Choices: How Do You Make Them?

by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
January 28, 1998

 Throughout our lives, we are faced with making difficult decisions about the road we will take. This ranges from smaller, less important decisions such as buying a new car or whether to attend a particular party, function, or conference, to more important, huge decisions, such as whether to marry, purchasing a home, deciding whether or when to have a child. How do we make these choices in our lives? Is there a better way?

 Most people make choices about the smaller things on-the-fly, quickly weighing one's needs and desires with one's resources. Should I eat the cheeseburger at McDonald's, or get a chicken sandwich? Well, that depends on whether or not I have enough money for the chicken sandwich and what I feel like eating today. We make the decision and move on. After all, I can always eat something different for lunch tomorrow. Should I buy that shirt? If I like it enough, convince myself I need it, and have the resources to do so (e.g., money), sure.

 But when it comes down to life's larger decisions, things are not so simple. We make these larger decisions only a few times in our lives, and in some cases, only once. How can we make sure we're making the right decision at these times? Is there such a thing as a right decision in the first place?? Is there an easier way to make this decision?

 First, we must acknowledge that such decisions, because they are by definition very important to ourselves and our lives, include an emotional, non-rational aspect. That's alright, as long as we acknowledge there is that aspect and give it some weight. The important thing to realize is not to give it all the weight, as some people sometimes do. We are not purely emotional creatures, so our major life decisions shouldn't be based purely on the emotional reasons.

 Second, it often helps people to sit down and write out a list of the pros and cons of the choices involved. Let's take buying a house as an example. We could list the pros and cons of buying this home we found in a charming neighborhood the other day. Yes, it is charming (an emotional aspect), which is a pro. Other pros might include that it has a 2-car garage, lots of space, a modern kitchen, and is beautifully refinished. Now, before we move on to the cons, we want to assign weight values to each thing we listed. Space is important to us, so it gets a "10" (10 is the most important, 1 is the least important). A modern kitchen is less important, so it might get a "5." Our list will look something like this so far:

Pros Value Cons Value
Space
Kitchen
Charmingness
Quality of interior/exterior
2-car garage
10
5
4
8
7
   
Total / #=Average: 34 / 5 = 6.8 Total / #=Average:  

 Now we take a look at some of the cons... It's a far drive from our work, and that's important to us because it creates a daily hassle and daily stress. It is also in an area of town which doesn't have a lot of conveniences nearby, such as a supermarket or gas station. There are fewer bathrooms than we'd like, and the basement isn't finished. Putting these into the chart, we get something which looks like:

Pros Value Cons Value
Space
Kitchen
Charmingness
Quality of interior/exterior
2-car garage
10
5
4
8
7
Closeness to work
Conveniences
# of bathrooms
Unfinished basement
10
8
5
3
Total / #=Average: 34 / 5 = 6.8 Total / #=Average: 26 / 4 = 6.5

 This is an obviously simplified example. A real-life decision might have 30 or 40 items in each column. But as you can see by our average totals, 6.8 is higher than 6.5. That means that the benefits (the "pros") outweigh the drawbacks (the "cons"). Buy the house! Our decision, which includes emotional factors, has been made for us, as long as we are honest about the values we give each factor. This doesn't work if you're trying to convince yourself one way or another. You need to be as honest and objective with yourself as possible.

 Naturally, such a decision-making table may not help everyone for all of life's big decisions. There is nothing which can make the deciding a whole lot easier, or better yet, make the decisions for us. That is a part of living, though -- making the decision and taking responsibility for the choice you have made. It's not easy. But then again, neither is life a lot of days.

 Good luck with making the big decisions in your life. I'm facing one and will try to put into practice what I've written here and see if it helps clear the emotional fog which often surrounds such big decisions.

 - John

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Jan 2008
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

The aim of psychoanalysis is to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be normally unhappy.
-- Sigmund Freud
 
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