Before You Make Any Decision, Ask Yourself This One Thing

Wondering how to make a decision? Determine what your goals are, like this journal illustration of the word 'goals' within a lightbulb.
In your 20s, you face some of the biggest forks in the road of your entire life. Take the new job or stay where you are? Get married or move in together? Have kids or wait until college loans are paid off?

Twenty years from now, you will likely look back on these decisions as some of the most significant turning points in your life.

How will you know the right thing to do?

“Do what makes you happy!” or “Take the job that makes more money,” or even “Do the opposite of what society is telling you,” might be the advice we hear from people in our lives. But do these questions help us make the best decisions?

Many of us have been dreaming about our adulthood goals for a long time. But now that you are in a position to make choices that will help you achieve those ambitions (or keep you from achieving them), it is time to form a clear picture of what achieving your dreams really looks like.

What is your ultimate goal?

This is the most important thing to consider.

“You can’t realize your goal if it’s not defined. It sounds so simple but it’s true,” Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, stated in an interview with the New York Times.

To identify your ultimate aspiration, you must ask yourself what is most important to you? What do you want to be known for in 20–30 years? Turning your thoughts inward (What do I want to accomplish with my work?) is going to set you up for lasting success in a way that external evaluation (Which job will bring me more popularity?) cannot.

“People who aren’t self-reflective are going to end up making bad decisions because they don’t really know what they want in the first place,” David Welch, PhD explains in his book Decisions, Decisions.

In order to become an effective decision maker, consider an ultimate goal for any area of your life. Here is an example of mine: I hope to be remembered by my work forming an online community committed to certain values, and to be remembered as a positive example of someone who lives out those values as a leader, wife, and mother.

Once you have your ambition in mind (or perhaps written in a place that you will see it often), you have a vantage point for all decisions that will come up along the journey of working toward that goal.

All decisions must point toward this ultimate goal

“Decisions are important. They reflect who you are as a person,” explains Dr. Joe Arvai in his TED Talk.

With each major decision that you face in life, you are also presented with an opportunity to pursue and manifest your aspirations. Now, every decision, from what to eat for breakfast to what career to pursue to balancing work and life, has been assigned a more meaningful consequence that invites you to choose more intentionally.

Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in her book The Myths of Happiness, “Goal pursuit in and of itself imparts structure and meaning to our daily lives, creating obligations, deadlines, and timetables, as well as opportunities for mastering new skills and for interacting with others. Hence, in the course of our pursuits we may attain a sense of purpose in our lives, feelings of efficacy over our progress, and mastery over our time.”

There’s good news, too, as Lyubomirsky adds: “All of these things make people happy.”

Don’t forget about values

If all our decisions will point us toward a goal, our values will help guide us in how we live out those decisions.

For example, I value honesty. When I make a decision to go for a promotion (working toward my goal of a successful career), I know that I will work honestly. I will not value the promotion over the integrity of my work, and, as a result, I will be happier and more satisfied in the pursuit of my goal.

“Seeing our work as an expression of cherished values and as a way to make a contribution is the foundation of well-being, happiness, and our ongoing success,” Annie McKee writes in her book How to Be Happy at Work.

When you combine goal-oriented decision-making with value-based action, you set yourself up for life-long fulfillment.

Make it your own

When faced with an especially challenging decision, you may be inclined to consult others as to the best way to pursue your goal.

Seeking the perspectives of others (a.k.a. advice) is good — but empower yourself to make your own decisions. “If you look to external sources for validation, you’re more likely to make unhealthy decisions. It blinds you from seeing your own strengths, blocking you from reaching your full potential,” Amanda Wetzstein Frey tells Verily Magazine.

After you make the decision, embrace it as your own. If it turns out well, be proud of yourself. If not, value this as an opportunity to learn.

Taking ownership of your decision-making will set you up for success when it comes time to evaluate your progress toward your ultimate goal. Whether your choice turned out the way you wanted it to or not, having a clear understanding of why you made the decision will help you learn from it — so you can avoid or lean toward similar decisions at future forks in the road.

“You are defined by the decisions that you make. The decisions that you make project the values that you hold to the world around you,” says Arvai.

So before you make another decision, determine your ultimate goal and core values — and you’ll know exactly which way to go when navigating those forks in the road.

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