It’s often been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Ever wonder why our actions don’t always align with our intended outcome?
First, we’re frequently driven by fight-fight (anger-anxiety) reactions that hijack our brain and control our behavior when we’re facing problems. Another reason is that we’re creatures of habit – and we often develop bad habits that merely give us immediate gratification. Finally, we frequently fail to develop a mental picture linking our long-term happiness to our present choices.
If you’re going to change how you make decisions, it’s helpful to understand how your mind works. First of all, your brain functions on autopilot most of the time, which is good because you can’t always take time to slow down to think about what you should do. Take driving a car as an example. Another vehicle suddenly stops in front of you and your foot instantly hits the brakes. No thinking about your decision is necessary.
As long as the choices you’re making work well there’s no reason to question your decision making. But human beings develop habitual behaviors that are dysfunctional. When you’re emotionally exhausted your brain’s ability to self-regulate becomes weak and your need for immediate gratification takes over. At these vulnerable moments you often choose to do something that’s not in your long-term best interest because your brain’s creating a powerful craving for a feel good fix such as eating dessert or having that 3rd glass of wine.
Sometimes your choices are based on old patterns of behavior that are no longer useful. If you grew up with a critical mother, for instance, it made sense that as a teenager you needed to vigorously defend yourself against her harsh judgements in order to protect your self-esteem. But if, as an adult, you have a female boss at work who gives you negative feedback on your performance, becoming argumentative will be disastrous.
Even though your intention is to show your boss that you can perform well, automatically unleashing a defensive reaction will likely prove to be an instance of poor decision making. This is a prime example of a time when you need to slow down and think about the best options for responding so that your behavior creates the intended result.
Slow thinking is the secondary system your brain has for making decisions. But it requires that you shift into using the logical, unemotional processing capabilities of your conscious mind. The best way to slow your thinking and calm your emotions is to slow your breathing. Take deep breathes, filling your lings all the way down to your diaphragm. When you’re really upset it’s helpful to feel your palm moving at the bottom of your rib cage while steadily breathing in and out to a 5 count.
Having calmed your body and slowed your mind, you’re much better able to think in ways that will lead to positive outcomes. Next, redirect your thing from ruminating on the problem to picturing a positive outcome. You need detailed mental images of what it will look like when your current challenge is satisfactorily resolved. This enables your mind to:
1. Generate the passion necessary to maintain motivation.
2. Create a steady focus for working to achieve a positive outcome.
3. Remain flexible while trying out different solutions.
To develop a vision of the future that would motivate you to turn your dreams into reality, imagine specific pictures of positive outcomes. What would you be doing differently if you were already enjoying the fruits of having successfully achieved your goals? What details come to mind in terms of the people who would be there, the place where you’d be living, and the activities you’d be enjoying?
Include details of the smaller things that you’d be experiencing in your daily life: Sitting at dinner laughing with a group of friends. Giving your spouse a hug. Frolicking in the pool with your grandkids. Volunteering at a local food bank.
What would be most deeply satisfying about these experiences? How would you be making a meaningful difference in the lives of other people? Would you be genuinely happy?
Once you can envision the ultimate outcome you desire, you’ll need to develop daily rituals for taking small steps toward your goal. Stick with your routine for a few weeks and your choices will become automatic. Adding a healthy dose of perseverance to your vision will give you “grit,” which numerous studies have shown is the best predictor of success or failure.