5 Tools for Mindful Decision-Making

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Wayfinding is the regular practice of making thoughtful decisions related to our purpose and our potential at work and in life. Step by step, decision by decision, our job as wayfinders is to navigate our path and align our professional aspirations with who we want to be as people. 

But if wayfinding is about making decisions, how do we know when we’re making a good decision? Tough question for sure, but in my mind the first step is clear: we must become observers and investigators of our own experience. And how do we do that? Enter mindfulness.

Mindful, a nonprofit organization and magazine publisher of the same name, defines mindfulness as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” 
 
In my experience, practicing mindfulness is the first step toward being that personal investigator – offering an entry point to understanding who we are, what we value, where we physically hold tension or stress, and so many other important indicators. 

Notice I said ‘practicing mindfulness.’ Like yoga, creative pursuits, professional endeavors – really, anything worth doing – we must practice at it. We have to build up our mindful muscles, just like we would at the gym. So how and where do we get started? Here are my 5 tips for ways to introduce bits and pieces of mindfulness, observation and investigation into your daily routine.

Grab a notebook

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If we want to act like investigators, we have to have the right tools. And the first tool in your mindfulness toolkit should be a notebook. Everyone has different preferences for size, shape, lined or unlined – even the pens or pencils they use. What matters is that you have ready access to space to add whatever comes to mind. It could be an inspiring quote you heard in a podcast, a question someone suggested you contemplate over coffee, even a nagging to-do that you just need to keep track of. 

One unexpected benefit of keeping a notebook is having an historical record of our thoughts, conversations, learning and brainstorming over a period of time. As an avid notebook user myself, I can look back on my notes and be instantly transported back to where I was in that moment, and even how I was feeling. 

One other tip for your notebook: try to let go of the rules. Are you journaling or free writing? Maybe. Are you list making or writing a personal inventory? Maybe that, too. Are you also drawing, or only writing? Why not make it both. Ultimately the only goal is to put pen to paper and begin to notice who you are, what inspires you and what you’re learning – however that happens and in what format is up to you (and it could change day by day).

Ditch your earbuds and get outside

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I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of being one of those zombie smartphone users who walks around with earbuds in all the time. While Spotify can be a great afternoon running companion, and Pod Save America can be an important sanity check on your way home from work, you might try turning them off occasionally as another method for mindful observation.

Lately I’ve been carving out time to go for evening walks to decompress and wind down from the workday (#workfromhome). The only constraint I set for myself is that I must leave my earbuds at home. To my surprise, through the simple act of going unplugged, I noticed my other senses were sharper: I could smell the crisp, Fall air and feel its coolness on my cheek. I could actually hear my neighbor say good evening to me when she walked past me (what a concept!), and I was also more genuinely connected when I said hello back. Most interestingly, walking without this auditory multitasking helped my thoughts start to meander and find clarity in the magical way that they do when you give them the space and freedom to roam as they please.

Try adding a walk to your routine and see how it makes you feel. Still don’t believe me? Listen to this podcast and this podcast for stories and examples of how walking in nature can help you get unstuck and help you learn faster (just don’t listen while you’re walking!).

Do a body scan

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Do your shoulders creep up toward your ears when that annoying coworker cuts you off for the hundredth time in a meeting? Are you clenching your jaw when your well-meaning family member asks you another nagging personal question? 

Tension in our bodies undoubtedly affects how we feel emotionally, and vice versa. So, if we are to practice being observers of our experience, we must also consider how we feel physically. And one way to notice how we’re feeling is to do a quick body scan. 

A body scan can be as simple as laying down in bed, eyes closed, and noticing all the places where your body is in contact with the mattress (as well as where it isn’t). You might find it helpful to start with your feet and work your way up to your head. Another option is to listen to a guided body scan meditation like this one. Importantly, you don’t have to spend a lot of time on this – just a few minutes is enough to help you feel more physically attuned and connected with how you’re feeling.

Rate your choices

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The universe has a way of making us learn the same lesson over and over again until we really internalize the teaching. I find this is particularly true in the world of decision making. Are you dating the same kind of (wrong) guy yet again? Feeling stuck in the same rut at work, even in a new job? Saying yes to social commitments even though they always somehow deplete you?

Part of being mindful is paying attention to the choices we’ve already made so that we can learn from them for next time. One easy trick for evaluating our past choices – and then deciding whether to do them again – comes from author and investor Tim Ferris. His advice is to think about a past decision and rate how it made us feel on a scale of 1-10. Then, get rid of the number 7. According to Tim, we almost never want to repeat something we rate a 6 or lower (after all, a 6 is barely a passing grade), but we almost always feel open to doing something again when we rate it an 8 or higher. When we constrain our observations so that we can’t be lukewarm about something, it’s actually much easier to see clearly how well a decision worked (or didn’t). 

Of course, this same rating scale works for upcoming decisions – from anticipating whether to take that new freelance gig, to whether you want to go to yet another holiday party.

Evaluate Importance and Urgency

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A final tool in any mindful investigator's toolkit is the Important/Urgent Matrix. I find this one to be particularly helpful when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my to-do list, by the seemingly endless burning fires that need to be put out, or even just by projects that I’m not sure how to prioritize. By placing these items in one of the four quadrants, I’m able to mindfully observe – and then evaluate – whether each of these things are truly important or urgent.

How you define ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ is really up to you, but the reality is that most things are rarely both important and urgent at the same time. By pausing to take stock and organizing your priorities, you’ll be able to not only see a clearer road ahead but I guarantee you’ll also feel calmer, too.

Making a decision can be exciting and exhilarating, but it can also make us feel anxious, confused or pressured. Yet as wayfinders, our work exists in the world of decision-making. Beginning this process from a place of calm mindfulness and thoughtful observation is a wonderful way to set ourselves up for success. 

As you embark on your own effort to be a mindful observer and investigator of your life, I encourage you to remember this Marianne Williamson quote: “Everything we do is infused with the energy in which we do it. If we’re frantic, life will be frantic. If we’re peaceful, life will be peaceful.” 

How are you moving through your day today?

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