How to Make Decisions You Won’t Regret

How to Make Decisions You Won’t Regret

One day, a simple invitation arrived in my inbox that provoked an internal crisis. The invitation was from the leader of a writer’s group I belonged to. She was trying to organize a get-together at a restaurant just to socialize and catch up, and she wanted to know who was interested in coming.

I immediately started panicking. Should I go, or not? There was one woman in the group who really irritated me, but on the other hand there were others whose company I really enjoyed. The restaurant was also a distance from home, and I didn’t know if I should commit to the trek, and if I did, whether I should leave from work or go home first. And if I went home first, I wondered if I should change my clothes—and if so, into what.  After hours of deliberation, I was still stuck in the cognitive mud.

Ever since I was a child, even the simplest of decisions, like whether to choose Pop Tarts or Froot Loops for breakfast, had always created a maddening tug of-war in my mind. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression in college, I learned that this was one of the hallmarks of the condition and was finally forced to confront my inertia.

First, early in therapy, I realized that my tendency to see both sides of an issue came from parents who were constantly at odds and disagreed on just about everything from who did more for the kids to where to put the ketchup on a dinner plate. That served me well in one sense—I became a journalist and was therefore often called upon to weigh competing views in the process of writing a balanced story. But on the other hand, it definitely contributed to my paralysis whenever I was asked to make a decision—whether it was about something relatively insignificant or a game-changer.

This recognition, in part, fueled my work with my first therapist—a talented psychiatrist who empathized and coaxed me into following my instincts, and making progressively bigger and bigger choices on my own. Gently, he nudged me out of the therapeutic nest until I had the courage to fly (i.e. make a decision) on my own. With a new therapist, that work continues to this day, as does my preference for sugary food products.

Of course, being the dependent type, my natural tendency is to rely on my therapist (or anyone else within earshot) to make decisions for me (and then blame them afterward if things don’t work out).  But my therapist usually resists, and for that I am grateful because there are many mental health professionals out there who gladly fall into this “Playing God” trap.

When I have to tackle a decision, my therapist has taught me helpful “thought tools” like asking myself two essential, intertwined questions:

  1. What is the worst that could happen as a result of this decision?
  2. How will I ultimately feel about myself if I make this decision?

Now, every time I am confronted with a choice, I ask myself these questions, and I hear a little voice in my head (and no, I haven’t turned psychotic) that helps me reach the best conclusion for me at the time. I believe everyone has this same inner voice buried deep inside of them—they just have to dig for it and have the courage to listen to what it is saying.

Interestingly, I recently read that there is actually a part of the brain that controls feelings of regret–the ventral striatum– and that in a depressed person’s brain, missed opportunities spark extra activity in that region.  So, I’m not saying that decision-making is easy, or that I have mastered the process myself. But I am determined to forge onward against all manner of invisible foes.

By the way, I decided to go to that writer’s dinner, and I was glad I did.

Photo by Aztlek

Wendy Aron

Wendy Aron has written for publications nationwide, including The New York Times and Newsweek. She is an award winning humorist (Society of Professional Journalists) and comic memoir author. You can see her home improvement humor blog at http://theantijane.com and more of her work at www.wendyaron.com.

17 Comments

  1. As one who also struggles mightily with decision making I really appreciate this post. Too many times I have created significant mental anguish and clutter by weighing the pros and cons of A or B and sometimes C, D, E and F.

    # 1 tip is used frequently – generally I add in the ‘will I die or suffer serious physical injury’ as a filter. Framing it around the life ending perspective has helped me realize that in the grande scheme of life that the decisions we are confronted with are actually rather minor.

    # 2 tip is great, provided that it is how I feel after the act of making the decision and not the result of the decision itself. This has helped me greatly for I feel a massive weight off of my mind by simply choosing one of the multitude of options. The subsequent experience has most often been pleasant and have been very good and not playing the ‘what if’ game by fantasing about what would have occurred if I chose the other option.

    Thank you for this.

