How do you find out what you really want, in your work and the rest of your life?

Wish lists

December is the month of wish lists. For Sinterklaas and Christmas. But also for the new working year. We think about what could be done differently or better in our careers. But how do you know what you really want? How do you make decisions that you will still be happy with a year from now?

Why is choosing so difficult?

People are not great at making decisions, psychologists say. Especially when it comes to choices we have no experience with. Or when there are many options to choose from. And if we do not know the possible options and their consequences well.

Irrational processes also play a role. We make thinking errors (for example, we find information that undermines our current opinion annoying). And our motivation is characterized by ambivalence and fluctuation (we want to be slim and eat oliebollen and something else tomorrow).

All this increases the stress when making choices and this makes it even more difficult and makes us make worse decisions. A downward spiral.

For example, stress can make us feel like we have to choose between two extremes, while in a relaxed state we see more options. And research by business experts Kate Barasz and Serena Hagerty shows that people sometimes hope that something bad will happen to them so that they can avoid the stress of difficult decisions.

Three practical approaches

What strategies are there for making decisions? According to management researchers Henry Mintzberg and Frances Westley there are three dominant in the working environment.

  • Think first: figure out what the problem is; devising and considering solutions; and only then execute. This rational approach works well when the problem is clear and you have reliable information.
  • First look: suddenly you get an idea and you see it in front of you, intuitively you know: this is what I am going to do. This emotional approach works well when a large number of elements need to be combined into a creative solution or decision.
  • Do it first: you try something out on a small scale to discover how the problem works and what works. This active approach works well when the situation is new and confusing.

According to Mintzberg and Westley, it is smart to combine different approaches. An example? I think: first spend a day shadowing to see if another job is something for you; see if that step still feels attractive after a week; and only then make a plan for your transition.

Make a decision

Anyway, making decisions remains difficult. What helps? A recurring piece of advice in the literature is: don’t aim for perfect, but for good enough. Satisficing instead of maximizing that is also called.

Why? Because the ‘better’ choice ultimately makes you less happy and the ‘worse’ choice makes you less unhappy than you expect (unfortunately, we are seriously bad at predicting our emotions in the future). But also – spoiler alert – because perfect studies, jobs and spouses simply do not occur in real life.

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