“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both”.
Making Major Life Decisions
Choosing between equally possible alternatives, each with their pros and cons, can be a major source of anxiety, stress and confusion. Major life decisions can include:
- Whether to stay and renovate, or move house;
- Whether to change careers or workplaces;
- Whether to end a relationship or stay and work at it;
- Deciding whether to take a drop in income for a better lifestyle;
- Deciding between two job offers;
- Which course to study;
- Whether to go along with practices you disagree with to keep your job, or to speak up according to your values;
- The choice between a life-saving medical intervention that cannot promise certainty of outcome and may be painful, or the risk of deteriorating health.
Whatever the choice/s before you, it calls for calm, rational yet intuitive decision making.
To work through a major life decision, begin by doing your research.
This can involve getting facts and figures, talking to those who love you and to those who may not know you as well but who can offer more objective advice, using the internet and other sources to learn from others’ experiences to find out what might be involved in taking one or the other option.
From there, you can use both sides of the cortical (popularly known as the ‘grey matter’) brain.
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as clear divisions between parts of the brain, as all functions in a healthy brain are connected through a myriad of neural pathways. However neurons involved in specific brain functions tend to cluster together even though other parts of the brain will be involved as well.
For the purpose of decision making, it is simpler to conceptualise different styles of thinking as right brain and left brain thinking or in the reverse, generally, for left-handers.
Left Brain Thinking
The left cortical brain is the seat of language and logical, rational, sequential thinking; while the right is said to be responsive to emotion, and the seat of intuitive, holistic, creative thought processes.
Start with ‘left-brain‘ thinking. Take a large sheet of paper for each option you are considering, and label each page with one of the two or three options. (If you haven’t narrowed it down to three maximum, go back and do more research!)
You need to be able to view all the pages at once, so a written record works better than recording in tiny print on a computer screen unless you have ‘young eyes’!
Divide each page in half again, drawing a line down the middle of each page to form two columns. Head one column as ‘Advantages’ and the other ‘Disadvantages’; do this for each option.
Take your Time
Depending on the deadline for a decision, allow two or more weeks to record all the benefits and costs of each option as they occur to you or that you find out during your research, in the appropriate column on the appropriate page.
This is using so-called ‘left brain’, or rational, logical thinking to evaluate your possible decisions. Writing out the advantages and disadvantages of each option helps sort out your thinking, and makes it easier to recall the facts you consider relevant.
It also gives you a visual guide, because if the disadvantages or advantages list on one of the options is much longer than for your other choice, then the decision may become obvious.
However, numerical length does not necessarily mean all disadvantages and advantage are of equal value. The value of a disadvantage or advantage is determined by your feelings about each, and the emotional and practical effects on you and significant others in your life.
Some of the disadvantages or advantages listed might be minor compared to other considerations. So, it is important to remember the length of each list is not of itself a determinant of what you choose. Other factors come into play and here is where the ‘right brain’ thinking strategy is now employed.
On the Right Path?
The emotional, creative, intuitive side of you has been absorbing and thinking about what you have written down, in a holistic rather than strictly logical way. ‘Turning it over in your mind’ is a good expression for what is happening when you are not directly focused on thinking about the decision, but going about the course of your day or even allowing your mind to mull things over at night as you sleep.
Put your lists away for the time being, although of course if you think of any other cost or benefit you forgot to take into account, add it to your written record.
Give it another 2 weeks or so if you have the time, or leave it until D-Day (Decision Day) comes around. By that time, I am almost certain you will have come to a decision which both ‘feels right’ for you and all concerned, as well as based on good reasoning and research.
Working through a decision this way can significantly reduce stress. Nonetheless, there is always, the likelihood that on occasion we will wonder what ‘the road not taken’ would have offered. Then we need to focus on what valued experiences, relationships and opportunities the road taken DID give us, and which we would never wish to have done without.
If you would like an objective ear or some guidance in making a major life decision, please feel free to book an appointment to come and see me.
Author: Susanne Gilmour, BA, Dip Soc. Science, Grad Dip Psychology.
Susanne Gilmour is a Registered Psychologist with 18 years of experience working with children, adolescents and their families, and a background in management.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Susanne Gilmour, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.