Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Cath Duncan of Mine Your Resources.
You’ve been offered a long-awaited promotion and pay rise in the company you’re working for and at the same time you spot an exciting opportunity to make a horizontal move into an industry you’ve always been curious and passionate about but never worked in before. All this happens just as you were thinking of finally handing in your notice and starting the business you’ve been talking and thinking about for years. And of course ditching traditional work and traveling the world for a few years is still always a compelling option …
Does this sound anything like your life?
It’s so great that, as technology has advanced and made the world smaller and flatter, our minds have been opened up to more diverse possibilities and, on a practical level, making major life changes like changing jobs or continents has become easier than ever before.
But having more choices and opportunities doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of our lives and can even leave us overwhelmed and anxious.
Dan Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness” says that research shows that, contrary to popular belief, having more options generally decreases happiness because we get stuck in second-guessing all our choices. All these options can cause us to keep looking outside of ourselves for the next trend and lead us to lose touch with that part of ourselves that knows what we uniquely desire and value, and that’s when the internal conflict sets in.
With all the choices available to us, it’s important to have a way to make major life decisions that cuts through the information-overload, expresses what’s most important to us, and allows us to feel good about our decisions.
The limitations of traditional decision-making strategies in an abundant, high-information world
We’ve been brought up in a very left-brain-directed world, where the traditional decision-making strategy is a very logical process that involves listing each option, listing the pros and cons of each option, and then weighing up your lists in order to make your decision. This can be useful in very stable, predictable environments where we have all the information we need and in some business environments where we’re solving simple problems, but it isn’t the most effective way to make your most important life decisions because:
- Left-brain-directed thinking is concerned with following established social norms and rules, rather than inventing new ones. The left brain loves to identify existing rules and categories and fit stuff into those rules and categories, but it’s not good at inventing new possibilities. Sometimes your path to thriving is through custom-designing your own lifestyle rather than trying to fit yourself into the existing social norms and expectations, and if you’re using a very left-brain-directed process when you make your decisions, you’ll find it hard to invent new distinctions, like creating your own job description or pioneering a new way of living.
- We have both too much and too little information to rely solely on information-driven decision-making strategies. Traditional educational systems have taught us to believe that the answers are “out there” and that you just need to collect more information to be able to make the right life decisions. In our information-rich age, this belief can easily lead you to get stuck in research and analysis-paralysis, become overwhelmed with all the details and lose touch with what’s essential and most important to you. At the same time, the world is changing so fast and everything is so interconnected in multi-dimensional ways that the information you’re collecting is rapidly becoming outdated. It’s impossible to collect all the relevant information and to anticipate all of the results and pros and cons of each possibility.
- Left-brain-directed decision-making processes are more concerned with being “right” than with being happy. When we’re using traditional decision-making we’re essentially asking ourselves, “Which option seems like it offers the most benefits and the least risks for me?” But the option that logically offers greater rewards and fewer risks isn’t necessarily best for you. We’ve become conditioned into thinking that certain circumstances and rewards will make us happy, but sometimes the desires of our Essential Self fly in the face of traditional, logical notions of success.
How to use your emotional navigation system to make important life decisions in an abundant world
In an information-rich world where we have abundant options, when it comes to making important life decisions, we need to be able to synthesize lots of information, see the big picture, spot themes and relationships, intuitively sense what information is most important to us, and invent possibilities that don’t even exist yet. These are all right-brain-directed thinking skills that we can employ through our emotional navigation system.
Most people treat their emotions as though they’re purely incidental and sometimes even a hindrance in life. Emotions are often side-lined as impulsive and troublesome parts of ourselves that have to be controlled and are of little value to us. Actually, our emotions, both negative and positive, are all perfectly safe and healthy and serve us in incredible ways, especially when it comes to making important life decisions. Every emotion you experience is a clear signal to help you differentiate between the expectations and demands being placed on you and what’s truly important to your Essential Self.
Here are three common distinctive signals that your emotional navigation system gives you, and how to use them to make major life decisions based on what’s most important to you:
- Anger: We’ve all been socialized that anger is a “bad” emotion to have and that being angry makes you a nasty person – especially if you’re a woman. But anger is a powerful signal that lets you know what’s important to you. In order to feel angry, you have to think that something that’s important to you is being blocked, taken from you, violated or ignored in some way. So brainstorm all the stuff that’s really pushing your buttons and getting you hot under the collar. Then ask yourself, “What does this tell me about what’s most important to me?”
- Fear: Fear tends to cause us to avoid the thing we’re fearing, which is obviously very useful when the thing you’re fearing is a real threat to your life. But most of the stuff we’re scared about in our daily lives doesn’t pose any threat to our lives, because we’re wired to feel fear whenever we’re dealing with something unfamiliar. This means that, whenever we’re learning and growing and extending our comfort zones, we’ll feel fear. And when you’re growing towards something that’s really important to you, your fear is greatest, because your heart’s in it and you care deeply about the results. So list all the things you’re feeling most afraid about right now. Then ask yourself again, “What does this tell me about what’s important to me?”
- Freedom: Freedom refers to all emotions that feel good: love, joy, peace, pleasure, excitement, contentment and so on. You’ll know you’re feeling these emotions when your body feels relaxed, open, expansive, light, and perhaps even a little tingly. There’s no analyzing or unpacking to be done here to discover what’s important to you – it’s right in front of you! When you feel any of the freedom emotions, ask yourself, “What am I doing right now?” Whether it makes sense or not, this is what you love and what’s most important to you, and you’ll thrive when you bring more of this into your life. So think of the occasions and areas of your life when you feel most free, and then ask yourself once again, “What does this tell me about what’s important to me?”
Your emotions will always point you back to what’s truly important to you. When you notice your emotions it becomes easy to make major life decisions in alignment with what you value, instead of getting stuck in anxiously second-guessing yourself and perpetually wondering if the grass is greener on the other side.
Stay tuned in and agile
What you love and what’s important to you can change just as much as the opportunities around you, so don’t be tempted to do this exercise once and then lock yourself into a long-term, blinkered life plan in the hope that you won’t be distracted by all the new opportunities popping up around you.
Instead, stay agile and enjoy the benefits of living in a world that’s full of diverse possibilities by remaining curious and open to noticing the changes in the opportunities around you and your emotional responses to them. Your emotional navigation system is with you all the time and it’s easy to use. By constantly tuning into your emotions and what you truly value, you can keep tweaking your life around what’s most important to you and you’ll be more aware to notice when more of the stuff that’s really important to you is showing up in your life.
And then you can lean into that and enjoy feeling really good about the decisions you’ve made.
Through projects like The Bottom-line Bookclub, Cath Duncan is helping people to cut through information overload and find and use the most effective personal change tools, so they can thrive in these fast-paced, high-change times.