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Looking for the big answers? Ask yourself.

Aktualisiert: 12. März 2019

Some questions and decisions seem almost impossible to solve. Especially if it looks like there is no right or wrong - or no answer at all.

So what we do is turn to others, looking for advice. And most of the time, we end up being more confused than we were at first.

This is because no other person can give us answers to the questions we ask ourselves. I would argue that no matter what the question is, the answer is always in us. We just need some ways to get to it. So in the following, I’d like to provide you with a variety of strategies that have worked well for me in the past.

Practice Patience

One way is patience. Not many big decisions benefit from people taking them in a hurry. If we take decisions in a rush, these are mostly affected by emotion which is not always the best advisor. Intense emotion usually blurs our rational mind. Already the old greek have known that big decisions are best taken with some distance. One of the most famous quotes from Pericles, statesman, orator and general of Athens during its golden time, states that ‘time is the wisest counsellor of all.’ This is because time needs to pass in order to help us see clear.

If we are deciding in a rush, we won’t have time to evaluate the consequences. It means acting in the moment, only focusing on short term motives that are present right now - which might not be the best if we think about the long-term effects of our decision.

Widen your own limited mind

Another way is in fact talking to people. But instead of leaving them with the big questions, it might help if you can debate potential scenarios together with somebody. What you should look for, are other perspectives instead of clear answers. In many cases, the more informed your decision is, the more thorough it will be. What you still need to do yourself though, is working with all the different perspectives and navigate through them.

Collect (helpful) information

Related to the point above is a methodology that might come in handy for the doers amongst us. A proven scientific approach we can learn from, is to isolate or narrow down the problem by collecting as much useful information as possible. And the word useful can be the crux of it - because collecting too much of random information might actually have the opposite effect and only hinder your decision making process. In terms of not knowing what to do, collecting information could mean to illustrate different scenarios and anticipate their potential outcome.

Take out the pressure

One way I really like, is to let the answer come naturally. However, this is a luxurious one and it is not always applicable. For me this works best by letting the struggle for answers go completely. I know that this might sound weird, or rather impossible, but over time I learned to trust in myself being able finding the right answer. When time allows it, I let big questions meander through my mind for a while. From time to time I think about them but I am careful enough not to circle around them and instead aim to take out the pressure. One could compare it with the concept of a screensaver. While you move on, proceeding with your everyday life, your brain is still active in the background and keeps processing information. Usually, the answer comes to you when you focus on it the least and eventually you will just know what to do.

Listen to your gut feeling

Listening to your gut may seem contradictory to some of the other points at first glance. But I believe there’s a big difference between emotional reactions and the gut feel. Some say the gut is our second brain, and if you understand how deeply our ‘two brains’ are connected, it is very clear why. Research found that the ecosystem in our stomach comprises more neurons than our spinal cord and almost all of them constantly transmit various kinds of information to our brain. This is also why we can feel many of the large influential situations as stress and love in our belly. So if we can learn to really listen to our gut feeling, we learn to trust our inner and most natural self. Unlike the brain, our gut is not able to “think” and therefore not biased by surrounding rationalizers that are build on what others think of us or how they could judge our decisions.

Ask your parents

This one involves a little bit of magic, which is why only parents - or very good or old friends - can do the trick. Only by telling them about your options, they will know what to do before you know it yourself, and most of the time I would argue that it’s safe to trust on that outcome. Because your parents know you inside out, they will be able to know what you prefer (or what bothers you) about a certain option by judging not what you say but how you say it. And because they are not you, they can combine this knowledge with the great advantage of being an outsider. So they are able to connect a very deep understanding of your nature with the distance it needs to make a wise decision.

Last but not least - here’s my favorite not-to-do

What you shouldn’t do in my opinion, is to break your head while you’re busy drawing up lists of pro’s and con’s. This is against a very common and conventional advice, but I do not believe that there’s any point in this effort besides making you feel useful because you feel that you’ve actually done something about your situation. If you think about it - why would listing down the reasons why you should or shouldn’t do something actually help you to move beyond the bouncing between yes and no? As most of the time this is a very spontaneous act of desperation, you will only list the facts you’ve known before anyway. And luckily, most decisions are neither black nor white and cannot be made only based on facts. What we need instead is a good collaboration between our brain and our heart.

One final remark about what to be aware of once you’ve made an important decision. My advice is to stay open-minded and reflect. Don’t take all your decisions for granted and never make the mistake of considering it untouchable. The world changes fast and so do we - so what seemed reasonable yesterday might turn out questionable tomorrow. Which is why you do need to allow yourself to adapt past decisions and even be able to change them.

For this, it helps to be aware of one of our most common cognitive biases - in this case I would assume some sort of confirmation bias. On a positive note, this bias helps us to move forward and not entangle ourselves in endless doubt about past decisions.

But what in many cases is a big advantage, might in other cases make us blind to reality. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to give our past decisions a couple of reality checks, instead of blindly moving on with them.

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