Decision making and advancing goals

Decision making is the most important skill in life.  Change is the only constant in life, and change brings decisions.  Those who excel at decision making will accell in life.  For this reason, decision making requires close consideration.

On the topic of decision making legendary entrepreneur Tim Ferris has some very strong feelings.

“Any subject can be overwhelming. Magazines have to fill editorial space month after month with “new” recommendations and the result is predictable: clashing recommendations, uncertainty, information deluge, and opting out.

To stem the tide, I have a constant checkpoint posted over the walkway into my atrium: Simplify.

Above the sign rests the beautiful and brutal Nepalese khukuri, a curved knife symbolic of the legendary Gurkha military regiments. Field marshal Sam Manekshaw, a former chief of staff of the Indian Army, was quoted as saying: “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or a Gurkha.” The blade is in my home to remind me of the importance of decision. The word decision, closely related to incision, derives from the meaning “a cutting off.”

“Making effective decisions—and learning effectively—requires massive elimination and the removal of options”.


Why are decisions so hard to make?  Decisions are hard to make because of the finality of a decision itself.  A decision is not solidified until the other course of action are no longer feasible.  Up until that point you have to endure the mental energy of keeping multiple possibilities alive.  Not only does this sap mental energy, but it can cause you to bleed resources as you maintain a perpetual state of readiness.  While options can be a good thing, they always need to be measured against the opportunity cost of spreading your time and resources thin.  Focus demands decision.

Concentration and focus are the cornerstone of progress.  Most people would like to believe that they can keep their life progressing on all fronts at all times.  This is simply not the case.  While it is possible to make varying levels of progress on different aspects of your life, continual progress in all of them is simply unlikely.  Take for example Benjamin Franklin who’s auto biography serves as a sort of self help guide.  Throughout the book he discusses the importance of trying to improve yourself.  He discusses the many aspects of his life he attempted to further.  After a close study of his efforts and results, he realized that he had been unable to maintain all his improvements in each aspect of his life.  In other words he could make general improvements, but to get to a level of improvement he was happy with, he needed to focus.  Even a man as dedicated as Benjamin Franklin acknowledged the need for a concentrated effort in one area.

When discussing the concept of focus, one of the most useful analogies is that of a magnifying glass.  The power of the mind to complete a task or see a project through can be compared to the rays of the sun.  The rays of the sun by themselves are relatively week and can only provide a general feeling of warmth.  When concentrated under the power of a magnifying glass, those same rays can burn through paper.  A similarly common analogy is that of a sharpened pencil breaking through a piece of paper.  The pencil, unsharpened can barely be pushed through a normal sheet of paper.  However, if that pencil is sharpened down to a fine tip, it can be pushed through the paper with relatively little effort.

The problems with concentrating the mind are twofold.  First most people are not used to focusing their minds.  Second most people are not used to making quick decisions about important matters so that they may focus their minds.  Expanding on the first point, the majority of people make it through each day without having to expend considerable effort in keeping their mind focused on any one task for very long.  Between checking email and social media, most people spend very little concentrated work on any one substantial project or task.  Think about the last time you spent more than 20 minutes in deep concentration without any interruption.  For many people those types of instances have not taken place since they were enrolled as undergraduates.  Unfortunately many people who have graduated from college have never been challenged enough to have practiced any type of deeply concentrated study.  This is unfortunate as the ability to concentrate atrophies unless practiced.  Those who do not regularly practice or develop the skill of concentrated though are generally unable to use it.  The second main problem most people have in accomplishing what they want is their inability to make decisions.  Regardless of a person’s ability to concentrate, decision making is still required to advance goals.  Someone who has a mediocre ability to concentrate and excellent decision making skills will outperform a person with an outstanding ability for concentrated thought but no ability to make decisions.  This is because a decision is a pre-requisit for effectiveness.

