Research or Instinct? The Best Way to Make Big Decisions

I have a lot of clients come to me with big life choices ahead of them, should I get married, divorced, move, have a child, buy a home, tell my family about changes in my faith?  What is the right answer?  What should I do?  

The very first step in this process is to move away from the belief that there is some kind of “right” choice, that if you research or pray hard enough the right answer will fall out of the sky and hit you on the head.  Most of the time there is no “right” choice, there are only choices.  

Which is not to say that you *shouldn’t* research and/or pray, only that changing your expectation from the right/wrong false dichotomy is essential to opening up a space for making hard choices, especially when there are no good choices only varying shades of painful choices.  

The title of this article is actually another false dichotomy, the truth is, we need to use both research and instinct to make good choices.  In the case of really big life choices here is the formula I suggest for bringing these tools into harmony: 

1. Spend a bunch of time gathering data (as in *research*: suggestions below) and then after you are finished making all the lists, doing all the math, gathering all the wisdom: 

2. Stop thinking about the decision for a while.  Distract yourself, do something fun or interesting or exhausting.  Then:

3. Check in with your gut, and see what it says. 

Why do it this way? 

Different systems in our brain are good at doing different things.  Our research brain is really good at gathering information, but not great at synthesizing it and very bad at seeing patterns in lots of small details. Our research brain is especially bad at accurately giving weight to important emotional considerations, and emotions contain lots of interesting information.  The bigger the life choice the more moving parts thus  your “gathering the facts” brain has a tendency to focus on the wrong details sometimes, especially when there are a Huge number of details.  

Our “go with our gut” brain is much better at seeing patterns, and sussing out themes.  But it can easily mislead us if we haven’t gathered enough information.  The less information you gather, the more likely your instincts will lead you astray.  

Doing something fun or interesting or exhausting gives your instinct brain a chance to sort through all the information you have gathered without the unhelpful hyper-focus of your research brain.  

Here are some ideas for gathering lots of data about your big life choice:  

Talk to your family and friends.  Not all of them, just the ones with good boundaries who are full of wisdom, who are not shaming, and who will challenge you as well as validate you.  Humans aren’t wired for making decisions alone, we need support from supportive people.   

Ask yourself what do I want a year from now, five years from now. 

Read relevant books.

Talk to experts. 

Ask yourself about your various motivations, desires, fears, what do you have to lose and what do you have to gain?  Work with not just with your best truest self answers, but also with your shadow answers.  What does your judgmental self desire?  What does your shameful self fear? What does your rebellious self have to lose?  What are your angry self’s motives?  

Be gentle and curious with your shadows, but don’t give them the keys to the car.  

Tune into your best true self, the part of you who is generous, reasonable, big-hearted, loving, forgiving, grateful.  Ask this self for advice. 

Map out the consequences of various paths. 

Pick your pain.  Most options have painful consequences attached.  Would you rather have this type of pain, or that type of pain?  

List your possible regrets, but also realize that anticipated regrets are usually heavier than actual regrets.

Make lots of lists.  

After you have gathered the information, taken a break, then checked in with your gut, what next?  

4. Move toward the light. 
5. Even if it’s hard.  

6. Believe in yourself, you can make hard choices, and do hard things. 

7. Mess up sometimes. 

8. Learn from it and then . . . 

9.  Keep moving toward the light.

Lisa Butterworth, LCPC, NCC specializes in women's issues, faith transitions, sexual concerns, LGBTQ+ journeys, trauma, anxiety disorders, body image concerns, and depression. She offers both coaching/consultation and therapy services to individuals, couples and families.

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