I am writing this as Election Day looms—a time when we make some very significant choices. These are big, important decisions, and we need to respect them enough to do them well. But there’s an entire realm of choices we make on automatic pilot day after day that it might be good to think about, too. What better time than this—when we are focused on “choosing”–to take a look at those.
We make a lot of choices by default because we assume there really isn’t a choice. We assume we have to keep this job because we need a job. We assume we must stay where we are geographically simply because it is where we are.
Making choices this way is the meek way to live .It means you never consider anything beyond what you already know, what you already do, what you are already comfortable with .It also means that you feel “stuck” with what you are doing—a “victim of circumstance” rather than captain of your own destiny.
The truth of the matter is there are always alternatives. Much of the time, they’re so unappealing we never consider them .To be sure, there are some choices where the alternatives are unthinkable and making the choice again and again would be silly. I choose to breathe. Not breathing doesn’t look like a real good idea to me. I also choose to rest, eat, and drive with care (mostly). I don’t need to decide to do these things every time I do them. But letting your entire life run on autopilot is cheating yourself.
Decades ago, I was involved in a company program that encouraged women to get into nontraditional careers within the organization. We offered an all-day seminar called “How to Decide.” I wish that class were mandatory in every high school in the country today. Since it isn’t, here are the basics of making good choices:
- Recognize you have a choice.The first step in making a good choice is acknowledging you have a choice. Instead of assuming that what is going on is the only thing that could be going on, make a conscious effort to assess the situation. Ask yourself “Is this the way I want my life to go?” often.
- Generate a wide range of potential alternatives.When you create the list, put down everything you think of, even if it seems silly or unthinkable. Sometimes those “frivolous answers” hold the kernel of a really great alternative.
Here’s anexample. Many of us are rethinking whether we can retire because of the rollercoaster ride the financial markets are on. But there are a whole lot of alternatives beyond “doing what I am doing now” and “traditional retirement.” Exploring that broader range of alternatives can offer far more appealing course of action.
- Gather the information you need to make an informed decision. When we do make an effort to consciously choose, this is where we tend to blow it. It’s easy to buy in on information from some website or a friend without assessing the quality of that information. Is it accurate? Is it current? Is it relevant? There are TWO pieces to this step–getting a realistic sense of what the alternatives will and won’t provide AND a defining clearly what you need. Do you need to buy that great but expensive jacket because clothes are terribly important to you? Or are you looking for ways to be properly clothed without wacking out your budget?
- Decide.Too often, we do this “naked”—without a clear idea of what we are deciding and without anywhere close to enough information. And we do it without thinking about the consequences of choosing this particular alternative. A friend bought a dishwasher he hates—because he daughter told him it was the greatest. She’s good in the kitchen, and he believed her rather than thinking about what he really needed himself. Now he’s stuck with that dishwasher. That’s small potatoes compared to the career choices that are sometimes made the same way.
Taking the time to choose is usually a time saver, too. The easy way usually ends up costing you a lot more—in time, in money and definitely in personal satisfaction. Choose to choose. Even when your choice is just to keep doing what you’ve been doing, the consequences are dramatic. Making good choices reinforces your sense of controlling your own life.