Some decisions are easier to make then others.  For example the decision to study for a final examination the night before the test is not a hard one to make.  Most people can make the decision to study under these circumstances with very little trouble.  In this case the quick decision to study allows the student to access normally unavailable levels of concentrated thought while preparing for the final exam.  If a student were to attempt to exercise an equivalent amount of focus on personal studies or goals the next day, or the next week, the same level of concentrated thought would most likely be inaccessible.  This is due in large part to the discrepancy in decision making ability in either circumstance.  In the first circumstance the final exam is pending, and the student is up against a wall in terms of available study time.  The choice is clear.  The day or week after the test presents a different situation all together.  The student now has competing interests.  Say for example 3 days after the final the student is on break and wishes to further her blog she has been working on all semester.  She knows that her long term goals include her advancing her blog and building up hers side business, but she still considers her other options.  For example all of her friends from high school are also back from school on leave.  She will have what seems like a once in a life time opportunity to spend time with friends and un-wind.  She realizes that some of her friends may be working or out of town on her next break.  She also considers the fact that she has been studying very hard all semester and should probably give herself a break.  The decision to work on her blog or take some time off with her friends is being blurred by a myriad of factors that actually have little to do with the decision at hand.

In this decision making scenario the student is first dealing with what seems to be a reasonably important alternative, to spend time with her friends.  She is then faced with her own mind’s rationalization that she should take a break because she had been hard at work at school.  Finally, she is dealing with a lack of social reinforcement that assisted her in decision making during finals.  This last point is possibly the most important.  Though she may aspire to be an entrepreneur and begin her own business, publicly, she has declared that she is a student.  While she may be incubating a business on the side, that has yet to be fleshed out in public.  To the rest of the world, this girl is a student.  Therefore, during finals she is expected to be studying.  She has an entire social situation that prompts and reinforces her decision to study for her final exams.  When she is on break she has no similar social group that is pressuring her to spend a considerable amount of time on her business.  In fact, it is very possible that her social group could be pressuring her to take part in social activities which directly interfere with her ability to execute her long term plans.  In the midst of the noise that is life, focused decision making, and concentrated thought are required to execute plans.

One of the most difficult asspects of developing the ability to make decsions and focus is that it is so uncommon.  These two skills are possibly the most uncommon of all abilities.  As shown in the previous example these two skills very likely will interfere with a person’s social life.  It is almost common knowledge that you need to look out for your own interest in life.  This is not to say that other people will not care about your goals; only that it is rare to have any goals that someone cares more about then you.  This is reason enough to gauge what your social circumstances are expecting of you versus what you are expecting of yourself.  If there is a discrepancy you must rectify it as quickly as possible.  For a basic example, the female student mentioned above needs to let her friends and family know that she will be taking a portion of her leave to work on her business.  This prevents un-met expectations, and the bleeding of resources mentioned at the opening of the post.  If this girl gets in the habit of taking time to work on her business her family and friends will come to expect it.  Instead of hearing about how she needs to go out every night of the week, she will begin to hear family and friends interested in what direction she is taking her business, and what they can do to help.

In order to make any tough decisions about our personal or professional lives we need to practice introspection.  Introspection allows a person to become aware of their true feelings and values.  Nowing what you value in tern allows you to make tough decisions.  Knowing that you have thought through what matters to us and why allows us to be confident in our decsions.  When the world seems to be telling us we went the wrong way we can have piece of mind.  This confidence in our decisions allows us to experience equanimity.  Equanimity, more commonly known as piece of mind allows you to stay calm during life’s worst storms.

Once you have decided on a course of action you need to reaffirm your belief in that course of action.  A good amount of the difficulty in any goal or challenge is believing that it can be accomplished.  Often times we decide we want to do something, but never commit to believing we can do it. Anyone that has ever achieved something great has been convinced that what they were doing was possible.  Whether or not you start out believing something is possible, it is your responsibility to get yourself to believe it is possible.  This does not mean that you go after an unreasonable goal.  It means that after you have rationally considered your options and chosen a course of action, you need to align your feelings with that decision.  Often times our feelings about a decision cause us to loose faith in that decision.  For example if you decide to change jobs you may fear the change.  Even after rationally deciding that it is the best decision for you in the long term.  Since you fear the change you may start to believe it is not possible.  At this point it is your responsibility to reinforce your decision with belief.

Belief can be created by focusing on supporting evidence in your environment.  Generally whether or not you focus on the possible positive or negative outcomes of a situation is a choice.  In the example of changing your job you could read about all the instances where changing a job has enhanced someone’s life, or ruined someone’s life.  One way or the other you are strengthening your belief about what it would be like to change jobs.  This example can be applied to any decision you make.  After considering your options in as unemotional a way a possible you need to reinforce your decision with belief.

The problem with decision is that it is final.  The benefit to decision is that is clears your mind so that you can use it to its full potential.