How to make life decisions that you won’t regret later.

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How much time does it take you to choose a new car? How about a new pair of shoes? A beverage? A pet? A hairstyle? A paint color for your bedroom? A significant other? A career?

What is your decision-making process? How much testing, research, inquiry, time and thought do you give various decisions in your life?

It’s odd to think about it, but as Chip and Dan Heath point out in their book, Decisive, more often than not, we give our biggest decisions in life the least amount of time and thought.

You might agonize for days—or weeks or years—about getting a new hairstyle or a tiny heart tattoo on your ankle, but when it comes to choosing a company where you will spend 40 hours a week for the next two to twenty years of your life, one mostly-positive job interview is enough for most people to say, “Sure! Can’t wait to start!”

In their book, Chip and Dan offer the example of a young man who thinks he wants to become a doctor. He figures it’s a good career with a good salary so he applies for medical school, gets accepted, and begins the decade-long process of completing his studies, his residency, and securing his first position.

This young man has no problem deciding, “I’m going to be a doctor.” He feels quite confident about it. Yet, this young man has never spent more than a few hours inside a hospital. He’s never taken a doctor out for lunch to ask, “Would you recommend your career? Why or why not? Tell me about an average day in your line of work…” He’s never seen blood being drawn and he’s never watched a surgery. In order words, this young man is making a HUGE life decision based on… what? Not much information. Hopefully his decision will prove to be a good one, but it could just as easily turn out wrong. By then, he’ll be multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars deep in student loan debt.

I’m sure you can think of a similar scenario from your own life, a scenario where you made a big decision based on “not much information” and then regretted it later.

Here are some questions, partly inspired by the notions in Chip and Dan’s book, to help you make wiser decisions.

1. Do I really need to decide right now or can I postpone this decision, collect more information, and decide later?

Sure, that car salesman (or college counselor, or your partner, or best friend) might be urging you to decide today, but do you really need to? Consider hitting the brakes so that you can decide at your own pace.

2. How could I collect more information? Who could I talk to? 

If you’re considering accepting a job at a new company, but you’re not sure if relocating is going to be a good idea, where could you get more info to help you decide? Online boards and forums? The local newspaper from that town? Chatting with local residents? Do some detective work.

I occasionally have students shadow me at my clinic to give them a real-world glimpse at a day in the life of a doctor.

3. Who else could I talk to? (Is there someone who might provide a better, clearer, or more unbiased perspective)?

Sure, the HR director is telling you, “This is a great place! We have a wonderful company culture and lots of programs to make life easier for working parents.” But it’s the HR director’s job to get you to say, “Yes,” so his or her opinion might be a tad biased. Who else could you talk to? Maybe a few people who actually work inside the company. Do they agree? It’s worth investigating.

4. What if my current options were no longer an option? Is there another option I’m not seeing?

This is a fun one, especially if you’re feeling torn between two options. What if both options are removed from the table? Is there a creative “middle way” or “third way” that could be even better?

5. What can my past history teach me? 

Take time to study yourself. Only you can know for sure what’s going to make you feel happy and successful.

6. Listen to your gut.

How do you feel in making this decision? Lighter, like a tingly butterfly sensation of anticipation? Or do you feel heavier and uncomfortable. It takes practice to discern what your gut is telling you.

What’s the next “big decision” that you need to make? 

There’s no crystal ball that can illuminate the “perfect” choice with absolute certainty.

Slow down. Don’t let anyone make you choose before you are ready. Collect data. Explore every option. Invent new options. Reflect. Do a gut check.

It’s you who lives with the consequences or rewards of your choice. Don’t choose to please someone else. Choose for you.

~ Dr. Sue

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