How To Use Mindfulness For (Difficult) Decision-Making

Practicing mindfulness can help with every stage of difficult decision-making by pulling us into the present moment and distancing ourselves from old habits and expectations. Explore how to use the mindfulness technique when facing difficult decision as well as helpful guided meditations.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
making difficult decisions
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

It’s believed that an average adult American makes around 35,000 choices per day. From deciding what socks to wear to wondering whether to quit your job and move to Spain, it would seem that life itself is a constant, never-ending stream of decisions. Although we’re bombarded with making difficult decisions from all directions, the good news is that decision-making itself happens in only one small place: the present.

Luckily there is simply no better way to cultivate focused, conscious awareness of the ever-changing present than with mindfulness practice.

Decision-Making In The Unfolding Flow Of Life

When our minds are quiet, we can think of the ability to act as the point at which we interface with the world around us, in all its changing complexity. In the dance of life, making a decision and acting on it is a way to express our will, shaping our worlds to our highest purpose.

By practicing meditation, we invite consciousness into the full, always-becoming moment. Memories form the past and worries for the future are mere symbols floating across the screen of awareness. When we remind ourselves to anchor in what is, we perceive reality in its full clarity, and can respond with peaceful composure to any dilemma that emerges.

In the ocean of sensations, the brain can skilfully gather relevant data, synthesize it, make an informed choice and then observe its effects, ready to adjust accordingly. In the great swirling present, the mind is a control panel, giving form to reality by deciding what to focus on, and what meaning to give these perceptions.

This is why mindfulness is so important. Not just as daily “cushion practice,” but out in the trenches of everyday life, moment by moment. While many people have undoubtedly discovered the personal benefits of regular meditation practice at home, there’s also an increasing appreciation for mindfulness in corporate and organizational decision-making.

Why Mindfulness Can Help With Making Difficult Decisions

Practicing mindfulness can help with every stage of making difficult decisions. Researchers have found evidence that pausing to reflect mindfully can improve our decision-making, because it:

  • Helps us become aware of decisions as they arise
  • Reminds us of our deeper purpose and goals 
  • Encourages us to take the time to act in accordance with our values
  • Pulls us into the moment so we don’t get caught up in “sunk cost” fallacies, or old habits and expectations from the past
  • Brings our attention to all aspects of the decision, including the rational, emotional, interpersonal, and ethical
  • Prevents us from acting rashly
  • Helps us act despite uncertainty
  • Invites us to thoughtfully balance intuition with logic

Even if life throws us a conveyor belt of change and choice, we can act with grace. Mindful decision-making is a holistic, three-dimensional attitude to life’s uncertainty that respects our higher purpose. By cultivating mindfulness in the present, we respect the decision-making process, rather than think of outcomes alone.

Discover thousands of free guided mindfulness meditation practices that bring awareness to the present and help to make observations and decisions with openness.

How To Use Mindfulness For Difficult Decision-Making

Step One: Pause

The beauty of orienting continuously to the present is that you get to step outside of the tumult and rush of thoughts, feelings, and reactive, unconscious behavior. You can simply pull back, become aware of yourself and your surroundings, and take in your world without judgment or the need to control, label or explain. Focus on the simplicity of your breath. Become conscious of your bodily sensations, emotions, gut feelings, and thoughts.

Read more: When facing difficult decision-making it might help you to start the process and hit the pause button with a mindful check-in.

Step Two: Understand the decision at hand

Imagine you’re meeting the present moment for the very first time. Allow the choice in front of you to take shape. Simply notice any impulse to act to redeem what’s already passed (the sunk-cost bias) or rush in with old assumptions about how the future will develop. Go quiet and let the choice clarify itself, just as a reflection in water clarifies the more still the water. 

Become curious and ask yourself, “what am I really looking at here?” Commit to purpose-driven action and remind yourself of your goals and deeper values. How can you act towards those goals? We all have an inner voice that, if we can pause long enough to become aware of it, knows what needs to be done with startling clarity. It may be that a few moments of contemplation reveal that action isn’t even necessary; consciously choosing not to act is a decision, too.

Step Three: Processing the information

With the problem clarified, start to appraise the options in front of you. Of course, life is always in process, always incomplete, and we never have all the information. But narrow your focus to what you can know and control, right now. Give yourself permission to sit with any unpleasant feelings that crop up. Do you feel rushed? Compelled to act out of fear? Are there any different ways to look at the choices available to you?

“Information” comes in from all channels: the heart, the body, the mind, the soul. Take your time to dwell on possibilities. Without judgment, look honestly at the limits of what you know and try to accept and tolerate the fear that come with uncertainty. Luckily, no matter how overwhelming the process is, you can always take a breath, return to the moment, and remind yourself of your higher goals.

Step Four: Focus — then act

Imagine yourself standing over a large table with all the factors and possible consequences laid out in front of you. Separate the relevant from the irrelevant. Consider both gut feel and logic. Where there are unknowns, hold any feelings of uncertainty without forcing things either way.

With a calm detachment, rearrange the elements and gently allow yourself to come to a conclusion. Strong emotions, fears, and biases may crop up. Notice them with compassion — these are simply more pieces on your table. When you’ve arrived at a decision, pause. Let it sink in.

Read more: Difficult decision-making can often be linked with accepting transition. Explore three questions to inquire when coping with change.

Step Five: Repeat

The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that our practice is ever-renewing, with every fresh moment. Life will keep shifting and growing around us, constantly inviting us to respond anew. Mindful decision-makers understand that conscious action is an ongoing, evolving practice, and welcome the chance to learn from mistakes.

Make your decision, and observe. Be open to feedback. Trust that no matter what happens, you’re always able to return to your breath and consider your options again. Welcome the process of change and be willing to let go of the past.

Explore these handpicked guided meditations by popular teachers for anchoring yourself in the present and confidently  making difficult decisions:

  1. Anchoring In The Present Moment Judson Brewer 10:10
  2. Making Wise Decisions Fleur Chambers 22:54
  3. Present Moment Awareness with the Breath Alice Lash 3:38
  4. Relax Into Making a Decision Elliott Treves 29:52
  5. Make Decisions With Confidence Tejal V Patel 9:36

Mindfulness Is Not A Silver Bullet

Mindfulness is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Studies show it may not be beneficial across the board, and may result in a too-narrow focus that misses crucial information. After all, it’s perfectly possible to make a decision that is both misguided and mindful. And, though, using the present moment as a platform for deliberation has obvious benefits, there are times when past and future considerations should weight more heavily. 

We’re not always given the luxury of time when making decisions, either, and swift action may sometimes be preferable. In fact, Mel Robbins, creator of the 5 second rule, claims that ongoing deliberation may only give your “monkey mind” the opportunity to leap in and undermine your quicker, more authentic intuitions. 

Making difficult decisions is an inevitable part of life. But there’s no doubt a mindful approach to dealing with the fluid, ever-shifting present can result in actions that are truly aligned with our own wellbeing.

Read more: Many people find it difficult to decide to say no. Discover Dr. Ellen Hendriksen’s guidance on how to say no without feeling guilty.

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