Dear Maddi: Making decisions

Having problems making a decision? Becky Ponting gives tips on how to make a difficult decision.

22 February 2021

Dear Maddi,
I am wondering how I can make good choices? Although I always think multiple times before making a decision, the outcomes seem terrible. Thank you for your help.

Dear Undecided,
This is such an important issue! We all have to make hundreds of choices each day, with some being large and some being small. Our decisions can range from what to eat for breakfast and what to wear, up to what discipline to study, what career to pursue and who to be in a relationship with! It’s no wonder that some of us struggle to know how to make these decisions in a way that will most benefit us. How long should we spend making these big and small decisions, and how will we know if we have chosen the right option?
I would like to tell you about a technique developed by former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, columnist Suzy Welch. Her book, 10-10-10: A Fast and Powerful Way to Get Unstuck, outlines a simple yet meaningful technique which can assist you when you are struggling with a decision. Here’s what to do. When you find yourself trying to make a difficult decision, ask yourself the following three questions:

What are the consequences of this decision in 10 minutes?
What are the consequences of this decision in 10 months?
And what are the consequences of this decision in 10 years?

Let’s use an example of a small decision to start with… what to have for breakfast. Imagine a scenario where you are making a decision about what to eat in the morning. You would love a couple of donuts with a coffee. But you know you also have milk, eggs and oatmeal in the house, and that’s another option you are considering. What’s the right decision?

What are the consequences in 10 minutes? You are feeling really excited and happy about the option of having the donut and coffee! It tastes great and gives you a caffeine fix. Eggs and oatmeal take longer to make and they don’t taste as good to you. Now let’s fast-forward 10 months, and think about what the consequences are. If you are almost always grabbing the quick donut and coffee, maybe you will find you aren’t getting much protein, calcium or fiber in your day. It could be that you will notice some downsides when you have the sugar and caffeine crash midway through each morning…. And what are the consequences of this breakfast habit in 10 years? That might be worth looking into. Are there long-term downsides of choosing the sugary treats over the more substantial breakfast? How much do you value your body and health, and how much time and effort would you hope to invest in those things? Ultimately, there is no clear “right” or “wrong” decision. Maybe you could even find a way to achieve some balance by having your favourite donut/coffee breakfast on weekends and making the more elaborate but nutritious breakfast on weekdays. But doing the 10-10-10 technique may help you discover what you really want for yourself long-term.

Now let’s try the method with something bigger… let’s say you are deciding whether you should switch your area of study in university. Imagine you are majoring in something which really interested you in high school. Maybe your family even encouraged you to go into this discipline. Now you are a few years into your university studies and you have taken classes from a number of different faculties and you have found a new area of interest. You have started to think about switching your major. But should you do it, or will you regret it? How can you make this decision?

What are the consequences of deciding to switch your major in the first 10 minutes? You may feel a mix of emotions! Maybe some fear and uncertainty. Maybe some excitement. Maybe even some dread at having to figure out the logistics of making this big change and uncertainty as to how your loved ones will react when they hear the news.
Now… how is it going to feel in 10 months? It might be kind of tough!! Maybe this means you will need to do an extra year or two of university. It might mean taking some fundamental courses in the new area of study which are really challenging. There may be a part of you that feels frustrated that it is taking you longer to graduate and begin your career. Finally, let’s imagine how you’ll feel in 10 years. This is when you can really evaluate the long-term costs and benefits of such a decision. In 10 years, you may imagine you will have finished university and be a few years into your career. How will that feel? Are you excited about the prospect? Will your career in the new area be exciting and fulfilling? Remember to tune into your body, to check if you notice any physical signs of how you feel about this potential future. Again, there is no clear-cut answer, the only information to consider and reflect on. What the technique does is help you see through the initial waves of emotion (which can be overwhelming) and come out on the other side with more clarity as to the longer-term impacts of the decision.

If you think the 10-10-10 method is something you’d like to try, you could start with a small decision, and see how it goes!

Undecided, I’m not sure which decisions you are making right now, but I want you to know that I am sending you wishes for insight, wisdom and clarity as you consider various courses of action. I’ll leave you with a quote from Mary Oliver, which asks the following:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

I hope you make the wisest decisions possible with the information you have, and that your choices lead you in the direction of your best life!

Becky Ponting (guest author for Dear Maddi)

Welch, S. (2010). 10-10-10: A Fast & Powerful Way to Get Unstuck in Love, at Work, and with Your Family. Scribner; Reprint edition.

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