with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Power of Choice

Summary of Life Makeover meeting May 9, 2002


Every step of the way, you are making choices. The smallest decision you make in your day may effect the outcome of the day and your life. Most of us have had one of those "near-miss" moments in our life where we just avoid stepping off the curb to be hit by a speeding vehicle or some other catastrophe missed by the luck of the draw, fate, kismet, or whatever you may call it. As a victim of being hit by a truck, I know that during the many moments leading up to the accident, I could have been delayed or hesitated in such a way as to have avoided the moment. How many of our smallest decisions affect the path of our life? We spend a lot of energy confronting what we think are the biggest life decisions when the smallest can be just as powerful. Understanding the power of choice means looking at all the ways choice influences our life.

We first examined what goes into the process of making a decision. What are the elements, skills, behaviors, attitudes, and concepts associated with decision-making?

Decision-making Elements – What Does It Take?

courage, risk, time, energy, money, trust, advice, desire, conflict, support, integrity, moral values, religion, agreements, compromises, negotiations, clarity, insight, state of mind, empathy, understanding the deeper meaning/purpose/issue, listening, hearing, understanding/comprehension, anger management, prejudice, assumptions, rules/laws, fate, timing

Of these, many agreed that time, money, energy, clarity, integrity, and state of mind have a lot to do with how they make their decisions. Then we discussed how people made their decisions:

  • flip a coin
  • guess
  • take the thoughts and feelings of others into consideration
  • consider your own self worth, value
  • check it against your personal integrity
  • check it against your mission statement/purpose
  • pick one solution where the positive outcome outweighs possible losses
  • accept the consequences

What is the definition of the word "decision" ? The best definition we came up with was "to solve problems by selecting one course of action from several possible alternatives". We then looked at the word "choice" and its definition as "options considered for a decision". It was important to define these words to help us better understand the process.

Why are some decisions easier than others?

The group discussed this issue and found that decisions that effected others were harder for them. Some said that decisions involving money were also hard. We then looked at what happens when we put off a decision.

  • the item grows; becomes a monster
  • intensifies
  • overwhelms us
  • makes it harder to make a decision
  • sabotages us
  • dominos onto everything and everyone else around us
  • effects health
  • effects attitude
  • effects relationships

What do we get when we make a decision?

  • energy
  • commitment
  • happy
  • excited about life
  • stimulated to make more
  • courage
  • support
  • faith in self and others
  • health
  • sleep
  • better relationships

In Cheryl Richardson’s book, Life Makeovers, some chapters deal specifically with the issue of making decisions and relate to this topic. In Week 12, Give Your Brain a Vacation, she talks about the process of assigning the "analytical" part of your brain to do the "research" of problem solving while the rest of your brain gets on with the daily activities. This has worked beautifully for those who have used it.

For example, when faced with a lawsuit over repairs on her apartment, Ruth used this technique and made an appointment with her analytical brain to discuss the suit in two weeks. She went on with the rest of her life over the next two weeks and whenever the thoughts started creeping in, consuming her energies, she would tell her brain to stop and just handle it, and to leave her alone until their appointment. At the appointed time, she met with herself and was able to really deal with the issues, and her analytical brain was ready for her. Instead of whirling and clicking over the issue, distracting herself from her work and life, she freed the rest of her brain to concentrate on what was important at the moment and set the worrying aside until we was ready to "handle it".

Our brains are incredibly powerful and we use so little of it, this is a great way to start taking advantage of some of its multi-tasking abilities.

In Week 18, Cheryl writes about focusing your energy. She tells of making a decision and then as she sat down to write it out, another thought popped into her head, then another, and each one seemed to be just as important, and before she knew it, she had lost all interest and enthusiasm in the first idea, and in fact had forgotten about it completely. Our inability to focus causes distractions which pull us apart in a variety of directions, making it hard to get anything done. By learning how to focus on one thing at a time and eliminating the distractions, our energy gets targeted instead of spread out, and we get more done. Anticipating distractions as well as eliminate them. They will pop up, so plan on them.

Week 28 tackles the important issue of "backbone". The opening quote of that chapter says, "Work joyfully and peacefully, knowing that right thoughts and right efforts will inevitably bring about right results," by James Allen. Integrity is the most important of your personal priorities when it comes to living an authentic life, she explains.

Whatever your standards are in life, stick to them. If you make a life commitment to not steal, then you will give back the extra change you get by mistake at the local kiosk. If your standard is to not lie or gossip, you will turn away from the rumor mill when it seeks you out. When you start to lose your "backbone", life starts crumbling around you. Living with integrity means noticing where you are not honoring your standards and do something about it. When you are facing a decision, check in with your religious, moral, personal, and life values to see if this is in line with them.

