Our brains represent approximately 2% of our body weight but consume 20% of our calories. Not surprisingly, much of this mental energy goes towards decision making. At a recent conference, Dr Daniela Ferretti, a decision scientist from the London School of Economics, quoted this astounding statistic: on average, we make 35,000 decisions each and every day.
Clearly, not all decisions have the same significance: they may range from the selection of a life-long partner, down to the choice of a cereal brand or toothpaste at your local supermarket.
Still, twenty-four centuries ago, Aristotle asserted that mastering decision making matters a great deal, however major or minor a decision may be. In his view, it is by a man’s choices that we judge his character (more so than by the outcome of his choices). Unlike mathematics, which can be grasped through its first principles, decision making is an art which we can only be perfected by deciding, again and again.
In this context, we may regard as particularly ill-omened the fact that our very first decision as human beings back in Eden, was the Original Sin – not the best start to a life of independent decision making! However, Schopenhauer regarded the original sin as our original design: through breaching the tacit contract with God, it marks the start of our autonomous lives outside the Garden, even if it comes with the yearning to return!
According to the Jungian psychoanalyst James Hollis, the yearning to return is “the primary motive, the hidden agenda in any relationship”. In my mind, this is not limited to the relationship between two people. It also describes our relationship with ourselves.
As the psychologist Dr Tim Pychyl asserted, one of the explanations for indecisiveness and procrastination is the poor relationship between us and our future selves.
Neuroscience has shown that procrastinators demonstrate a lack of “future self-continuity”, favouring the demands of the present self over the needs of the future self.
But let’s return to Eden for a moment. It is also, the place of God’s first question. In Genesis 3.9, God asks Adam: “Where are you?” In biblical Hebrew the question is even shorter, just one word: Ayeka?
Naturally, we can assume that God knows full well where Adam is physically hiding: his question is of an essential nature.
This is the question we should also ask ourselves when we struggle with our decisions and end up hiding behind the comfort of procrastination. Where are we in our lives, whether in our careers, in our relationships, our friendships, as well as our spiritual and intellectual growth?
Put differently, I don’t believe that there are many fundamentally complicated decisions. However, I think there are fundamentally complicated humans. And this description applies to all of us, whether seldom or often. Therefore, we need to locate the self wherever it is stuck and reignite the engine of our volition.
In The Art of Decision Making, I have endeavoured to track the self through the nooks and crannies of our most challenging decisions. It may be stuck in any of the six chambers that make up what I describe as the COSARC pyramid:
1. Creativity: Did you employ enough lateral thinking when envisaging not only your options, but also your objectives?
2. Options: Have you considered the consequences of each option? And do you know which parts of you may want different things?
3. Selection: How do you operate this critical step which will cut you off from other possibilities?
4. Action: How do you commit to your preferred choice and evacuate doubt from the equation?
5. Resolve: Can you avoid the pull of potential regrets and stick with your decision without being side-tracked by any distractions or difficulties?
6. Completion: How can you lead your decision through this ultimate step, without either giving up too early, or dwelling in this last step so long that its completion is delayed endlessly?
Identifying our precise location and re-energising our volition are the keys to decision making. Succeeding in this endeavour leads us to the realisation that the most important question isn’t how we, as human beings, can become better decision makers. It is instead: how we, as decision makers, can become better human beings.