How to Make Decisions When You Can't Plan For Life

How to Make Decisions When You Can’t Plan For Life

I blame the cave people. I always do. They’re the ones who got us into this mess in the first place. The ones who hard-wired our brains to plan as a survival mechanism, who put us on the path towards this vague intellectualism we now enjoy. Why could we not wallow in the bliss of pure instinct? We would maybe even be handling this year a bit better mentally. 

The human brain has evolved over millions of years to detect patterns in what is happening in the present, which then allows us to anticipate what’s likely to happen next. If there was a sound of a stick breaking in the darkness, the caveman needed to react and plan accordingly. We behave in a similar manner. Caroline Welch, the CEO and co-founder of the Mindsight Institute, explains: ‘Not being able to detect and predict patterns in the present frustrates our brain, in effect putting it on furlough. So when uncertainty is the only certainty, it’s highly stressful for us.’ 

Welch says that, whether facing a pandemic, institutionalized racism, or any other prediction-disrupting challenge — even one where the likely outcome is positive — the brain tries its best to anticipate the next steps, to look for the patterns. ‘When it can’t do its job of predicting,’ says Welch, ‘we understandably feel unsettled and stressed. We feel in a state of life threat, even if we aren’t aware of it. This reactive state, when prolonged, is exhausting. We can come to feel depleted, hopeless, and helpless.’ 

So how do we plan when nothing can be predicted and everything – from our jobs to our health, schools, sports, and celebrations – is shrouded in unknowns?

Exchange plans for embracing the present moment

Planning gives us a sense of control, which in turn makes us feel less vulnerable. But the truth is that life’s always beyond our control and there’s very little we can predict with any certainty. That’s why so many leading thinkers encourage us to learn to live in the moment. 

In fact, sometimes the best things in life happen when we relinquish control and give in to the mysterious workings of the universe. I’m sure you can think of dozens of examples of how chance and serendipity have played a role in some of your happiest and most important experiences in life.

Andy Puddicombe wrote in Headspace recently that it’s important to differentiate between what we know and what we believe, what we know and what we suspect, and what we know and what we’ve been told. ‘What we know is only what we experience, no more and no less,’ he says. ‘If we let go of everything we’ve ever read, ever heard, or ever been told, then we are left with nothing but our experience. And even this is constantly changing as each moment and each experience gives way to the next. So, when all is said and done, we are left with nothing but the experience of the present moment. The certainty of now.’

Learn to live in the wisdom of uncertainty

With a sense of certainty comes stability, which is important to build our lives around. But the sooner we accept uncertainty into our lives the better off we will be to confront the unexpected, which, from the untimely death of loved ones to business failures and even natural disasters, are an inevitable part of life.

Accepting that unexpected change is inevitable can be an important step in navigating our way through life. It has been pointed out by some that those who have fallen by the wayside of organised faith might be better placed to handle the uncertainty of the pandemic having dealt with their own existential uncertainty in the past. Indeed, different beliefs confront the pandemic threat in different ways. Buddhism has a useful belief for preparing ourselves to face difficult circumstances such as this. It’s called anitya (impermanence), which states that all things are inherently transient and we should reflect on this — whether life is stable or totally off-kilter. With such insight we can find equilibrium, realizing that uncertainty is part of life. Then life won’t rock us when things go wrong. 

As we peer into the chasm of uncertainty, let’s do so with clear minds and strong hearts. We’ll need them along the way. And when we meet life in this manner, we stop projecting what we think we know, and instead begin to see life for what it truly is. This is the wisdom of uncertainty.

Shift your plans

Living in the present moment and embracing uncertainty all sounds hunky-dory but we still need to pay the bills, feed the kids and deal with an avalanche of other adult responsibilities. We still need to try to set ourselves up for the most stability and success as possible. One useful approach is to apply your planning process to a much smaller time frame than before. Instead of being tempted to plan weeks, months, or years ahead, try to focus on planning day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. Amelia Kruse, a certified professional leadership coach, suggests you state clear intentions. ‘When you have to make a decision, gather as much information as you can to make the best choice possible with what you know right now,’ Kruse says. ‘The world isn’t black or white; life is in the gray. It’s complicated and messy, and our decisions are too.’

Be kind to yourself

Many of us have a strong guilt complex right now. But let’s be real, it’s okay to move a bit slower and shift what it means to accomplish something. ‘We need to be flexible, both mentally and physically,’ Kruse says. ‘It’s OK to ease up, lower former standards or change them completely, especially if it provides more consistency and day-to-day certainty and mental well-being. We have permission. This is a pandemic.’

And if that doesn’t work. Let’s just all blame the cave people. 

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