Among the many other chapters that are so helpful to the decision-making process, a favorite of mine is Week 39, Settle for More. Cheryl describes a friend of hers who flies frequently as part of his work. When he found himself in an uncomfortable seat on the plane, he debated about how to handle this. He choose extreme self care and sat down and waited until the plane was finished loading, then he went to the front and spoke quietly to the attendant. With smiles she easily found him a better seat without any stress or discomfort to the other passengers.

She challenges us to take better care of ourselves and to not settle for less when we deserve it. This doesn’t mean being arrogant and demanding to be put first. It does mean not settling for less when you do deserve it.

For example, when was the last time you decided not to buy a piece of clothing, jewelry, or some treat thinking it was too expensive or you didn’t deserve it. Sometimes you do deserve to spoil yourself, so why not? Examining the areas in your life where you are short-changing yourself. Are you in a relationship you’ve outgrown or that isn’t good? Do you stay because of the other person or to protect their feelings and not yours? Are you taking on more work than you can possible do because you are more afraid to ask for help in your job (they might fire me) than to do a good job with what you have? Settling for more means encouraging you to become more aware of your own needs so you can treat them (and yourself) with the respect and consideration they deserve, helping you make decisions with extreme self-care a priority.

The Decision-making Process

What are the step-by-step actions to take to make a decision? After much research, I’ve come up with the major points of the process of decision-making.

What is the question, issue, or problem?
Without definition, you only have conflict and indescribable negative energy flying around with nothing to focus on. Examine the question, issue, or problem thoroughly to establish the question you need to answer before you. Clarify the point. What is it that is really being sought in this decision. What is at stake? What do you really want? Concentrate on the specifics not the subtleties or distractions. For example, if you are deciding upon moving to a new home, is the question really about moving or is it about making a change in your life? Or is it because of the pressure of family or lifestyle that demands you move to a "better" lifestyle? Or is it just boredom with where you are? What is the real issue that you are confronting?
Do you have the information you need to make a decision?
If you don’t have the information, what do you do? Research. So where and how do you research? The Internet is a great resource today, but many of us still go to our friends and family for input. Wherever you get the information, evaluate the evidence to see if it is appropriate. Where does the information come from? Can you trust it? Does it represent various views or narrow thinking? How accurate is the information? Is it fact or opinion? A friend of mine has a friend who is having an affair, and she doesn’t seem to care if her husband knows or not. My friend turns to this woman for advice. In my opinion, based upon the lifestyle her friend has chosen, I’m not sure I would respect her advice, but it is up to you to decide upon the validity of the sources. Same with the Internet. I was doing some research on Israel and the Intifada and I found some interesting information and thought it was valid until I inspected the source and found it came from a Neo-Nazi web site, a place I would have never visited if I had known it ahead of time. Really check your sources.
What are your options?
Carefully go through the information and look at your options. What are your alternatives? Make a list and write down the advantages and disadvantages or the pros and cons. What are the costs involved? What about the benefits? Which options will benefit you or others the most or the least? What are the consequences of the various options? And what obstacles will pop up with each option?

There are a variety of tools which can help you come up with alternatives. They include brainstorming, writing down your ideas, collaborative effort (teamwork), journaling, visualization, and examining your goals and life purpose. You can also do role playing, stepping into the shoes of each person involved in the conflict to consider their perspectives. Some people go to even greater lengths through storytelling (by telling friends you get new insights), seeking professional help, studying cases studies dealing with similar issues, seek creative outlets like painting or poetry to develop the ideas, or even to challenge themselves to write a new ending in their journal. There are many resources to cultivate your brain with the various options and endings to your decision, so take advantage of them and get unstuck.

