DO THIS: How to make Decisions

Ok, so after reading 25 different ways that the Stoics tell you the only thing you have in your life is your own reasons choice (the ability to make decisions, to react to things), I have to say I agree.  Philosophically this one tenant whisks away the importance of many other things like possessions, status, wealth, relationships, etc.  It is actually a very heavy cognitive lift to realize that the ONLY thing that is TRULY AND EXCLUSIVELY mine is my Prohairesis.  Everything else is outside my control and allowing things outside my control to determine things like my happiness or wellbeing in life is a losers game.  Ok, over that cognitive hurdle.

Now comes the hard part.  Similar to my advice of “I Hope you don’t get what you want in life.”  Because then you have a REAL problem.  You have to decide what is next after your wants and desires are gone (either fulfilled or given up).  The hard part is when you accept the fact that you only have rational choice, then how do you make the best decisions?  One guy has put together a handy dandy Modern Stoic decision chart which I have found handy:

In the Stoic way, the high order bit is always “Is this decision in my control or not?”.  If it is, then decide if doing the thing would build one of the four virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, courage), if yes, then do it.  If no (not build a virtue) does it deal with one of the indifferent things (wealth, health, status, life, death, pleasure, and pains, etc.)  Do if preferred but not if dispreferred.  I found this very complex.  So I have come up with my own set of guardrails when faced with decisions.  And of course, I created a daily exercise to support the decision process.

Whenever I am faced with a decision in life, even small ones daily, if the answer is not immediately clear I ask myself the following framing guardrail questions:

  1.  Is this in my control? The standard Stoic question.  90 percent of decisions are here because the ones that are not in my control don’t even become decisions.  Habits are not decisions. If I decide to do morning pages as a habit, it is not a decision every day to do or not do morning pages.  The decisions that tend to fall outside my control have to do with other people.  Like if I ask myself “Should I try to make my girlfriend happy today?” That one has two terminal errors.  First, it has the weasel word “try”.  Never ever decide to try.  There is no try.  There is only do or not do.  It is NEVER a decision to “try”.  Second, it is impossible to “make” someone else anything, so there is nothing to decide.  The affirmative is impossible.
  2. Choose people.   There are many decisions in my day where I can choose an activity that engages with people or one that I do myself or with things.  Say to work out alone in my home gym or go to coffee with a friend.  Or work at home or work in the co-working space (where I may run into friends).  Or dinner with friends or a stay at home organizing the garage.  While I am an introvert at heart and my instinct is to do the alone thing or the inanimate thing, my experience has shown me that by choosing the decision that engages with other people, over time it results in a more well-lived life.
  3. Create instead of consuming.  Most activities in life can be put into either the creation (making something new, new experiences, new things, writing, making, etc.) or the consumption (watching TV, reading, eating, passively taking in the world) bucket.  The difference is engagement.  Am I active in creating something or am I passive?  The allure of passivity is very compelling.  Especially after a long day of work or mental engagement.  The desire to unplug can be overwhelming.  But again, after years of experience, when I choose the thing that creates something it always leads to a more well-lived life.
  4. Move your ass.  Basically, if the choice is between sitting at the desk or working out or doing something active, do the active thing.  Always choose the active thing.  When deciding where to have a meeting, a coffee shop or walking and talking?  Walking and Talking.
  5. What is the Third option? Many times we are trained to choose between two options.  Republican or Democrat.  Black or White.  Right or Left.  And many times when faced with a decision, only two options surface.  But many times if I stop and ask myself if there is a third option, a hybrid, an out of the box decision to make, then more choices come up. Maybe more than three. The point is to ASK THE QUESTION.

With any decision, if I don’t know what to do, after going through those four questions, the best decision always comes out.


Also published on Medium.

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