time to do everything it is essential what we let go of is the trivial so we can concentrate on what makes a difference. There is no point in majoring in minor things.

You can't plough a field by turning it over in your mind

Our internal world is important, how we describe things creates our experience, and yet if we stop there we stop too early. Action not only brings about change in the external world it also creates change in our internal world.

If we love others but don't tell them the process is incomplete.

If we want to make a difference but don't act we sell ourselves short.

If we want to be fit but don't exercise it's just not going to happen.

etc, etc, etc

Simple and easy

Sometimes people think the answers to their problems cannot be simple because life is not easy. But simple and easy are very different words.

Answers can be simple, in other words straightforward, but acting on a simple solution can be very difficult indeed. It's an important distinction to make otherwise we may discount the simple answers.

Tram Tracks

In the town where I lived as a child there were tram tracks that we used to cycle alongside just for the fun of it. When our wheels got stuck in the track we could not steer and had to stop and lift the bike out of the track and set off to where we wanted to go.

Usually we are able to make course corrections in our life so we get to where we want to go but sometimes we get so stuck we have to stop before we can change direction.

Midlife is not about what you do, it's about who you are

And that's true of many other times in our lives.

We are human beings not human doings and yet so much of our energy goes into planning the future and so little into enjoying the moment.

A good brain working with a good heart

The more perspectives we have on any situation the better our solutions to the problems we face are likely to be.

The two essential tests any action or decision needs to pass are that things make sense when we think about them and that in our hearts what we intend to do feels right.

We need to be very careful about acting on just one of those tests. We have these two skills so they can compliment each other.

Not all problems can be solved

But that doesn't mean we can't improve things. One of the signs of flexible approach to life is a willingness to accept partial solutions to problems that can't be solved in their entirety. So when you're faced with something you feel you have to accept don't stop looking for areas where you can still make improvements.

The 80/20 principle

Put simply, this idea states that 80% of the results you achieve come from only 20% of the actions you take.

Now I have my doubts on the degree of precision of any formula applied to any human being. I do, however, see that when we act at the right time and in the right way we get results that are far in excess of the energy involved. It's certainly an excellent idea to concentrate our energies on the things that make a difference rather then spending our resources to no great effect

Too much activity can be a curse, it stops us from looking too deeply at issues in our lives but well timed and effective action frees us to contemplate the direction we are taking.

Fixing process or outcome

In general you can't fix both process and outcome but a lot of people, myself included, waste a lot of their life trying to do this If you want to fix the outcome e.g. an athletic achievement, a house purchase, a relationship goal, you will usually have to develop flexibility in your approach in order to get where you want to be.

If you want to fix a process e.g. the way you react to people, a set approach to business then you can expect to experience variable outcomes.

There is no "right answer" here, just a need to select an appropriate process or outcome and waste time trying to force the way things are into a mould of your making.

Silence is as important as noise

Music consists of sounds and silences. Without the gaps there wouldn't be a tune. Yet the life we live nowadays so often consists of constant noise, the noise of activity, television, relationships, our thoughts.

To make more sense of life, to hear the song we are here to sing, we need to create silence, a quiet time of reflection, an occasional oasis of calm where we can review where we have been, where we are now and where we are going.

It is claimed that much of man's unhappiness arises from his inability to sit in a room on his own. Silence just means being at one with ourselves and to some it can feel rather threatening. But staying with the silence say for five minutes, perhaps starting right now, can help develop the skill. Let your quiet times become a regular part of your daily life.

The lessons keep presenting until the learning takes place

Take a few minutes to look back on your life and see if you can identify some of your patterns in relationships, career, health. It's worth writing down a few sentences to capture elements that repeat themselves. Then ask yourself these questions:-

If these situations were trying to teach me something then what would it be?

What would my future the like if I had learnt the lessons that are presented?.

If you don't come up with anything move on, this may not be you. But if you do see a lesson to be learnt go back over some past events and think about how they might have turned out differently if you had already absorbed what you need to know.

The big rocks

At a lecture on time management the lecturer takes a large bucket and fills it to the brim with rocks and asks "Is there room for any more?"

Thinking she means more rocks the students say "No, it is full." The lecturer then takes some gravel to fill in the gaps and the same question is asked with the same answer. The process is repeated as she adds both sand and lastly, water.

She asks, "What is the lesson here?" Various answers are given along the lines "You always have more time than you think"

"The lesson", says the lecturer, "is that it only works if you put the big rocks in first." (Stephen Covey)

Its not for anyone else to tell you what your "big rocks" are or should be, you need to decide that. But it is fair to ask if they get the priority they deserve. Amazingly the routine of life always seems to get done or if it does not it never seems to matter as much as we thought it would. A week and in some cases a lifetime can easily pass without time being given to things that are important. 