Check the Meter: Check your integrity/purpose/mission/value system.
Whatever you call it, check your backbone to see if your integrity is in line with the decisions you are about to make. How will you feel about this decision? Good or bad? How will others feel about your choice? Will it be satisfying to you? What risks are involved? Are you willing to take a stand on this issue or will you be making a choice that compromises your stand? What compromises are you willing to make? What sacrifices are you willing to make? How will you feel about this in 5, 10, or even 20 years? Examine the impact of this decision upon the quality of your life and the integrity.
Experiential History: Have you made this decision before?
Check in with your own personal history to see if you have been up against the same or similar decision in the past. What did you decide? How did you decide? Was it the right decision? How would you change it? Or would you? Should you make the same decision again? We are supposed to be able to learn from our mistakes, so check in to see if you are making the same one or another, or if you are still doing the right thing.
Decision: Now what?
Check in with yourself to see if the time is right to make the decision. Sometimes it helps to wait to announce your decision, sometimes you have to decide quickly. Napoleon used to make his messengers and mail servers (who had traveled often for weeks if not months) several weeks outside the camp before allowing them to make their delivery. He figured that after about 6 weeks minimum, whatever problems were had at "home" would be solved and there would be less for him to do. Procrastination leads to headaches, but timing is everything. If this is the right time to make the decision, then take action. Make a plan, schedule time to complete the process, make arrangements with others, and keep the commitment to follow-thru on your decision.
Review/Evaluate/Follow-thru/Follow-up
After some time has passed, check in with yourself. What were the results of your decision? How would you change it? What did you do right/wrong? Was this an effective decision? How did it effect your quality of life? Did it benefit you, others, or the world in general? Evaluate the results so you can learn from each of your decisions. Then make sure you follow-thru on your decision commitments, and that you follow-up to make sure that the process is working all along the line. Sometimes the decisions we make affect others, not just ourselves, so we have to check to see if it is working for them as well as yourself. And take time to say thank you to those affected by your decision.

When NOT to make a decision

As with everything, timing is everything. There are just times when you aren’t ready to make a decision, or things are off balance enough that your decision should be suspect. Avoid making decisions when you are tired, hungry, or under stress or pressure of any sort, even the pressure to decide. These distractions can alter your perceptions and abilities to make decisions. It is better to take more time to arrive at a decision than to live with the consequences of an ill-advised one. Do not allow yourself to be rushed into any decision that you are not prepared to make or keep.

During a Life Makeover show on Oprah, Cheryl Richardson talked about how to delay a decision. You can say simple things like "I have to think about it" or "Let me sleep on it", and Oprah said that she tells people she needs to "pray on it." Figure out what you would say to delay the decision if you need to.

Practice it and use it for small decisions and then work your way towards the bigger situations. If you wait until you are faced with a huge decision with a lot of pressure, without the rehearsal you will probably fall down at the first sign of fire. Pick a phrase that works for you alone, or use several if the pressure keeps up, but make it your own. What can you say to slow down the process to give yourself time to think?

Set a realistic time frame for making your decision and stick to it. If you have months to decide, take them. If you have hours, take them. Few decisions have deadlines set in stone, so find out how much time you are allowed, then decide for yourself how much time you need and take it. Be realistic. There are consequences for delaying, but consider those in your planning. If necessary, renegotiate your time frame if you need more time. It is your life and you choose how you want to lead it.

Before you make your decision, collect and refine all the essential information you can gather concerning your decision and the options before you act. This is where time is critical. Gathering information can take some time, so consider how much you need for this step in the decision-making process, as well as each of the other steps and negociate your time frame accordingly.

Once you make a decision, the trip isn’t over. You still have to set goals to make your decision happen and to put your plan into effect. As you develop your plan of action, examine your choice thoroughly. Decide what steps are necessary to accomplish it. If you are not happy with your choice, start the decision-making process over again. Consider what will happen if you don’t keep your commitment?

"Captain, you are letting your compassion
get in the way of making a decision."
"Doctor, I am human. I always let compassion
guide my decisions."
Conversation between Captain Archer
and Doctor Phlox on Enterprise, Star Trek television show

What is the impact of emotion on the decision-making process?

The old adage to never make a decision when you are angry is true. Intense emotions affect our decision-making process. They put pressure on our spirit, they are distracting and add confusion to what might be an already confusing situation. It is really important to put time between your emotions and the decision in order to get clarity on the situation.

Yet, compassion is a good guide when it comes to making your decisions. When you let compassion guide you, rather than self-interest, pride, and arrogance, you walk in the shoes of those around you and consider their interests, too. Don’t make decisions that devalue your own life and worth, but do consider the value of others in this process.

The attitude proposed through the popular Star Trek television show of the Prime Directive of non-interference and honoring infinite diversity is a good code of ethics to adopt. When you take into consideration the value each participant has to the process, you value them as part of the process. The attitude of "my way or highway", or what I call "ultimatum thinking", just doesn’t work. It is a self-centered and selfish decision when your decision results in a self-serving end and a resounding "Fine! Never again!" cutting off all alternatives and negotiations. Keep an open mind and become compassionate in your decision-making process.

Don’t forget that conflict is a natural part of life and can promote personal growth and learning when approached with the appropriate skills, attitudes, and standards.

Creating a Stress Free Decision Lifestyle

Yes, you can create a lifestyle that makes the decision process stress free. It is a choice and here are some steps along the path to create such an environment.

