“I should have known better.”
This was my actual thought as I sat down to write this article. What should have I have known better, you ask? I should have known better than to announce yesterday that I would start illustrating the Ideal Life Exercises today, before checking which theme was on the calendar for Wednesday of this week.
Do you remember my Ideal Life themes calendar?
It so happens that I am on week two of my three week Ideal Life themes rotation, and it so happens that today is the Wise Decisions category.
This is, by far, my least favorite theme. And naturally, it is the one some divine comedian decided to plop right down today for our discussion.
Why do you do it if you hate it?
So first off, I did choose this theme as part of my rotation. No one twisted my arm. There was no guilt. It was a natural outgrowth of a dozen or more I am a person who… statements that pointed to this category as a very important element of my Ideal Life.
In my Ideal Life, I am a person who:
- thinks before she speaks
- considers all options before making a decision
- does not commit lightly
- thinks about the unwanted consequences of a bad decision
- is not swayed by urges and impulses
- trusts herself to make good decisions
- forgives herself when she makes a wrong decision
Oh my goodness, it goes on and on.
These statements came at a period of my life where I didn’t feel like I was choosing anything. I felt like I was a pinball, flying around between one baby’s screams and another’s tantrums. Even as that urgency started to fade and the scalawags started to become slightly more autonomous (I do say slightly), I found that I still wasn’t choosing anything.
My appetites were driving me. I was snacking constantly, not because I was hungry but because I was bored or stressed out or tired. My creative process was driving me: I would experience logorrhea one moment and then a sudden painful dry spell. This whiplash effect was making me irrational about my actual capacities as a writer. The perimenopausal hormone shifts were doing insane things to my emotions…I was becoming someone I didn’t even recognize anymore: angry one minute, then falling over myself to make up for my nastiness the next.
Add to that the fact that I was over-committed outside of my family and my writing, and I was constantly feeling guilty about not doing something that I should be doing. I felt like other people were putting things on my calendar and that I had no right to say no.
So why do I have a Wise Decisions category, if I hate thinking about this topic? Because I need to learn how to make wise decisions if I want to live my Ideal Life.
One little thing
In the course of one day, think about all the decisions you have to make: set an alarm or not? Press the snooze button or not? Make the bed or not? What’s for breakfast? What am I going to wear? Start a load of laundry now or wait?
These are just tiny little decisions within the first few minutes of waking up. They continue all day like this. Many of them don’t matter at all. They carry very little importance to the significant content of your day…or do they?
A while back we took a look at mental health and the practice of Mise en Place. There is research that says what we wear makes a difference in how we perceive ourselves and how we perform. There is science that says what we have for breakfast impacts our entire day. There is this military officer who swears that if you want to change the world, you have to start by making your bed.
So actually, all those little decisions add up. No, they aren’t the actual contents of your day: meetings you have, sales you make, conversations you have. But those little things have the power to impact the contents of your day in intangible ways.
Thus, why learning to make wise decisions is so critically important.
Why I hate this category
I absolutely hate the act of doing the boring, mundane things like making my bed, doing the dishes, planning meals. I hate it. I hate the time I waste doing them, I hate that they keep me from doing things I would rather be doing…
This category means discipline. It means doing the things I know I should be doing. It means choosing to do the right things, even when it would be so much easier to simply do nothing at all.
So when I ask myself my two questions: What is working? and What isn’t working? as a part of my daily Ideal Life Exercise, when it comes to making Wise Decisions, I have to look at my overall vision for what I want for my life. This category is at the overlap in the Venn Diagram of all the other themes.
If I want to live in a clean house (which I do!), what decisions have I made (or not made) to help me get there? If I want to be a loving spouse, what have I chosen to do (or not do) to show it? If I want to feel good in my body, what decisions am I making to make that happen?
