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drawing of quality of decisions increasing with awareness

❝If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.❞ -Rush, "Free Will"

You may have heard the story about how Barack Obama only had one or two types of suits. By having multiple identical suits, he never has to make a decision about what suit to wear. The idea is that making fewer decisions is admirable.

I once knew someone who hated his job, and yet stayed there for more than a year longer than he could have. He applied for other jobs in a variety of roles he was qualified for. He even interviewed a few times. But he never accepted an offer. When I asked him about it, he said that it felt permanent. Accepting job A meant he couldn't entertain job B, C, or D. By not making a decision, he gave himself the illusion that he had choices available to him.

I want to propose an alternative. What if we aimed to make MORE decisions?


It's understandable that we have a natural desire to make fewer decisions. Who would want to make more decisions? In fact, sometimes, we put systems in place to prevent ourselves from making too many decisions. It's the old saying, "spend time to save time" cliche.

For many areas of our lives, this makes sense.

drawing of spend time to save time

You may have even heard of decision fatigue, ego depletion, or the concept of finite willpower. The idea is that we only have so much willpower, and if we use up all our willpower on, say, avoiding sweets, we won't have willpower left to avoid impulse purchases.

drawing of decision fatigue


Of course, all of those hacks meant to save time by implementing systems or automation are ways to make fewer conscious decisions. And I'm one to regularly argue that we ought to take steps to reduce decision fatigue. The main point to be made here is that unconscious decisions are still decisions. This is in the sense that you "decided" to step on the brake pedal when something jumped out in the road. You don't know how or why you stopped, but you didn't make a conscious decision to stop.

Your mind is divided. You think of this as conscious thought and the subconscious. This idea of the divided mind is very old. Sigmund Freud used to talk about in id and ego (and even a superego). About a decade ago, psychologist Daniel Kahneman popularized the idea of a two-system brain, where System 1 is our fast, subconscious brain, and System 2 is our more deliberate, slow-thinking brain. Earlier this year, author Tim Urban wrote the book What’s Our Problem?, and used an analogy of a Primitive Mind being controlled by impulse and survival and a Higher Mind, doing things more deliberately and in our long-term best interest in terms of thriving.

I like the analogy popularized by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, where he proposes our minds are like a rider on an elephant.

drawing of the elephant and the rider mind

In this view, who we identify with is the rider. The rider is who we think about when we talk about ourselves. This is the realm of thinking and problem-solving. The rider's main jobs are to control the impulses of the elephant and to make decisions with our future selves in mind. Our rider wants us to thrive.

The rider sits on top of an elephant. The elephant represents our subconscious mind. Our elephant is responsible for survival. The elephant doesn't know about the future or planning. It only knows about right now, and whether or not it thinks we are safe...right now.

The elephant can be trained, and this is why tactics that help us automate or systemize what needs to get done can be helpful. If we can train our elephant to drive a car, for example, then we don't have to waste the rider's time driving a car.

drawing of elephant and rider; autopilot and deliberate thought

The problem is that the opposite often happens. The elephant makes decisions that the rider has no idea are being made. Have you ever come to realize your hand is elbow-deep in a bag of chips? The rider didn't do that; the elephant did. Or perhaps you find yourself walking to your car with a bag full of stuff from the department store but can't remember why you went there.

The elephant makes over 90% of our daily decisions, and the rider makes only 5% of our decisions.

drawing of elephant and rider decisions

The suggestion to make MORE decisions, then, is simply becoming more aware of the decisions you are already making.

drawing of bring more awareness to your decisions

The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire measures your level of mindfulness among five interrelated components. These components are observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment of inner experiences, and not reactivity to inner experiences. They can be helpful in gaining an understanding of the areas of mindfulness in which you may want to focus.


There's another way we may end up not making as many decisions as we could. In his book Predictably Irrational, economist Dan Ariely pointed out that humans tend to want to keep their "options open" and will, in fact, spend a lot of resources keeping them open. We tend to put off making a decision so that we can tell ourselves that we have other options available.

Imagine deciding on a new job, new partner, or even how to spend your day. For most people, the default mode is to put of actually making a decision so we can keep options open. We tend to fear making a decision because making a decision for one option necessarily means closing off other options.

drawing of feeling of control perception and reality

But by keeping our options open, we end up not making any decisions.

drawing of keeping options open and not making decisions


Slowing down to becoming more aware of your thinking patterns and understanding the motivations behind your actions. You can move more of your life from the realm of the elephant and into the realm of the rider.

drawing of autopilot and conscious awareness

Further, becoming more aware of areas in your life where you might be trying to keep your options open can help you make clear decisions about your life. Understandably, it's uncomfortable to sit with the uncertainty of knowing whether you're making the best decision. But, ultimately, keeping options open keeps you from actually making decisions about your life.

drawing of keeping options open vs. making decisions

Life is a series of choices. Actually making decisions and becoming more aware of those decisions will help you live with more clarity.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Ariely, Dan: Predictably Irrational Bloom, Paul: The Sweet Spot Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote

Burkeman, Oliver: Time Management for Mortals Course in Waking Up Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain Harris, Dan: 10% Happier Harris, Sam: Waking Up Kahneman: Daniel: Thinking Fast and Slow Pompian, Michael: Behavioral Finance and Wealth Management Sofer, Oren Jay: Say What You Mean Urban, Tim: What's Our Problem? Vedantam, Shankar: The Hidden Brain



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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