First, help yourself make the process easier by making the process easier. Sounds simple, but it is just that simple. We often churn over the smallest detail in our life or put up obstacles to make the process more difficult. This is called "getting in our own way".

Life would be so much easier if we simply got our of our own way and cleaned up our thinking and life. Some people make the decision making process harder by anticipating and assuming outcomes without even considering the question or gathering the information. "I just know it will end like that!" Maybe it won’t, but thinking that way certainly may create such an outcome. Even if it doesn’t, energy goes out in that direction and it is exhausting. This form of "ultimatum thinking" implies that the course of your life is set in stone and there are not other options. That is not true. Open yourself up to all the possibilities. Just because it may have happened in that way in the past does not mean you have to repeat it.

Don’t buy into the agenda of others.
Many of our conflicts result in the actions and behaviors of others, forcing us to make decisions in anger. Anticipating their responses is an assumption and prepares you to go into the confrontation ready for battle. If the battle doesn’t occur, you may create it just because you are in fighting mode. How others respond and react towards you, whatever their agenda, is their problem. Yours is keeping your head cool and calm and open to the possibilities. If you hear old tapes running, stop them and clear your head to create new, positive ones. A friend told me that she couldn’t talk to her daughter about a certain subject. "If I do she will just get all mad and blame me and there we’ll go again into another fight." Since the script between her daughter and herself had been written many times before and each person knew their lines, sure enough the show would repeat itself. So I told her to change the lines. The show is old and needs updating. Change the script and it will defuse the situation. She did and was honestly shocked at the power she felt within herself and at the change in her daughter’s attitude. It will take a while for the daughter to get used to the new script, but adaptation is part of life. Make sure the adaptation is to the positive.
Clarify the situation.
First, clearly look at what the problem, issue, or conflict is. It is really coming from what you think the decision is or is it deeper? Always be willing to look deeper to find the truth in the situation. Examine what elements in the decision are negotiable and non-negotiable. Clarify who is really involved and effected by this decision and determine their role in the process. The clearer you are about the situation, the easier the process of deciding.
Create a support network.
Whether for advice or support once the decision is made, surround yourself with people who will be there for you when you need it. People who will listen when you need it, offer help when you ask, and encourage you through the process. These are people who do not add to the confusion but enhance the clarity. They can become mirrors to you in your own life, exploring the options and helping you understand yourself and the situation better. Learn how to ask for help, too. Consider those in your support network you trust as mentors, people you look up to. Use their lives as an example to consider how they would respond to the situation. Then use your own life to set an example for others.
Eliminate distractions.
Focus on one problem at a time. Identify the common goals and interests between the decisions, situations, and people involved. The more you can find in common, the more possibilities you may find. Focusing on the negative seems to add more confusion. When you find your mind looping in circles, stop the cycle and get out of the loop. Find quite time to clear away the distractions so you can focus and get the clarity you need to make the decision.
Play a semantics game.
Think of the decision-making process as offering suggestions, choices, and requests instead of demands. Changing the words to positive synonyms may help you create a more pleasant experience. Remember, it is all about attitude.
Admit mistakes and apologize when appropriate.
Many conflict situations are defused when you simply realize you screwed up and admit it. Don’t defend your decisions, but share your concerns about the results without self-blame or guilt, or blaming others. Explain why a particular choice was ineffective for you and learn from your mistake and move on. Make it clear to others you’ve learned from your mistake.
Defuse upset and angry feelings before moving to problem-solving.
When you need to, get distance, whether physical or mental, to separate the emotion from the issue.
Avoid sarcastic, blaming and embarrassing remarks and self talk.
How many times have you found yourself frustrated with a decision so you start bad-mouthing the process and the people involved? Or doing the negative self-talk: "You are so stupid. How could you do something that idiotic?" Stop it. Find some clue word that will remind you to put up a big stop sign in your mind to stop the thinking. It doesn’t help anyone or the situation.
Avoid situation escalation.
If you feel the tensions rising and the pressure starting to boil, what can be done to defuse the tension and control the escalation? Do you need more time? Do you need to involve others in the process? Whatever it is, clarify it and do what you can to immediately drop the pressure down to a more tolerable situation. Procrastination is one of the leading causes of personal escalation of the pressures, so if you are putting off a decision that needs to be made, take all that wasted energy spent putting it off and get it done now.
Emphasize on problem solving that focuses on the future not the now or past.
Many times we spend more time focusing on how we messed up in our choices in the past, or we are paralyzed about making a decision now, so we never get to the process and stress ourselves out. Look to the future. How will this decision effect your future? What will be the impact on you 5, 10, or 20 years in the future? Can you live with those consequences? Everything you do now effects your life later, so consider it now and learn to live long-term not short-term.
Focus on consistency and stability.
Have you ever known one of those people who makes decisions based upon the wind? Who seems to change his or her mind, going off in a variety of directions without seeming to be on a path? Who seems to be guided more by external forces than internal ones? Or maybe you are one of those. By creating a consistent and stable decision-making environment, you will tend to stay on a solid path of decision-making. Check in with your personal values and integrity to see if your decisions are in line with what you want and not with the way the wind blows. The more consistent your decisions are in line with your "authentic self" the easier the decision-making process will become.
Set aside time for the decision-making process.
Don’t make decisions under fire, and learn how to negociate for time.
Keep your mind opened and filled with new ideas.
The more new information you gather around you, the more possibilities you see as you consider your choices. As Lily Tomlin explains as Trudy the Bag Lady in "The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe", the mind is like a pinata. You never know what surprises you will find inside when you break it open.
See your decision as a part of the whole not a part of the self.
When you make your decisions based upon the greater whole of your life or the world, your decisions may carry a greater weight, but your value system will be more in line with the bigger picture. Make your decisions considering the whole impact.
I always wondered why
somebody doesn’t do something about that.
Then I realized I was somebody.
Lily Tomlin -Trudy the Bag Lady,
The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe

