When we are not satisfied with our lives or where we are going, we want to make a change. Whatever we are doing hasn’t worked so we need to try something different.
If we have a modest amount of self-awareness we seek to make changes in ourselves. After all, where we are in life is generally due to the combinations of external circumstance and the decisions we have made.
By definition external circumstances are the part of our situation which we cannot control so the only thing that we can really do is change the pattern of our decisions. If we continue to do the same thing that we’ve done in the past, nothing is going to improve.
So far, so obvious. The question then becomes, how do we change ourselves so that we can make better decisions?
Actually, that’s what we think the question should be but trying to change who we are is a waste of time. Our core drives define who we are and changing them is pretty much impossible. Instead we should ask how can we change the pattern of our decision making to be more effective?
That sounds like a distinction without a difference but it’s key to changing the trajectory of our lives. To see why, let’s talk about how we think we make decisions vs how we actually make decisions.
When we are presented with a choice or when we need to come up with what to do next, we examine all the facts and data that we have available, then come up with the best decision based to end up with the goal we have for ourselves, right?
Two problems with that story, one is that the goals we think we are aiming for aren’t the goals we are actually aiming for. Second, the way we execute towards those goals doesn’t follow this very logical, rational path.
We think we are aiming for a goal of being successful or being safe or wealthy. But in reality we are usually not aiming to achieve positive situations, we are aiming to avoid negative situations. We want to avoid discomfort. We want to avoid being afraid.
So what happens is that we have an emotional reaction that results in a snap decision and then we find the facts that support it. Our rationality is actually used to justify the emotion that we are feeling be it positive or negative. Facts that don’t support it, we dismiss as false and only believe the facts in favor.
The point is that it’s our core emotional reactions which drive our decision making. It’s not our intellectual judgement.
So the reason we make decisions that the facts at hand do not support is that we are not actually basing the decisions on those facts. The facts come into our decision making process only as justifications not drivers.
So how does this realization help us to improve our decision making?
The concept of ourselves we have internally is actually mostly made up of how we think we react in different situations. We define our concept of ourselves through our actions or lack of actions.
But those habits, those decisions, are actually changeable. Underlying and underpinning the motivation for those actions is our true selves, the core that we cannot change. Our insecurities and talents, our fears and desires.
These core drives are a result of basic human instincts that everyone shares but honed and trained by our own individual experiences.
So in order to make better decisions we need to be aware of what actually is driving our decisions. We need to develop the self awareness to realize what we are feeling at any one point.
We need to literally ask ourselves, what am I feeling right now? Pay attention to our physical state, are we feeling nervous? Worried? Excited?
Once we’ve identified what we are feeling, just stop there.
The next step is acceptance, once we’ve identified what we are feeling, we don’t dive into them. There is nothing we can do about the way we feel, if we are nervous about speaking in front of people we are always going to be nervous about it.
Fear is meant to keep us alert to things that threaten our survival but just because we are afraid of something doesn’t mean it’s dangerous.Desire is meant to encourage us to obtain things that enhance our survival but just because we desire something doesn’t mean it’s good for us.
So we accept our feelings, don’t deny them, but recognize that the decisions that feel right aren’t necessarily right. We’re not trying to control our feelings, just be aware of them. We just sit with the discomfort of acting despite fear or not acting despite desire.
Finally the last step is to focus on what our feelings are telling us is wrong.
We start by asking ourselves, what am I feeling right now? Then pay attention to what facts support that feeling and which ones do not.
If we really push ourselves to focus on the facts that do not align with our emotions we are much more likely to get a full picture of the actual situation unfiltered by our biases.
It’s not comfortable to consider facts that don’t align with our feelings, by definition they literally feel wrong. But we must push through that discomfort, continue to accept and acknowledge our feelings of discomfort and then continue to push through that and focus our intellect.
We can’t change our core selves but by understanding our emotional drives and motivations we can see to what extent we are being emotionally driven and to what extent we are using our intellectual judgment.
Once are able to recognize our core emotional drivers, which we can’t change, and how they are affecting our decision making we can separate that out from and focus on our habits and reactions which we can change.
By cultivating this kind of selfawareness we can change the patterns of our decisions and thus the trajectory of our lives.