Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: On Decision Making

Between jumping out of bed in the morning and falling back into it at night, most people make hundreds of decisions. The intensity of our struggle over decisions varies from unconscious decision making to literally agonizing over what to do. I do not know anyone wise enough to save us from some pressure, even some agonizing, in the fast moving culture in which we live; but there are some intentional steps we can take to order our lives in such a way as to save ourselves from agonizing over every decision.

The development of certain habits delivers us from having to decide about many things. While it is true that some people are destroyed by their habits, there are others who are saved by healthy habits. In the home where I grew up, we did not decide whether we would go to church each Sunday. Apart from serious illness, accident or death, we all knew where we would be on Sunday morning. It was a family habit. To save wear and tear on the human system, we should assign as much of life as possible to habits that save us from having to rethink matters to which there are obvious answers.

Since we are not equally knowledgeable in all things, the wise person will consult specialists for advice before making certain decisions. Some of our decisions would be very uninformed, if not outright harmful, if we did not consult with physicians, electricians, engineers, lawyers, accountants, clergy, and many other persons who are experts in specific fields.


Habits and experts can help us through most decisions, but there are times in which we must decide about matters, in which habits and experts are of very little or no help. It is here that our maturity and wisdom come into play. All that we have learned about right and wrong, and the influence of our cumulative experience impinge upon the process. Our intuitive power to foresee future consequences of a given decision should play across the backdrop of our minds when we make serious decisions. All of this requires mental and emotional heavy lifting. Those who are too lazy to do the hard work and those who are paralyzed by fear just leave the choice to circumstances, thus forgetting that deciding not to decide is also a decision.


In his History of England, Lord Thomas Macaulay writes of the failure of the Prime Minister to speak his opinion on a matter of great importance during a critical time in English history. "His situation made it his clear duty to declare what he thought. It was probably from a nervous fear of doing wrong that, at this great conjuncture, he did nothing; but he should have known that, situated as he was, to do nothing was to do wrong." What a terrible indictment!


It is a sobering experience to realize the consequences of certain decisions.  What if we had decided not to continue our education? What if we had decided to marry a different person or decided to pursue a different vocation, or to live in another state? What if we had decided not to have our last born child? What if we had decided to get involved in an enterprise that looked lucrative but turned out to be illegal? There are hundreds of ‘what ifs’ we can consider. It is perhaps enlightening to engage in that process to some degree periodically. It can teach us something about the pattern and process of our specific kind of decision-making. But it is not emotionally healthy to become preoccupied with the ‘what ifs’ in life. It is alright to glance in the ‘rear-view mirror’ now and then, but don’t look for very long. You cannot change the past. Learn from the past and from what ‘might have been’, but do not hang on to it. The decisions you make today and tomorrow are those that will shape or reshape your life.


While it is clear that not all decisions are of the same magnitude, most of us have casually made what we thought to be a minor decision which turned out to be major.  A minor decision that tilts life in a certain direction just one degree can over time become significant.  It can radically alter the direction of our lives as it moves exponentially over a period of time. It could be something we intented to do only once, but we did not stop.  It could be something we said or did casually or in jest, but it developed into something that was neither casual nor humorous.  Small decisions can have grave consequences which are not always foreseen, and can increase in gravity with the passage of time, and can even change our life's direction.     


We can lighten the load by habit and expert advice, but when it comes down to some of the more intangible decisions, we must turn to inner resources which we may or may not have properly developed. Our energy is best directed on trimming our sails to catch the prevailing winds rather than being spent studying the wake of where we have been.


How are you fixed for making decisions when habits and experts cannot help?