How to Make Smart Decisions in Less Than 60 Seconds

July 3rd, 2007 by Steve Pavlina

Sometimes we face tough decisions that involve one or more unknowns.  We can’t know in advance what the consequences of each alternative will be.  This is especially true of big decisions like quitting a job, entering or exiting a relationship, or moving to a new city.

When faced with such a decision, what do you do?  If you can’t figure out the consequences, can you do any better than guessing?

Usually what people do in such situations is freeze.  Even when you don’t like what you have, you may worry that the alternatives are worse.  In a way every decision involves a choice between maintaining the status quo vs. making a change.  When we can’t be certain a change will work out for the better, by default we stay put.

Let me give you a very simple method of making these kinds of decisions.  In most cases it takes no more than 60 seconds to evaluate any particular path.

For each alternative you’re considering, ask yourself, “Is this really me?”

What you’re asking is whether each path is a fair expression of who you truly are.  To what degree does each option reflect the real you?

Decisions are acts of self-expression

When we look at choices as being more than just paths — as being creative statements of self-expression — certain decisions become much easier to make.  You may say to yourself, “This path isn’t going to be easy, but I know this is the right way to go because it’s who I am.”  Or you may conclude, “No matter how I try to represent this to myself, I know that deep down this isn’t who I am.  This just isn’t me.”

It’s very important to separate this evaluation step from the act of summoning the courage to act on this knowledge.  It’s OK to acknowledge you’re in a place you don’t want to be, even when you lack the ability to do anything about it right now.  The courage to act comes later.

Here are some ways you can apply this method:

  • Is this job really me?
  • Is this company really me?
  • Is being an employee (or enterpreneur or investor or business owner) really me?
  • Is this relationship really me?
  • Is this city really me?
  • Is this house really me?
  • Is this book I’m reading really me?
  • Is this shirt/dress/tie really me?
  • Is this friend really me?
  • Is this hobby really me?
  • Is this car really me?
  • Is this food really me?
  • Is this habit really me?
  • Is this spiritual or religious belief really me?
  • Is this level of fitness really me?

Notice that you can apply “Is this really me?” to decisions both big and small.  This is something you can use every day, even when you’re just deciding what groceries to buy.

Say a few syllables

If you have trouble deciding if a decision is really you, just describe its attributes out loud.  In the words of the Three Stooges, “Say a few syllables.”

For example, when you’re thinking about changing careers, describe the new career you’re considering.  Is it safe or risky?  Bland or exciting?  Social or solitary?

Now consider whether those same adjectives could describe you as a person?  Are you safe or risky?  Bland or exciting?  Social or solitary?  Is this career really you?

Sometimes this can get a bit silly, but I’m certain you’ll gain some interesting insights if you just humor me and do it.

If you’re feeling bold, do the same for your your closest relationships.  It will teach you a great deal about which people are the best fits for you.  If your current relationship feels a bit off, this process will show you why.  You’ll be able to see where your true self and your current reality are misaligned.

A personal example – shopping for a desk

Three weeks ago Erin and I moved to a new house, and I wanted to get a new desk for my office.  (My old desk was 14 years old and so worn down that charities didn’t even want it.  I opted to use it for martial arts practice until it was a pile of sawdust.)  This time I wanted a high-quality desk that would last me a long time instead of the particle board special I bought for $99 after college.

I made a detailed list of criteria for what I wanted, took measurements of the available space, and gave myself an unlimited budget.  I browsed through many local furniture stores and searched through office furniture web sites, but nothing really grabbed me.  I started thinking maybe I should have a custom desk built, but that seemed like overkill.  I started to get a bit frustrated, and my new home office remained deskless for several days.  I thought to myself, “This should be an easy problem to solve, especially with no fixed budget.  I must be making this harder than necessary somehow.”

Eventually I stepped back and asked myself if there was a better way to find the right desk.  I didn’t want to settle for something I didn’t like, but I realized that instead of trying to find something that met my far-too-anal list of criteria, what I really wanted was a desk that would suit me, something that would reflect the kind of person I am.

So I decided to make the decision by looking at each candidate desk and asking myself, “Is this really me?”  I went back to the same local stores, and it was an amazingly different experience.  Instead of looking for what I wanted, I looked for who I was.  I looked around for something that was me in the form of a desk.

Yeah, I know that sounds weird.  In fact, I actually wanted to find a desk that was a bit weird.  If it wasn’t a little weird, it wouldn’t be me.  When I saw a desk that I thought anyone would appreciate, I knew it wasn’t for me.

Normally I hate shopping, but I actually enjoyed the experience this time.  I’d probably enjoy shopping a lot more if I always did it this way.  I’d look at a very ornate and classy desk, and I’d say, “That’s not it.  I’m not an ornate and frilly person.”  I’d see a heavy, solid desk that only Superman could lift and say, “That one is too heavy.  I’m lighter than that.”  I’d see the cheap particle board furniture and think, “Nope.  I’m more durable and tougher than that.”

That sounds a little like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, doesn’t it?

Eventually I sat down at an unusual desk that caught my eye.  It was an elegant mix of glass, metal, and wood.  It felt almost familiar when I sat down, but in an alien sort of way.  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.  It definitely wasn’t love at first sight, but there was a compelling infatuation.  I became very curious about it.

This was a desk I’d previously bypassed because at a glance I could tell it didn’t fit my initial criteria.  This time when I asked, “Is this me?” the answer didn’t come back as an immediate yes.  I had to think about it.  I described the desk to myself.  I said, “This desk is clean, efficient, organized, transparent, flowing, intelligent, creative, and well-constructed.  Some people would love this desk, but others would find it rubs them the wrong way.  I’m not sure if I like it, but it certainly grabs my attention.  I could never be bored in a room with this thing.”

I soon realized this was the right desk for me because I was describing myself.  Having used it for a couple weeks now, I’ve grown to really love it.  It’s just so me.  :)

(If you’re curious to see the desk I ended up purchasing, it’s the Stockton collection from The Sharper Image, available from Office Max.  I got the matching bookcase too.  It was $600 for the 5-piece set I bought… worth every penny.  And no, that’s not an affiliate link.  That would be too weird making money from selling myself in desk form.)

So here was a decision that was important to me – I’ll use my desk a lot, so it’s worthwhile to get a good one — but I was making the decision way too complicated.  Asking, “Is this me?” cut through the complexity and allowed me to figure out my true criteria.  Every desk I considered helped me converge on the final solution.

Again, I fully realize this must sound plenty weird to someone who’s never tried it.  So don’t be someone who’s never tried it.  :)

Positive reinforcement

When making decisions via the “Is this me?” method, you’re using an idealized version of yourself for the comparison.  This is your best self.  It’s who you are in your dreams and goals, who you want to be.

What happens when you begin to fill your life with people, places, and objects that reasonably reflect your true self?  By osmosis you’ll begin to take on more of those qualities yourself.  Just sitting behind my new desk makes me feel more organized, efficient, and creative.  It’s a constant reminder of the kind of person I strive to be.  Even when reality falls a bit short, I keep coming back to this daily positive reinforcement.  I don’t even have to think about it.  For further thoughts on this line of thinking, see the article Environmental Reinforcement of Your Goals.

I’ve been using this “Is this me?” method a lot lately.  I recently taught it to Erin, and she’s been telling me how much she likes it too.  When we go furniture shopping, we’ll look at a piece and say, “Is this really us?”  So far we always seem to be in agreement.  It’s a great way to make sure we’re on the same page.

Look around you.  What can you say is really you?  What isn’t?  What can you do about it?


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