We are presented with options throughout our daily life – whether to hit the snooze button (again) or to tell the truth; whether to have another piece of chocolate or to ask that friend for that money that they borrowed. These may be small decisions or we could perceive them as significant. We could perceive them as non-threatening to our wellbeing, or we might fear that they are going to have an impact on us that we would rather avoid. Without thinking about it, we weigh up the option of doing or not doing something; of doing it one way or another. And it is a skill, to critically look at something and think – really think – about what the options mean for us, and why are those options made available and nothing else? We have a very subjective and narrow perspective on things, which means we interpret things in a very specific way, based on our own experiences and beliefs – and the truth is we are very prone to getting things wrong.
We do not always think or behave in our best interest. And this is one trick to making better decisions – we need to ask a better question.
We tend to ask questions like, “What do I want right now?” and often the answer is The Easy Option.
What we often want, in the moment, could be more food; to sleep in longer; to avoid that awkward conversation; to stay up later and play games; to check the lights are off one more time; to just watch one more video; to leave revision to the last minute; to not get ready until the last minute; to avoid going to that party.
Giving in to these primal needs often confirms the anxiety that we are trying to battle (avoiding something because it feels awkward or makes us feel anxious), or it allows us to give in to instant gratification and immediate needs (I’ll have one more piece).
It is often easier to have ‘one more’ than it is to refrain entirely or to eat in moderation. It is often easier to leave revision to the last minute than starting a few months before an exam. It is often easier to just avoid meeting new people than to put ourselves through the stress and anxiety of introducing ourselves and risk getting it wrong or being laughed at.
“What do I want?” often allows us to take the easy option, and avoid pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone; it does not give us the chance to flex our social skills or to develop our abilities along the way (resisting more biscuits, tolerating the discomfort of NOT checking the lights again, sitting with those awkward feelings). Because the truth is that we can sit with those feelings. Choosing the easy option fools us into thinking we are weaker than we actually are. Each time we avoid something, we trick ourselves that it really is that scary; each time we reach for that extra biscuit we confirm that we could not have resisted it. And the cycle continues.
So what can we ask ourselves if not “What do I want?”. I think healthier and better questions to ask ourselves are, “Is this helpful?” or “What do I need right now?”. Immediately, it bypasses the instant want for more sugar, less work, more social isolation.
What I want
What I need / what is helpful
To stay in bed until the last minute
To get ready with plenty of time so that I am not stressed
To have more biscuits and chocolate
To moderate what I eat; to actively choose what I eat tonight
To avoid socialising or meeting new people
To remind myself that meeting new people is good for me, and not that bad
To stay quiet and not ask for help because that would be embarrassing
To reach out to that friend; to call someone; to ask for help.
To tell a lie, to tell a half truth, to avoid confrontation
To be honest; to be assertive; to be true to myself
So is it as simple as changing the questions we ask ourselves and things will magically change? No. But it is a simple trick that will refocus our attention on something that is more useful. It allows us to focus on what is important rather than giving in to the anxiety or the instant ‘need’ for something that is not necessarily going to help us.
Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with another biscuit or having a lie in (I’m prone to both), but if we can be more reflective, it will allow us to consciously choose behaviour that is in our best interest. We need to find moderation, develop compassion, and be our own cheerleader and coach. Especially when times are hard.
It’s about finding a balance between forgiving ourselves and about challenging ourselves. So next time, just pause and ask yourself if what you are about to do is in your best interest, if it is helpful and what you need in that moment. As always, small steps.