The lost keys

It's dusk and a man is on his knees searching under a streetlight for the keys he has dropped. He is joined by his neighbour who helps him search and asks "Where exactly did you drop them?" "Oh, I dropped them in my back garden," replies the man, "but I am looking for them here because the light is so much better."

This seems just a very silly story until I remember all the times I have tidied up my desk rather than face a difficult issue. Some people spend money or have a drink to make themselves feel better, I guess it's all about as sensible as looking for your keys where the light is best rather than where you dropped them.

Making sandwiches

Every day when he opens his lunch a man says "Not peanut butter and jam sandwiches again, I hate them," At the end of a week of complaining a colleague asks, "Why don't you ask your wife to make you different sandwiches next week"? "Oh I'm not married" the man replies, "I make my own sandwiches".

It's more of a joke than a story but so is complaining about the circumstances in our lives which we have created. Yet most of the circumstances we find ourselves in are either of our own creating or because we are not prepared to pay the price required to release ourselves from them.

Spinning a coin

Sigmund Freud was asked for advice on how to make difficult decisions. "Spin a coin" he said. When challenged about the idea of leaving important choices to chance he explained, "When the coin comes down you will have some clue as to how you really feel about the decision"

Sometimes we need to pretend we have made a decision in order to discover our deeper feelings. We can do that for a few days and then spend a few days assuming we have made the opposite decision. We then need to notice what feelings come up for us.

If I had a gun to my head

A well known newspaper owner faced the possibility of bankruptcy following the failure of a loan application. "If someone put a gun to my head I would find a way out of this" he said, and he did.

It's an aggressive metaphor but it does remind us that given sufficient reason we can overcome almost anything.

The stuck bus

A bus is stuck under a low bridge after the driver makes a mistake and takes the wrong turning. No one is hurt but all the efforts of the fire fighters to pull the bus out are to no avail, it is firmly stuck. To try more could damage the bridge.

A young girl rides up on her bike to watch and says quietly to the Fire Chief "Why don't you just let the tyres down?"

There are two ways to use this story. Sometimes solutions to problems are far more simple than we think if we keep our minds open to all possibilities
Sometimes what we need to do is to let the air out of a situation, sometimes just by breathing out.

And is there honey?

A wife gets woken by her husband bearing coffee and croissants. She says to him, "There's nothing better than honey on my croissants in the morning. There are so many different varieties of honey, each, like wine, has it's own character. Honey is definitely my favorite breakfast spread.

Then she says, "But honey is so unhealthy, all those little insects manufacturing it in unhygienic conditions, and it can be bad for your blood sugar, on second thoughts I loathe honey"

Her bemused husband replies, "You can't have it both ways, you need to make up your mind."

"I quite agree," she replies "And I will make up my mind which opinion I want to hold once I know if we have any honey in the kitchen"

It's easier to ride a horse in the direction in which it's going.

Meeting your objectives

He had finally achieved all his goals, not surprising, he had devoted almost all his time to them. He had the job and the income he wanted, the level of fitness he desired and an apartment in the best part of town. It had all been worhtwhile, the personal sacrifices, the postponement of pleasure. At last he could look forward to enjoying life. He was so busy looking forward he did not see the truck that hit him from behind.

It's not forever. By all means have plans and objectives but enjoy the present moment. You may never have another.

The two wolves

After the 9/11 attack a man was heard to say to his son "I feel like I have two wolves fighting inside me, one is angry and full of vengance while the other is still determined to be gentle and loving." "Which one will win?" asked the son, "Whichever one I choose to feed" replied his father.

Feelings, good or bad, don't survive without care and attention and it's our choice as to which ones we feed when we feel a conflict within us. In the end the negative feelings tend to feed on us but the positive feelings tend to feed us.

What would I try if I knew I could not fail?

Write down three quick answers and then look to see the clues they give as to what else you might want to do in your life; perhaps a first small step, perhaps a big leap. We all have more potential that we actually live.

"Ships in harbour are safe...but that is not what ships were built for"

What would I say if I did know?

This is a question you can ask of yourself, or others, when the first reply is "I don't know."
For example, often these questions lead to a "I don't know reply"

"Do I want to do this?"
"Am I in love?"
"Is this the right action for me?"

Asking the question "What would I say if I did know?" can sometimes reveal some deeper feelings and understanding. The worst that can happen is a reply "I still don't know"

What action can I take today that in six months time I will be pleased I took?