    John B
    Alberta, Canada

    Reply
  2. Hi….Wendy Aron

    first Iam glad to put my first comment in this blog , in such an amazing article…..it really touch my real problem in my life……how to make my own decision….and not te be worry about whether to do or not to do something….

    the two questions you put to use….I will do my best to keep with them every time ….

    thanks, and Excuse me for my poor English

    Reply
  3. Thanks! I torture myself with decision making. Torture! Really glad to read this. I have clinical depression as well and your doctors explanation makes so much sense to me.

    Reply
  4. Interesting. I never thiught about the issue before. How I usually make big decisions is by trying to listen to my inner voice. Sometimes it is quite loud, simetimes silent. So in general itss tricky :)

    Reply
  5. that came right in time
    thank you for the advice : )

    Reply
  6. Some additonal tools that might also help:
    Edward de Bono has a number of tools that can help with decision making by hightlighting where we are putting our attention. This tool is called DATT:
    There are ten tools but these are particularly useful:
    OPV: other peoples views
    PMI: Plus, minus, interesting
    KVI: Key values involved
    for more details email me
    Great article and simple, thanks,
    Glen

    Reply
  7. Thank you, that made things easier for me today :)

    Reply
  8. I ask myself “what’s the worst that could happen” all the time. I feel regret more from things I don’t do rather than things I choose to do, so more often than not, I’ll take the leap and do it.

    I like to see both sides of an argument/decision too. I was a reporter in college and on the debate team in high school. It’s a helpful trait to have. I can make my argument stronger when I can predict my opponent’s objections.

    Reply
  9. Yes, I’ve been dealing with an embarassing addiction to internet porn, and everytime I get the urge, I ask myself, that same question, “What will I feel afterwards if I give in?” “Do I really want to waste away 2 hours watching porn or stay on my spiritual path and instead do some EFT(emotional freedom Technique) or meditate or work on my blog?”

    I think it’s always important to listen to that “inner voice”, our intuition, and make conscious decisions every single day to accomplish our dreams.

    Reply
  10. Its so true..i also feel its important to control own mind and negative feelings which generate such feelings..we are human beings..mistakes do happen..we should learn from them and vow to take care in future..n thought tools r the best thing..

    Reply
  11. I think one thing that increases the pressure when we have to make a decision is the feeling that a correct answer already exists, and we are trying to guess what it is. In a sense, we don’t feel we are MAKING a decision, but rather SEARCHING for one — and there is never sufficient information, never enough clues, to enable us to track it down with any confidence. As a writer, I have faced decision points at almost every word in this entry. I’ve hesitated; I’ve back-tracked and made changes. But what enables me to write at all is the conviction that there is not ONE right path that is out there, waiting to be found. Rather, there are an infinite number of paths that I am creating as I work, and as I live. None of them are perfect. Many of them are perfectly good. There. I’m done.

    Reply
    • James – the concept of a right or wrong answer is one that is often overlooked. Too many, including myself at times, keep searching for the one right answer. In reality there is no right answer or solution or choice or decision.

      There is the answer / solution / choice / decision that works based on our current information and current paradigm.

      Thanks for reminding me of that.

      jb

      Reply
      • John, Thank you for letting me know that what I wrote was helpful to you. For a writer, it doesn’t get any better than that.

        Reply
  12. The answer could be not to regret about anything. And then you are free to make your choices. I personally try to make choices more quickly when the task at hand doesn’t involve something very complex. That way I exercise my mind to be more resolute, and convince myself over and over again that there is not a bad decision to make.
    If you look back in retrospect you will see that all of the decisions you made so far lead you to somewhere in your life. Therefore there is never a wrong decision according to me. Just Exercise your mind step by step to be more resolute with small things that are of less importance, and then you will be able to make the big choices with ease as well.

    Reply
    • Slavko,

      I like the idea of exercising and toning one’s decision-making power on the little things to be in shape for the big things. Sounds like it might work. It reminds me of my advice to my children: Be honest when it’s easy. Then you’ll be in the habit of being honest, when it’s hard.

      Reply
  13. I think regret is an essential feeling in human beings, even though, you do your best choice, regret will show up :)
    the key is ignoring it

    Reply
  14. The “what’s the worst that can happen” tip always gets me back to center. It really makes me realize that the worst option is actually never that bad. It’s helped me a lot in make my decisions and deciding to become bolder.

    Reply

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