The answers usually come quite quickly, and they usually pop up in the negative. This is one of those Idea Life Themes where it feels like I never do anything right. Thus why it is important to check in on the process: In my Ideal Life, I am also a person who forgives herself for failing to make wise choices.
I check-in on this category every three weeks because I need to actively forgive myself for failing, or else I am going to carry my regrets and frustration with me from month to month, compounding them.
What can be done?
The single most effective way to learn to make Wise Decisions is by building good habits. Gretchen Rubin is a fantastic resource for thought provoking ideas on this subject.
In my experience, no good decision can be made hastily or on impulse. Turning recurring decisions into habits reduces the need for urgent decision making.
Mise en Place, the act of putting out my clothes in the evening for the next day, is no longer a decision I have to make. Yes, I still have to decide what to wear. But within the context of a well-timed habit, this becomes an act of self-care instead of an urgent decision.
The indulgent husband and I try make a weekly (sometimes monthly if we are really motivated) meal plan so that we don’t have to make urgent decisions about meals or grocery lists. This is a habit I struggle with, but I don’t hate the habit as much as I hate cooking. As long as there is a menu plan, that is two fewer decisions I have to make on a daily basis.
By turning certain decisions into habits, we free up mental space for the bigger, more important decisions.
This is where I stagnated for a looooooong time. If you have been following my journey as I buy no clothes in 2021, you will know that I struggled with coveting just about every item of clothing I would ever see on another human being or in a shop.
This, naturally, led to making impulse decisions to buy things that I did not need. Until I set a rule in place: I will buy no clothes in 2021, I was unable to get this covetousness which inevitably led to making unwise decisions under control.
If I am going to buy no clothes in 2021, I need to make sure that the clothes I have can still fit my body. And my snacking problem was firmly getting in the way of that goal. I have never actually learned to listen to my actual body hunger. I only have ever listened to my body urges. This rule meant that I needed to start listening to my hunger and not my urges.
Therefore, most recently, I have had to put in place a new rule: Absolutely no snacking between meals. This may sound harsh, but the rainbow of consequences from my snacking was starting to be felt in my clothes. What is fascinating about this rule was how it came about: I know that I am capable now, after my experience over the last few months of learning to dismiss impulses, of resisting those visceral urges.
Getting bossy with myself
It is uncomfortable, but it is worth it. In addition to habits, setting firm, non-squishy rules that I agree to abide by also helps facilitate making wise decisions.
Gretchen Rubin also is a fantastic resource on this to help us understand what motivates us to change. For me, it is usually an outer expectation: I am a people pleaser and will tend to do things that make other people’s lives better but would rarely act from a place of my own interest. (Do you find this hard to believe? You know that I am self-centered and selfish…I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about myself. This does not generally translate into action.)
I have had to learn to hack that tendency by setting inviolable rules for myself, speaking to myself as a kind of fairy godmother/benevolent dictator/parent figure who knows what is best for me.
Yes, this is complicated. I am complicated and simply incapable of acting in my own best interest if I am left in my natural state. Sometimes, I have to tell myself what to do. I have to get bossy with myself.
Heavens to Betsy, I would have tons more confessions to make on this topic. Who knows, maybe even some of them might be useful to you. Like…I could tell you how exactly I go about telling myself what to do. (I write myself letters from the perspective of my mythical fairy godmother. Yes, she has a name. Yes, she is bossy. But she also really cares about me.) Sometimes, when I don’t want to do something, I write back and complain about it. Once that is done, I will generally do the thing anyway.
The point is this: even on the topic of Wise Decisions, there are little tiny bubbles of thought that rise to the surface: what little exhausting recurrent decisions can I turn into habits so that I don’t have to make them anymore? Is there a generic checklist of questions I need to have answers to before making a big, important decision? (The answer is oh yes, and I have made that list.)
Tomorrow we will tackle a far more exciting topic, which incidentally, follows Wise Decisions in my rotation because it serves as a carrot to the stick of today’s theme: Personal Style.
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