Every moment of every day, we’re bombarded by a freight train of opportunities, people, ideas, invitations, ads, conversations, and asks screaming at us. With every one, we’ve got to make a decision. Yes, no, maybe, kinda, later, now, bigger, smaller, hotter, colder, cuter, higher paying, less traveling? Taxi, subway, bus, walk, or ride? Single-origin, high-altitude organic coffee with lovingly handpicked virgin hemp milk, half-caf macchiato with 2 percent, or slam a double expresso? By the time we hit breakfast, we’re beyond overwhelmed!
Then come the real decisions, the ones that actually matter. A handful of these choices, may actually be more life-and-death, or at least happy life and slow meaningless decline into death. Little things like who gets our attention, when do they get it, and why? What gets the nod, what gets turned down, and how much will someone need to give us – in money, love, attention, or a sense of purpose – to make it worth a yes! What projects, jobs, activities, and relationships do we welcome, and what do we say no to? How much suffering will we endure, and why, before changing direction?
Make the right decisions and the way we contribute to the world ends up filling our Contribution Buckets. Life gets a whole lot better. So do the lives of those we end up dancing with and serving.
Make the wrong decisions, though, and it feels like we get to the end of every crazy busy day but haven’t actually done anything that matters. String that out for weeks, months, and years and boom, we’ve just wasted the better part of our lives.
Thing is, we can’t make good decisions until we know what matters to us. Until we have some sense of what’s important, what we believe, what we value. When we know these things, decisions get a lot easier. Something is either aligned with our values and beliefs, or it’s not. If it’s aligned, it’s a yes. If it’s not, it’s a no.
But how can we know what matters to us?
I’ll share an approach that’s worked well for me.
Write down the things you value most in life. Here are some possible answers, feel free to add your own:
Faith Truth Openness Family Vulnerability Wonder Freedom Equality Fun Peace Integrity Growth Compassion Humility Accountability Security Play Kindness Friends Simplicity Justice Love Trust Flexibility Respect Generosity Mindfulness Money Creativity Courage
Next look at the list and edit it down to your top five, the ones you hold most sacred.
So what do you do with this information? So now you know family matters, or money, or health matters a lot. But how does that information guide your decisions and actions? What if we took it one step further and added a verb to each?
Let’s take the value of “family” as an example. Is the verb you want to attach “provide for my family”? This could mean financially, it could be being present. What if we took the word family and turned it into a sentence? Something like:
“I want to ensure that my wife and daughter will always have a comfortable home; to earn enough money to take care of their needs and provide the best education possible for my daughter; and to be physically and emotionally present, kind, generous, open, and compassionate.”
Now, not only so I know what’s important, but I also know how that information will guide my decisions and actions. Now if I’m presented with an opportunity to invest my time or attention or money in something, I can ask:
Will this move me closer to ensuring a comfortable home for my wife and daughter….?
If yes, I’m in. If no, I’m out. And if I’m weighing two options, I can choose the one that gets me closest. It becomes useful in guiding my everyday decisions and actions.
Step 1: Write down your basic values.
Make your list as long as you like. Pure stream-of-consciousness. Do not do any editing yet.
Step 2: Now circle the five values you feel most strongly about.
Go with your gut. This is not about what you wish your answers were, or what you want others to think; it’s about what they truly are.
Step 3: Look at each of your top five values, and write them into a sentence that gives them context and definition.
Be sure to include a verb. Spend a little time refining these sentences. Then, on a new piece of paper, write all five down.
Step 4: Place that piece of paper somewhere you can see it or reference it whenever you want.
As opportunities come your way throughout the day, ask yourself, “Does saying yes move me closer to what I hold most dear?” If the answer is no, whether it’s checking your e-mail every 10 minutes or taking a new job, just say no. And start to say yes to only what genuinely matters most to you.
The more I think about it, the more it seems we don’t really have a decision-making crisis. We have a self-knowledge crisis. How can we decide who or what to say yes or no to until we know what matters to us? So let’s bypass years of psychotherapy (kidding – many of my closest friends are psychotherapists!) and take a bite out of the self-ignorance apple with a simple question.
Jonathan has spent the last two decades exploring what it means to live a good life. He’s traveled the world, interviewed and learned from Buddhist Lamas to billionaires, research savants to maverick M.D.s and legendary artists to world-shaking entrepreneurs.
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