It could be a decision you make and start acting on, a person you call or something, or someone, you let go of. It could be a book you order or a holiday you book. It could be planning a theatre trip or a social event. The important thing is to take the action now even though the benefits may not be felt for some months.

Its great to live in the here and now but its also true some things take a bit of long term planning, getting the mixture right is one of the most important life skills.

Who could help me with this? (1)

So often people are reluctant to ask others for help, they use phrases like; "I don't want to take up their time" or "They already have enough to do".

The same people, if asked to help someone else use phrases such as; "I'm so pleased they asked" or "Glad I could be of assistance"

Why not treat yourself as well as you would treat others?

Who could help me with this? (2)

A fun idea. If you could summon up anyone, living or dead, real or fictional, to help you, who would it be and what help would they offer? Note what insights arise, recognise these are really your ideas and see what these new ideas might lead to.

Am I willing to pay the price?

You can have most of the things you want if you are prepared to pay the price, and usually the cost is not financial. You have the power to ask in any situation "Is this what I want for myself?" If it is not you don't have to put up with it, you just have to pay the price to change things. Sometimes the price will be too high and that is fine, at least you know you had a choice.

Is this important or is it just urgent?

It's very easy to confuse important with urgent and the result can be that we spend most of our time dealing with things that are urgent and rarely get to the things that are important. Sometimes those close to us, important people, suffer because we are taken up with 'urgent' trivia.

An alternative question we could ask is
"What would happen if I did not do this thing I think of as urgent and instead did something I consider important?

"Can I live with the consequences of this decision"?

What is the bigger YES?

Sometimes it's very difficult to say no to the requests others make of us. We can be driven by a wish to help and can feel guilty if we turn someone down. At those times this is a good question to ask about ourselves. If you say "NO" to this request what will that allow you to do that is of greater value? That's the bigger "YES" and it can change turning something down into a positive action.

Am I asking the right question?

Asking questions can be the answer to many issues but they need to be the right questions. There's a big difference between:-

How can this be solved? and How can this be lived with?
Why did this happen to me? and What can I do about this?
Does my life have a meaning? and What meaning can I give to my life?
Why do people hurt me? and How can I be less affected by others?

Who would you be without your history?

This can be seen as a pointless exercise or as the start of an interesting exploration.
Go back to early childhood and imagine your life if circumstances had been different.
You may find:-

How the difficult times shaped who you are and that you don't wish to change them.

Areas of you life not fully expressed and realise you can do something about that.

Feelings that have trapped you which you could choose now to release.

Who knows what may turn up? There is only one way to find out!

How would ... deal with this?

Our imagination is a wonderful gift and with it we can summon anyone we want to help us. 
It takes a little practice to get fluent at this, here is what to do:-

Sit quietly for a few minutes and then create a picture of yourself in a favorite location.

Imagine being joined by the person from whom you want help and advice.

Tell them, quietly in your mind, what your situation is and ask for their thoughts.

Then sit still until your imagination lets them speak and listen to what they have to say.

They can be real or fictional, experts or friends, family or famous, even from another planet.

It's OK to have fun with this.

Who or what is on your "LTS" list?

Since our time here is limited it's worth having a "Life's too short" list of things and people we can best do without.

Here are some thought starters:-

Life's too short to do things that don't make you feel good.
Life's too short to be in places you don't feel comfortable in.
Life's too short to be with people whose company you don't enjoy.
Why not use these ideas to draw up a list of things and people you really don't have time for, and then act on it.

What can this problem teach you?

Suppose some of your problems are teachers in disguise and that until you have learned the lesson you will have to go on taking the test.
It's not true of every problem but when the same issue keeps coming up, often in different disguises, the chances are you need to learn something.
Understanding the lesson may turn out to be a part of the solution.

What is a good objective?

It's great to have clear objectives, here are some criteria they probably should meet.

a) They should be stated in the positive; "I want to get fit", rather than "I want to stop being so lazy."

b) They should be measurable; I want to weigh 130lbs, rather than I want to lose some weight.

c) They should be time limited; I want to have this a month from today, rather than I want this some time soon.

d) They should be within your control; I want to react positively rather than I want my partner to stop being critical.

Who's in charge if you're not?

It's so easy to blame others, parents, partners, big business, unions, government, but the result of this blame is that they are the ones in charge of your life.
However powerless you may feel it seems best to act as if you are in charge, at least it increases your chances of getting what you want.

What assumptions am I making about this?

We usually need make a lot of assumptions in order to feel upset about something. It seems as if there is a part of human nature which is programed to take things personally but it's not our best guide to what is going on. We assume other people have the same reasons for acting as we think we would have if we acted in the same way.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember when challenging the assumptions on the basis of which we react is this "It's hardly ever about you" So here's a question to ask when someone or something pushes your buttons, "If I assume it's not about me then what could it be about?" The answers could save you a lot of suffering.

