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Breaking Through Decision Deadlock


From Plato to Star Trek's Mr. Spock, countless wise men have advised us to make rational decisions. Put aside emotion! Compare the costs and benefits of your options! Pick whatever option yields the highest value for the least cost! This seems like pretty logical advice—so how come other cultural icons, such as Captain Kirk, are always boldly going where passion takes them, making decisions based not on reason but on courage, love, loyalty? As it turns out, there are good reasons logical Mr. Spock ranked second in command, while emotional Kirk was captain.

Great strategists trust both intellect and instinct; they gather information until they feel they can make a good decision.

We now know that decision making is an emotional process, not merely a calculation. Brain-damaged patients who can still think rationally but have lost the ability to process emotions can become pathologically indecisive. They may spend hours simply deciding what to wear. (I'm not sure I have this kind of brain damage, but it would explain a lot.) And it's impossible to rationally calculate opportunity costs, because life is unpredictable. So decision making is always a gamble, and gamblers need confidence in both their calculations and their hunches. If that's not logical enough to convince you, take a look at this chart:

People who trust their gut over their brain often take flying leaps with little information—risky, but at least they get somewhere. Folks with no faith in either their intellect or their instincts generally follow the path of least resistance; again, not an optimal strategy, but not paralyzing, either. Great strategists trust both intellect and instinct; they gather information until they feel they can make a good decision. But people who try to decide with the mind alone, who place no faith in their heart's desires, are doomed to stall and fuss, compare and contrast, forever insisting that just a little more knowledge will make the choice clear. It won't. Luckily, the two steps below just might.

Getting Unstuck: Step One


A yogi friend of mine once told me, "The body truth goes ahead of the mind lie." When we dither over a decision, our intellect tries to gain the upper hand, shouting, You'd better be sure! Keep your options open! Have you considered the legal implications? and so on. Fortunately, our bodies patiently persist in telling the truth. All we have to do is listen. Here's how.

1. Think of a time you said yes to something you later regretted. Vividly remember the moment you made the decision. What were you feeling, physically? Did your gut churn? Did your hands feel cold? Did your feet get hot? Even small sensations are significant. Describe them here (choose print above for a version you can write on):
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2. Next, think of a time you said no to something and later wished you'd said yes. What physical feelings did you have while you were making that choice?
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3. Now recall a time you said no and were later relieved that you'd passed on what would have been a bad experience. What were you feeling physically when you made that choice?
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4. Finally, remember a time you said yes to something that turned out to be a great choice. How did you feel, physically, when you were making that choice?
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Generally, the sensations of an unwise decision will be consistent, whether your choice was yes or no. A wise yes or no will also have a consistent "body truth." Focus on these sensations until you can tell them apart.

Now think of a decision you're making today—where to buy yogurt, whether to change religions, and so forth. Feel which choice your body wants to make. Thinking about that option will ease your shoulders, open your lungs. The opposite choice will close you up like a clam. Once you're able to sense these feelings, go on to step two.

Next: Step Two: How to trade your current course of action

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