The Power of Decision
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu
For a long time I thought I understood this quote. It’s so straightforward, there seems little room for misinterpretation. And yet, there is.
See, for many years, I thought Lao Tzu was saying that every journey begins with that first, single physical step. We put a foot out in front of us, lean forward slight, and then whoosh! Away we go.
But that’s not the first step. Not by a long shot.
The first step is never physical. It is entirely mental.
The first step is a decision.
A decision to commit. A decision to act.
If we never make this decision, we will never do.
The word decision comes from Latin and it literally means “to cut off”. By making a decision, we effectively cut out all other possibilities. We make them inaccessible. Remove them from the equation.
They are no longer open to us.
This sudden loss of options, the fear that we might make the wrong decision and choose incorrectly, holds us prisoner. Indecision reigns, and in its wake we are left shackled. Unable to move forward, unable to go back. We succumb to analysis paralysis.
This is where discontentment appears. Because, like a shark, we humans drown when we’re not moving forward. We drown in discontentment and frustration and melancholy.
You need to be moving forward.
And as Lao Tzu reminds us, you cannot move forward without first making a decision.
Your first step: Decide what you want
I recommend taking some good old fashioned me-time, sitting down with a notebook, and jotting down what exactly it is you want.
Define your wants.
Don’t censor yourself with thoughts of, “Oh, this would be nice, but it’s not realistic.” All goals are equally valid, equally plausible, but only if you decide to to throw the full weight of your ability and passion into it.
Now, if you’re like me, at this point, you probably have a pretty long list of goals.
Step two: Prioritize what you want
This is an incredibly important step, but it’s the one most people fail to do. Create a hierarchy of your wants/goals.
If you do not clearly establish which goals are more important to you than others, then inevitably, when the going gets tough and you must make a decision between one goal and another, you will opt for whichever one is easier to accomplish. This is called the Principle of Least Resistance.
Now, I’m not a fortune teller, but I can all but guarantee that whatever goals you hold in highest esteem, the big hairy, crazily audacious ones that you’re afraid to share with friends and family for fear of ridicule, are by their very definition, the most difficult ones to achieve.
So, if you fail to prioritize these goals above all others, you will never take the first steps in actually achieving them.
The only way to combat this ingrained, default position, is to list out your goals, and then decide which ones are the most important to you.
Step three: Do what you want
This is the hardest step, because this is the point in the process where you must make an active decision to do and then you must follow-through. Every. Single. Day.
It is not enough to wake up and say, “I’m going to write a novel.”
It’s not even enough to wake up every day for a week and say, “I’m going to write a novel.”
You must wake up and say, “I’m going to write a novel,” (and then you must actually sit down to write the blasted thing), every single day until the project is complete.
This is the only way to achieve anything of great value.
Drains on your will-power
Studies indicate that will-power is not some bottomless well from which we can repeatedly pull. On the contrary, like a muscle, it has a finite capacity for exertion.
You can only do so many pushups before your arms give out, and no matter how bad you want just one more rep, it won’t happen. The muscle can give no more.
It’s the same with will-power.
Problem is, most people don’t think about will-power in these terms, and instead of safe-guarding their decision making powers for the really big issues, we squander our will-power on tiny, inconsequential things all day long.
For example: Deciding what you were going to eat for breakfast this morning, deciding what to wear, deciding which route to take to work, etc…
We’re inundated with countless tiny decisions and yes, they absolutely drain your will-power.
So, what can we do to plug these drains?
Create a routine.
Specifically, create both a morning and an evening routine.
Standardize your Eating, Sleeping, and Exercise
These are the three levers controlling your energy levels throughout the day. If you form habits designed to address each of these three in a way that minimizes the decision making process for you on a daily basis, you will benefit both from having more energy, generally being healthier, and you’ll have a surplus of will-power left over.
Now, here’s the irony of creating routine in an attempt to lower the number of decisions you need to attend: Sticking to a routine requires a lot of will-power.
That is, until it becomes habit. Once it becomes habit, well, holy gee-whiz, batman, you will suddenly find yourself with an incredible amount of free-will to dispense in big heaping handfuls towards the large goals in life that you’ve already stated mean the most to you.
If you love cooking elaborate, diverse meals, great. If you despise cooking, equally great. The point here is to create consistency and routine.
I eat the same thing every morning: 3 eggs with some pepperjack cheese, two pieces of toast with honey, and an apple.
I eat the same thing every day for lunch: 2 apples, a sandwich, some almonds, and an energy bar of some sort.
For many of you, this sort of monotonous eating schedule would rob you of your will to live. I get that. And if that’s you, then you’re going to require a more diverse menu. But that’s okay. The key here isn’t to limit what you’re allowed to eat, it’s to be planned and intentional and committed.
Every body is different. As such, your sleep requirements will vary. So I’m not going to tell you how much sleep you should get, or when. For me, I fall asleep every night between 10:30 and 11:00 and I wake up between 4:45 and 5:00. 6–6.5 hours works well for me, but it might not be your cup of tea.
Experiment. You spend a third of your life sleeping. Don’t treat it as though it’s some task of non-importance. It is critical to understand all the facets of your particular sleep cycle. Are you an early riser? Do you need absolute silence? Maybe you like to have a light on in the corner.
Doesn’t really matter what your weirdo sleep habits are, as long as you understand them and leverage them to their greatest effect so that you can be as mentally fresh and engaged throughout the day as possible.
Going to the gym sucks. Some people like it, but the vast majority do not. I sympathize. However, if you allow your health/exercise to take a backseat to work/life/and everything else, you are going to devolve into a flabby puddle lacking motivation to tackle all of life’s challenges.
Create a schedule and stick to it. Remove the guess work. Do not leave room for will-power. Tell yourself, “I go to the gym on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for an hour, and then go do it. After a couple months, habits form, and it no longer requires quite the output of will-power it once did.
The only way to get to that point, however, is by doing. So start now. Go do.
Fortify your decision with commitment
There is great power in the written word. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a writer. Behavioral science shows that our commitment to a task (and therefore the likelihood we’ll continue pursuing said task) greatly increases when we write down our intention.
“I will write a book by 2018.”
“I will lose 20 pounds by December.”
“I will wrestle the Loch Ness Monster into submission by next week.”
Doesn’t matter what your goals are. Write. Them. Down.
Then put them up in places you cannot avoid them. Put some sticky notes on your computer so that you have to stare down your past self’s commitment to a goal every single day.
Leverage the psychological principle of consistency to your advantage. This principle states that we as individuals will readily change our behaviors so as to remain consistent with our personal view of self. By writing down your goals, you acknowledge this view of self, and create a record of your commitment.
If you’re serious about committing to the decisions you make, write them down and speak them out loud, every day.
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