Some decisions feel impossible to make. Too big. Too scary. Too risky. We go round and round, considering lists of pros and cons, weighing up the options, thinking through all eventualities. It’s an emotional washing machine, continually churning round and round, that can be utterly exhausting, leaving you stuck right where you are, unable to move forward until you can somehow alight on the ‘right’ choice.
We see it all the time in people wanting to make a big change, like moving out of London or starting a new career. They know that life isn’t how they want it to be – it leaves them unfulfilled and empty. Juggling work and kids and commute leaves them with no time for themselves and feeling like they are doing nothing well. They know they’re deep in a rut and desperately want to get out, but they just can’t be sure what’s going to work out in the long term. With so many options, it’s impossible to know which is the right choice, and so they can’t choose, keeping churning round the washing machine, unable to move forward.
The truth is, there always is an answer, but only if you’re asking the right question.
Because behind the search for the right answer at these big life-change moments is a desire to try to control the future, to pick the course that is going to make you happy. But we can never control the future. We never know what is going to happen tomorrow, let alone in a year or ten years time. We can never know whether a particular job really will allow us to retire early and spend more time with our partner, or whether living in a particular place really will guarantee a safer future for our kids. So any attempt to choose the ‘right path’ that will take us to the outcome we want is based on an ambition that’s impossible to achieve.
Instead what you need to hold in your head is that none of the options in front of you – or indeed all of them – may lead to the future you want to achieve. You might be able to retire early from any of the jobs in front of you, or a market crash that wipes out the value of your pension might mean you’re working into your 80s regardless of which job you take. Staying in inner city London or living somewhere rural might both allow you to bring up healthy, happy, balanced children, or bad things might happen in both. You can never know whether a right answer even exists, let alone what it is.
So how then do we take decisions about our future if we can’t know if there even is a right answer let alone what it might be? The trick is in acknowledging that, if we can’t control the future, then we need to stay firmly rooted in the present and take decisions that work for us now. So not ‘will this job help me retire/be a stepping stone to X?’ but ‘am I going to enjoy this job now, will it inspire me and make me feel I’m making a contribution right now?’. Not ‘will moving house give my kids new opportunities in future?’ but ‘will moving house give us the time to enjoy more time together now?’.
By setting your sights on what’s happening today and in the more immediate future, you have a much better chance of being able to really feel instinctively what you should do now, enabling you to stop the churning and move on with your life. And by focusing on the present, it makes the past much more likely to turn out well.
To sum up:
If you’re struggling to make decisions about your future:
1 Know that there is no way to control the future. Whatever you choose, things are going to happen that are outside of your control.
2 Accept that there may not be a choice in front of you that delivers what you want, or indeed all of the choices might deliver it