The most important decision you can make (but probably aren’t making)

Illustration: Ashley Siebels

When it comes to identifying the most important decision you can make in a day, most of us get it wrong.

There’s no shortage of candidates to choose from because most of us have too many decisions to make each day.

But most of us lack the time to identify the most important one(s) because we’re busy and stretched too thin between work, home and all the other things it takes to make a life.

The trouble is when you miss out on making the most important decisions (and making them well), your career and life can go badly off course. Worse yet, you can end up feeling miserable despite all the things you have achieved.

So, let’s look at the decisions you’re facing.

What Decisions Are You Facing?

Some of them have far-reaching consequences, like whether to start a family, change jobs, move to a new country or start a new business line. These are often one-time decisions that we make consciously and deliberately. And rightly so.

Others are seemingly less significant but recurring, like what to order for lunch, what to wear, or what brand of toothpaste to buy. You’ve probably created routines for many of these. Like my friend and former CEO, Craig, who always orders the same thing for lunch when he’s dining out (by the way, it’s Caesar’s Salad with Chicken).

Putting those daily decisions on “autopilot” is useful because our brains can only make so many good decisions in a day.

You’re right not to use up your decision-making capacity on the ordinary things you can turn into good habits, like exercising or meditating before going to work. Or having shortcut rules for unimportant things that won’t move the needle for your life either way, like choosing the same brand of pasta, peanut butter or detergent when you’re at the store.

But the problem is this: the most important daily decisions are the ones most of us don’t even think about.

When you aren’t aware that there’s a decision to be made, it’s as though you’re living on autopilot. That’s when you run the risk of ending up in a different place than the one you intended.

The Most Important Kinds of Decisions

The most important kinds of decisions you can make are about how you want to live your life rather than what you should do in a particular instance or which activities or things to choose.

This is about identifying your guiding principles and making the conscious decision to pursue them every day. This, in turn, will put you in the best frame of mind to make all your other decisions wisely, show up at your best every day and achieve the aspirations you hold most dear.

You Get to Decide

Instead of leaving things on autopilot, remember that you get to decide.

So when you get up in the morning, decide what kind of day you’re going to have. While you can’t control the situations that come up, you can control how you respond to them.

To prime the pump for thinking about the truly important decisions that will make your life better, here are the three I remind myself to make every morning. As you read them, see what comes to mind for you.

1. Be kind to myself

This means paying attention to my self-talk to make sure it’s encouraging and positive. When I’m on autopilot, I tend to do a lot of judging, “should-ing” and criticizing.

That’s why I have to remind myself every day to come from a place of appreciation and generosity when I’m talking to myself. And that helps me extend the same kindness to others.

2. Focus on what matters most

As a “do-er” and achiever, I tend to get hooked on producing outcomes even if it’s alphabetizing a list that doesn’t need to be in any particular order or making a spreadsheet look beautiful when it’s for internal use only.

So “focus on what matters most” is a reminder to put people and relationships before tasks and accomplishments. And within the tasks I take on, it’s a reminder to focus on the ones that lead to my bigger aspirations rather than unnecessary distractions or someone else’s agenda for me.

3. Enjoy every day

As a recovering workaholic, I still regularly forget to find the joy in life and to have fun. Or at least get in a belly laugh once in a while! That’s why I added this daily decision, which is inspired by my father (who also works a lot).

As I listened to my father’s talk at an event marking his retirement where over 100 of his colleagues gathered to celebrate his accomplishments, what struck me was his comment, “I enjoyed every day”. I’ve known my father all my life but have never heard him say this.

Today, my father is a revered scientist, mentor and role model and a giant in his field. But along the way, he’s had his share of pressures, like starting out as an immigrant with no connections, raising a young family on an assistant professor’s pay, securing grant money to support his research lab.

But over a decades-long career, he had found a way to enjoy every day. Partly because he was doing work he loves, but mostly because he made that his choice.

What Will You Decide?  

How you live your life is a choice. So resist the temptation to take the easy way out whether that’s following the “to do” list others have made for you or letting events carry you along on autopilot.

Instead, make a conscious decision on how you want to live every day. Write it down every morning to remind yourself before you get carried along by the busy-ness that life throws at you. Each day of your life is too precious to leave to chance.

This article first appeared on May Busch.