On Decisions, Habits, and Intentionality.

I’ve had this pile of thoughts floating around in my head for a while, but couldn’t peg what they were actually about. Now I’ve figured it out… I think. Pretty sure they’re mostly just an explanation of basic decision making. Well, a really thorough systemization of basic decision making, with a little analysis of habitualness, a hint of philosophy, and a splash of rant. Kind of long and abstract, sorry. If you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, skip the first two sections. The end is what matters.

Consider a choice.

Any choice. Just one. A single solitary decision. What it’s about doesn’t matter. Every choice has a purpose, for lack of a better word, or some set of criteria to be met, and at least two alternatives. (The purpose may not be immediately obvious… it might be the best use of your time, for instance, if you’re deciding whether or not to do something, or it might be a complex combination of criteria. Some or even all criteria may be preferences, what appeals to you, even what appeals to you at the moment.) You need to decide which of those two alternatives best accomplishes that purpose/fulfills the criteria.

You consider every facet of the expected outcome of each alternative– both the positives, like how well it does what it’s supposed to and additional benefits, and the negatives, such as costs (financial, time, or otherwise) and other consequences. You weigh these out, and see which option comes out on top. A lot of the time, it will be a trade-off, so you keep your specific criteria in mind– which are more important to you, and which you are willing to potentially compromise on. One option might be objectively better in general, but another is better suited to your particular situation/criteria.

Sometimes, things come out more or less even. Maybe you started trying to make a decision objectively, the options are very similar or its a fairly even trade off, so they you add in another criterion, perhaps preference, to tip the scales one way or the other. Or the whole decision is about preference, but you weren’t sure which alternative you actually liked, so you tried eliminating that as a factor and look at which is objectively better. Once in a while, of course, it just comes down to a whim.

Now, all of life is a series of these choices.

Everything you do, you make a choice to do, and then you make choices regarding how to go about doing that thing.

People think about the major decisions they need to make as choices, and most would agree it’s best to use this sort of logical reasoning in making those decisions (or at least consider what logic would tell you). Sometimes your heart or instinct might override, but you probably won’t intentionally go for an irrational choice, unless you have some other reason that makes it make sense to you, and just appears crazy to other people.

What is often overlooked, however, are the little choices, especially things you do frequently or habitually. You do them a certain way. Always have. Except not always. Unless you are a pre-existent eternal being not bound by time, there was a time you didn’t exist, so you probably weren’t doing whatever you do however you do it. There was a moment you first existed, and some time later, you did that thing you do for the first time. And at that point, you had to decide how to go about doing it, maybe even learn how to do it.

That first time, the choices, every step of the way, were conscious. They probably were the second time too. You could do it the same way, or try something differently. The decisions may have been conscious the third time too, maybe the fourth or even longer. Sooner or later, though, you probably established the pattern of how you do that, and stopped thinking about each decision.

We live so much of our lives on autopilot.

The thing is, after people have been following a pattern for a while, they forget that they’re just subconsciously repeating the same decisions over and over again. I’ve always done it this way. But does that mean that’s the best way to do it? Not necessarily. Maybe the situation in which you do that has changed. Maybe the information or tools you have have changed. Maybe the outcome you’re looking for has changed. Maybe you have changed, and will think of a better or just different way to go about it.

If you can remember why you chose to do something a certain way, and present-self agrees with past-self’s reasoning, maybe you do want to keep doing it that way for now. But if you can’t remember why you do it the way you do, or some factor may have changed, try thinking through it again.

Set aside your pattern, start from scratch.

Try to “forget” what you normally do, and approach it anew, systematically and comprehensively. Break it down into purpose and specific criteria, and outcomes for each alternative (function and benefits, costs and consequences).

  • Establish what the relative weights of your criteria are.
  • Now evaluate what they should be– did you miss something worth considering, or let something less important or even irrational take priority?
  • Look at the alternatives you’re selecting from. Are there any other ways of doing what your doing, or things you could do instead to fulfill the same purpose? (They don’t have to be good ways, that’ll get sorted out in the next step.)
  • Rework your criteria as needed and analyze the elements of each alternative accordingly.
  • Make your decision. Which is really the best option?

Work through the decision-making process again, with a fresh perspective, and determine what’s really the best way to do whatever it is you’re doing. Write it down if that works for you. Is it the same as you’ve been doing? If it is, cool, as you were. If it isn’t, are you willing to try the new way? (After all, you’re own brain just told you it’s better.) Or will you be stubborn and stick with the way you’ve “always” done it, just because it’s the way you’ve always done it?

This is not hypothetical; this is a challenge.

I’m serious, try it. Pick something you do fairly often. It can be the way you get to work, what beverage you drink, how you spend your first hour of “free time” in a given day, the way you organize your bookshelf, putting on pants, I don’t care. Just pick something, ponder why you do it the way you do. Actually think through the decision once, instead of going on autopilot. When you figure out the best option, try it that way. See if it works for you. Heck, try a different option even if it’s not better, maybe you’ll discover something interesting.

Maybe you’ll make your life a little bit easier, or better in some small way. Maybe even a big way, who knows? Maybe you won’t, this time, and you’ll go back to your pattern. Try it with something else. Make a pattern of challenging your patterns. I bet sooner or later you find something you can improve on. (;

But maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll keep finding the way you’ve been doing things is the best way, or at least works for you, and never change a thing… but wouldn’t it be nice to know that? To know that you have gone through life intentionally, thinking through and testing your decisions, and are confident that you are living the best life possible?

Try it. Be intentional. Live intentionally. Live on purpose, not on autopilot.

</motivational speech> But for serious, give it a go. (I’m going to!) Ready for this? I DARE YOU. Tell me about it in the comments!

  • What are you going to / did you try it on? After you do, what’s the result?
  • Did you learn anything in the process?
  • Am I a total and complete moron? (It’s okay, you can tell me. -_-)
  • How about your ideas, how else can we live on purpose?