uta rothermel

Useful decision-making techniques

Let’s assume you’re living the dream, and you’re perfectly in sync with yourself and your life. Most likely you are not currently facing a big decision. I see a big life decision as one that has holistic impact on your life, and comes at a high perceived switching cost, that is you can’t easily undo the decision. We’re biased to perceive costs much more drastically than benefits: Losing a 1.000-dollar income seems worse than not trying to make 3.000 in another job. That’s great because it keeps us in relationships, families, homes, and jobs. But it also keeps us from living to our full potential. So, big life decisions are daunting, partly because they feel as if we are standing on a cliff. But they are also intriguing because they come with the hope for a better life, maybe one that suits us more.  

By making lots of decisions and failing over and over, I’ve gradually found a life that’s hand-selected and very little compromise. Making my way here I learned that big life decisions are often a sign that we are off track. If we know what we want and that’s what we’re doing, there’s no big decision. But if we thought we knew what we want and suddenly want something different: there’s a big decision. If you are facing one and are interested in helpful decision-making techniques, here’s a list: 

  • Face your fears (don’t dwell on them)  
    Fear is a great informant, letting you know something relevant and new is coming up and it’s not fully under your control. But it’s also an emotion that triggers avoidance behavior (freeze: don’t act/ flee: run from the problem/ fight: kill the problem), which is the worst for you right now. To see clearly, working through the fears related to the decision is the first step and can be hugely liberating. 
  • Expect to fail 
    Do the best you can but don’t try to avoid every possible “bad” outcome. It may help to ask yourself what the worst possible outcome would be and if you could cope with that. You most likely can! Focusing on failure too much takes energy from the goal. 
  • Write stuff down 
    I’m not a big fan of pro and con lists but I’ll totally root for writing stuff down in more general. If a thought’s intriguing to you but you can’t quite get a grasp on it – write it down. Draw a mind map, plaster our wall with post its, type away; just get it out there. If you have another creative outlet, use that. Draw, sing, dance, sculpt or meditate, anything that helps you to make your inner knot more tangible will help you to deal with it. The next tip can also help with that. 
  • The tetralemma 
    The tetralemma is a slightly different decision-making tool to help people move forward with dilemmas by broadening their horizon. Find instructions for it at the end of this article. Tools like the tetralemma help access the information from your limbic system and can be a powerful aid in clarifying the decision. 
  • Spend less energy on small decisions  
    Try to organize your life so that you do not have to decide on everyday little stuff. Put rituals for routines in place, structuring time makes for more time and flexibility, like structuring a desk makes for space. There’s lots of literature on this but the most profound experience I came across stems from Jewish culture. Rituals give meaning to the little things while at the same time giving you the space to focus on your passion(s).  
  • Learn from past decisions 
    As with small decisions, past decisions are energy-eaters. Stop dwelling on past decisions, learn from mistakes as you make them, and then move on. Accepting your own fuck-ups as experiences and necessary lessons learned can bring some fluffy self-love and also give you the confidence of a true survivor. Be empathetic with your younger self and their reasons, and don’t forget that they always did their best. 
  • Think more contextual 
    Understand that most decisions are reversible, and life is lived in tiny steps. Each decision is followed by so many smaller later decisions that the initial decision is but a first step in one direction.  Respect what brought you where you are and understand the limits of your influence.  

Whichever decision type you face, be it business, consumer or personal, you have faced decisions seeming just as hard before and everything turned out ok. Let me know if these tips where helpful for you! 

The Tetralemma 
It’s easiest if someone guides you through it: in a big enough room, lay four big cards on the floor so they are wide apart and make the corners of a square. Keep a fifth card within reach. Now assign titles to the cards: two cards diagonally from each other are the two options in your dilemma, the other two cards are “do both”, and “do neither one”. Then you pick an option (A or B) to stand on and focus on how you feel. Take your time to express your physical and emotional experience, also in relationship to the rest of the room: are you drawn to one of the other options? Afterwards, move to the other option in your dilemma, focus on the experience there, and only then move to the two combined options. When you’re on “both”, see if you get an idea of what it could looks like to do A as well as B, when you’re on neither, see what it would feel like to lose both options. Take your time: the whole process can easily take 45 minutes. When you’re done check if you would like to introduce a 5th card: the surprise (“neither nor, and not even that”). Where in the room would you put it? Go there and see if something entirely new comes up. Also check what all the other options look like from that position. 




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