Summing it up

This is a lot of information about the power of choice and the decision-making process. In summation, here is the three step process that I use to make my decisions. Ask yourself the following three questions and check them thoroughly against your personal value system and integrity:

What is most important to me right now?
Every word in this sentence is critical. "What" means to define the issue. "Is" is a take action word. "Most" implies just that, a vital sense of importance. "To me" represents the aspect of extreme self-care Cheryl Richardson promotes, which means we have to take care of ourselves first before we can take care of others. "Right now" creates a feeling of immediacy, checking in with the present not the past or the future, but at this moment in time. This entire question begs a look deep inside at myself, a moment to check-in to see how I am doing in this moment and where my priorities are.
What will give me my "best life"?
What alternatives among your options will give you the best return on your life investment? Again, we are dealing with extreme self-care, but it isn’t out of selfishness. We deal with that in the next question.
What will benefit the most people in the best way?
As you consider your options, include the world around you. By setting an example for others through your decision-making process, and by making decisions that considers the greater good, you will begin to feel the power in your possibilities and life.

How do you use this?

I use these three steps with just about every decision I make. Preparing for the evening program, I was racing around trying to get everything together and my husband arrived home. In the middle of debating clothing choices, paper gathering, and other last minute preparations, he walked into the middle of my decisions and added one more decision for me to make. I stopped for a second and asked myself "what is most important right now" and the overwhelming answer was "him". He is the most important thing to me. So I dropped everything, literally, and jumped into his arms for our daily welcome home hug, a time we consider the best and most important of our day. It may seem like a small decision to you, but for us, it is the best decision.

Walking early in the morning, I often encounter garbage cans left out blocking the street. I make a conscious choice every time I encounter one to move it out of the way. I do this not just for myself but for the greater good to benefit the most people in the best way. How do I not know that two minutes after I pass by some elderly person will confront these blocking cans and be unable to get around or to move them. I’ve cleared the way for them and others who will follow me.

For me, this is a nothing-sized decision, but for others, it can make a huge difference in the quality of their life. Ruth spotted me doing that one day and asked why. When I told her, she started doing the same thing and I again had a bigger influence on the world around me.

Whether you use this process or the others described herein for big or little decisions, every decision you make influences the outcome of your day and life. One participant in the program challenged me by asking if I had the "cure-all" for addiction. I told her I did. It isn’t my unique program but one that has been practiced and preached for thousands of years. It is the power of choice.

By understanding that every moment of every day we are confronting many choices, and by understanding the power we have over those choices, we can overcome any habit, including addition. It took choice to pick up the drug, alcohol, or cigarette. It takes choice to put it down. Every second of the day an addict has to decide YES or NO to their addiction. The more they choose NO the more power and control they influence over their life. The more people choose YES to a healthy lifestyle and better quality of life, the more people will live such a life. While you may believe you are just a leaf on the river of life, pushed and shoved around by the current, you do have the power to guide your path and it comes from the choices you make. Honor them and yourself.

The only outcome is the quality of the day.
Alan Clements

The Life Makeovers year long project has completed in Tel Aviv with Lorelle VanFossen and Ruth Alfi, but you can get involved or start your own group through the author of the book, Life Makeovers, Cheryl Richardson.

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