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Widen Your Options

I was trying to make a fairly small decision recently about whether I should volunteer at my daughter's school or not and found myself really struggling. If I chose not to do it, I would miss out on some really valuable time with my daughter, and the chance wouldn't come again. But if I chose to do it, I would have to take lots of time away from my work and stop taking on new clients, which is something I don't want to do right now.

It wasn't a life-changing decision, but I was really stuck. Neither option felt right.

Luckily, I realized I was stuck in two traps: all-or-nothing thinking and too narrow a perspective.

Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking

When you see things in absolutes -- right or wrong, good or bad, yes or no, success or failure -- you get stuck thinking in a way that makes you believe you have to behave a certain way. (I mean, who would intentionally choose to do wrong?) It causes you to act from obligation instead of choice and keeps you from seeing the whole realm of possibilities available.

When I was thinking about volunteering, I had two options which felt like "bad mother" or "bad career woman." Neither of them felt very good, and I obviously wasn't thinking clearly.

When you catch yourself in all-or-nothing thinking, first acknowledge that you're using this kind of mindset. Just labeling your thought process helps you get some distance from it and allows you the space to ask yourself some questions.

Then, ask some questions:

  • Is this really about right/wrong, good/bad, yes/no, or success/failure?

  • Why is the issue so important to you?

  • What do you think it says about you?

  • Why does it have the weight of all or nothing?

  • What's another way to see it?

(As a side note, one of the things I like about Young Adult fiction is that they create a world that is rife with all-or-nothing thinking. Harry Potter was good, Voldemort was bad. It creates a lot of drama, but also a lot of righteousness, which is also a reason I think some people are drawn to thinking this way.)

Widening Your Perspective

Whenever you face a “whether or not” decision, you likely have too narrow a frame and are probably seeing things in terms of opposites: Should I eat out or not? Should I break up with my boyfriend or not? Should I take this volunteer job or not?

But what this overlooks are all the options excluded from the either/or framework. Whenever you feel like you're choosing between two options, widen your range. Instead of asking "should I eat out or not," ask “should I eat out, have a picnic, eat in, eat with friends, go hungry tonight, or something else?”

(This is particularly good when you're hiring someone. I find a lot of managers compare Candidate A with Candidate B but forget to include the Ideal Candidate, which then makes them realize they're not stuck choosing between two people, but rather making a decision with the expectations of the role in mind.)

Once you have a variety of options -- anything more than two counts, but the more the merrier -- you'll make a better decision. To widen your perspective, ask yourself what else MIGHT BE possible. Don't focus on what IS possible -- that's too limiting. But if you deal in the realm of what MIGHT BE possible, that allows more creativity and lets you get to the heart of what you want.

In my situation, I realized that if I could volunteer but spend half the hours doing it, that would be a total win for me. So I asked and they're working it out. Fingers crossed!

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