Follow your heart. Listen to your gut. Do what feels right.
We’ve all heard these heavily referenced, oversimplified clichés that make us want to pull out our hair while we attempt to apply them to our lives. But, they are far too vague to be utilized in real life, particularly so if you happen to lack in life experience.
At some point, though, almost all of us become confused, bumbling decision-makers.
Just like anyone else, a string of challenging questions can sum up my life: Should I go to college? Should I run away? Should I pursue this career path? Should I give him another chance? Should I go back to school? Should I listen to the voices around me? Should I trust myself?
The questions are endless, as are the opportunities to veer left or right off our current paths. In order to achieve an optimal state of decision-making efficacy, personal experience is – or rather, was – the only measure I’d ever stumbled across. Until I found Martha Beck, that is.
Disclaimer: I do not claim any rights to the genius knowledge you are about to receive. It all comes from Martha’s incredible book (which sounds a lot cheesier than it is), "Steering by Starlight":
The Importance of Optimal Decision-Making
Since you’re reading this, you’re likely a solid candidate to agree with this statement: Your present situation and your unrealized future are the simple equations of all the decisions you've ever made.
The terminology Martha uses divides decisions into one of two categories: shackles-on or shackles-off.
Each decision you face can be summarized as either good or bad in regards to achieving your true path, the destiny of your highest potential and innermost purpose.
Becoming Acquainted with Your Physical Body
Though many of us like to mindfully rationalize our choices in life, Martha’s strategy requires little thinking, calculating or research, if any at all.
Instead of that, Martha urges us to simply follow our inner compasses by “tuning-in” to our physical, bodily responses, creating the two categories of “shackles-on” or “shackles-off.”
It’s pretty simple: A shackles-on activity, place or person is anything that makes you feel trapped or caged; whereas, a shackles-off endeavor is anything that feels freeing or liberating.
Trusting Your Body in Decision-Time
In order to implement this practice into your decision-making process, you must first identify your own personal shackles-on and shackles-off responses.
To do this, envision a time – involving a person, place, job, activity or anything else – in which you felt trapped, boxed-in, or emotionally or creatively stunted.
How do you feel? Write these emotions down!
For example, while envisioning a moment in my brief career in an unsuited job path of my past, I immediately felt my chest tighten, my breath become shallow and my shoulders and neck stiffen.
I felt emotions of restriction, anxiety, nervousness, fear, self-consciousness and insecurity. This is my personal shackles-on bodily response.
Now, do the same thing with the opposite. Envision a time when you felt free and fulfilled. How does your body respond? You might have a similar reaction to mine: muscles relaxing, shoulders broadening, excitement springing up in your core or your lungs expanding with ease.
Identifying with your physical responses will allow you to be mindful and intuitive when you face opportunities that will undoubtedly be presented to you along your path.
You’ll feel this instinctive, physical reaction long before you’ll get around to thoughtful rationalizations, ultimately making any decision much simpler and more effective.
Perhaps optimal decision-making, then, isn’t so much a matter of following your gut or your heart. Perhaps, it’s all about steering away from “thinking” your way into a decision and, instead, simply trusting in what your body already knows is best.