Who has the answer?

The answer, more often than most of us think is this, "You do!"

We live in a world of easily available 'experts' who offer advice on almost every problem. Much of what they have to offer is positive and of help but that does not mean that it will work for you. You are unique and that means that while you can benefit from the views and insights of others the final decision as to what works for you is yours. Don't give away your power. Here are some thoughts on this issue:-

"If someone throws you a ball, you don't have to catch it." (Richard Carlson.)

"Vote with your feet, it's best to avoid people and situations you know drive you crazy." (Stuart Wilde.)

"If you want the world to be kinder then be more kind." Dan Millman

What is the smallest step you can take now?

We all like to take big steps, move fast towards where we want to be, it's exhilarating and exciting. However sometimes the way we feel will not support any major advancement but that does not mean we cannot make any progress. Perhaps the smallest action is all you can manage today but it's still worth doing.

A 15 minute walk or a good stretch to further a fitness goal.

Not buying something you can do without to support a financial goal.

An offer to help despite not feeling like it so realise a relationship goal.

Leaving something on a plate to move towards a weight goal.

Does this free me or restrict me?

Personal freedom is not important to some people but for those to whom it has a high priority this is a good question to ask, particularly about relationships and possessions.

Most things do both, e.g. a vehicle gives freedom but also demands financial resources and maintenance, so perhaps the true question is "Does this give more than it demands?"

It's particularly relevant when looking at the relationships is your life, either existing or proposed. Make a list of say five people in your life and ask if the balance works for you.

Comfort, stretch and panic zones

It's useful to look at how much of your life you spend in each of these zones.

Your comfort zone : This is where we feel most safe and secure, it's good to spend time in this zone but some people never step out of it!

Your stretch zone : Here we push ourselves, this is where we learn, where we grow as human beings. Most people could spend more time here.

Your panic zone : This is where we know we have overdone it, it's not a place to visit very often or to stay too long.  

Now what's interesting is how these zones interact with each other. If you stay in comfort zone then the stretch zone reduces and the panic zone expands.

If you regularly spend time in the stretch zone the comfort zone expands and the panic zone reduces.

f you spend a lot of your life in the panic zone that will tend to expand at the expense of the other two.

For example, if you want to get fit you might find that a short run is a stretch but as time goes on this becomes comfortable and you need longer runs to stretch yourself.

If you find public speaking a trial that puts you straight into panic you can spend time gently stretching yourself in that area and the panic will probably ease.

If being on your own causes panic you can move that to stretch and even comfort by reassuring practice that will stretch you but not panic you. 

So, right now, what can you commit to do that will stretch you?  

What is the simplest thing that could possibly work?

Elsewhere on this site is the quote from Albert Einstein, "Everything in life should be a simple as possible, but not more simple".

But he also said "For every problem there is a solution which is simple, obvious, and wrong" so this is not an easy area and not every simple solution is correct.

Here are three elements that could be important when you need to solve a problem.

1. Resonance. Something that, on considered reflection, just seems right, it is in harmony with your feelings and values.

2. Elegance. A solution that appears to flow, no part of it feels forced or uncomfortable.

3. Simplicity. A feeling that there is both nothing missing and that nothing there that is not required.

If a solution meets two or three of these criteria it's almost certainly worth taking further. If it meets none of them it's probably time to keep creating alternatives.

What is the biggest priority in your life? How are you living it?

It's interesting how often there is a difference between what we think we stand for and how we act in our everyday life.

People often claim qualities such as honesty, loyalty and reliability as priorities in their lives and then choose not to notice they don't always stick to these qualities in everyday situations.

People often claim their first priority as their partner, their children or their friends and yet, if they looked, they would realise how they spent their time did not reflect this..

And of course this might not apply to you, but it's still worth spend a few minutes looking at your answers to the question.

Is this an external problem or an internal problem?

We live in a world that encourages us to seek external solutions to internal problems. So when we feel bad inside we turn to food, alcohol, cigarettes, sex, money, tears, children, arguments etc, etc. Ultimately internal problems need internal solutions, which is mostly what this website is about, changing attitudes, better decisions. The external sources don't give permanent relief but they can help us to pass the time and sometimes destroy our lives.

On the other hand sometimes there are external problems which need external solutions. If your water pipe springs a leak don't spend time thinking about it. If you're in a violent or vindictive relationship with little prospect of change, while it might be interesting to think about how you got to be where you are the first answer is external, make specific plans to get out.

So the answer to this question is your best indicator as to where the action is needed.

© 2019 David Mills