Life Decisions — Getting What You Want From Your Life

What do you want from your life?

In commenting to a recent post a reader asked how I decided what aspects of life were important to me in retirement.

This comment made me think again about the process I use to make decisions to get what I want from my life.

Carved Park Bench (The anatomy of A Life Decision) photo courtesy of David Masters
Carved Park Bench (The anatomy of A Life Decision) photo courtesy of David Masters

“The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this:  Decide what you want” — Ben Stein

Stein’s advice is easy to give but it’s hard work to decide what you want from life.  It means delving deep inside to identify your values, your longings and the dreams you have for yourself.

It’s a daunting task to make life decisions that reflect your heartfelt desires — especially in the current North American environment where choices are endless.

 Structured Tools 

Structured methods will help  to organize your thoughts as you decide what you want from life. You can adapt various corporate decision-making tools to make personal decisions.

More than 40 years ago I adopted a simple decision-making matrix for use with personal decisions. The idea came from  a business workshop that focused on organizational development.

The presenter (whose name, unfortunately, is long-forgotten) demonstrated a simple matrix for making business decisions.  At the end of the presentation, she mentioned that variations of the matrix were also used for personal development.

This off-hand comment inspired me to adapt the matrix for personal decision-making.

I have used this simple two column matrix at various stages of my life to identify what I wanted from life.  I used it when we moved cities; I used it when making decisions about job change; I used it when considering retirement.

Life Decisions - photo courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography
Life Decisions – photo courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography

I use eight categories including assets, career, family/children, finances, mental, physical, spiritual and social in my personal matrix.  Entries in the categories sometimes overlap but I try to keep them distinct.

At different times in my life some of the categories have had more importance.  Since retirement, I am not using the career section but in former times this was an important category in terms of life-shaping decisions.

Using the Matrix

I begin with an empty page divided into two columns:  one column labelled ‘dreams’ and the adjacent column labelled ‘current status’.

Then I name each category and begin to identify what dreams I have for that aspect of my life.  In the adjacent column I evaluate my current life situation for that category.

Here is an example taken from an entry made shortly after I retired.

Under the category of ‘Mental’, I identified the dreams that included pursuing various types of creativity (writing, photography, learning to cook international cuisines).

I also dreamed of having ‘active’ brain outputs.   I worried that passive brain activity from hobbies or reading or watching movies would not keep my mind fully productive. My dreams called for active brain outputs that would come from challenges that involved learning new things and using mental skills that I had developed during my career.

When I evaluated my current life situation against these dreams, I realized that I needed to put more effort into blogging as it forced me to keep abreast of technology to manage the blog (active learning). Blogging also required creativity for composition of regular posts, problem-solving, and research skills.

When I evaluated my wish use photography as a creative pursuit, I realized how little time I spent with my cameras and how little I knew about many of the technical requirements for great photography.

Learning photography has been a dream for many years and one that kept finding its way into dream lists. Yet my assessment of the current situation falls short of realizing my dream.  I have taken one course to develop photography skills but I still fall short on spending enough time taking photos and evaluating results.  Hopefully this will change.

Why is this matrix effective in making life decisions?

At a conscious level, it is important to recognize what you want to get out of life.  The matrix requires explicit identification of what you want from life by recognizing the dreams you have for yourself.

Determining your dreams is only the first step. Equally important is recognizing and assessing the current situation.  For example, once I realized that I had achieved what I wanted in my career, I knew that I was ready to retire. It made the life-changing decision to retire easier.

Once you are aware of how your dreams stack up against your current life situation, you can begin to turn the dream into actionable steps to close the gap.

Action brings results.

The Unconscious Mind Supports Your Actions

Your unconscious brain will be activated when you identify your dreams and start taking steps toward their accomplishment.

Having your ‘dream’ data in your mind will help you work toward achievement. Your unconscious mind is operating as an active player that shapes decisions even without active awareness.

To many, it may sound weird but research supports the notion of the unconscious mind supporting decision making, creativity and problem-solving.  If you are doubtful, just check the idea of unconscious cognition on Wikipedia or read the current research found on psychology and medical sites.

Getting what you want from life

This simple decision matrix has been useful in helping me to decide what I want from life and guiding me as I set about taking action to realize my dreams.

I keep the matrix in my journal and update it as major changes occur in my life.

Sometimes it takes years to achieve items on my dream list and some items may never be achieved.  The dreams are beacons that enable a focused approach to making life decisions.

What systems do you use to make life decisions?  Do you leave major decisions to chance?  Do you believe in serendipity? Do you use structured decision tools?

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6 Replies to “Life Decisions — Getting What You Want From Your Life”

  1. Your matrix is a very good idea and one I plan to use. “Turn the dream into actionable steps to close the gap” really resonated with me. We are about to face the gap. My husband is planning to retire within the next year. He has been a minister for 33 years and his vocation is the fabric of his life. It is not “what he does” .. “it’s who he is”. He is a wonderful husband, father and grandfather to a large family and we are all looking forward to having more of him. But I am concerned about his sense of self-identity after he hangs up his robe for the last time. Judging from my own experience of retiring after 25 years of teaching, the first year was the hardest. I finally made the shift from identifying myself as a teacher, outwardly and inwardly, and it was a painful process. I felt non-productive and worthless as a partner because I wasn’t contributing income at the same level. It was very unsettling. I fear that he will struggle as well, but more so. I still had the routines of being a homemaker. I still felt needed in that way. Over the years, he hasn’t had the time or the resources to develop hobbies or other things that men do for enjoyment in their free time. Ministry can be very isolating to the point that your family is your primary social interaction; really the only place you can be yourself, And because of moving several times, deep and lasting friendships are seldom forged. Church regulations require that we move on and do not continue to live in the community or attend the church where my husband has been serving. So, we will not only become unemployed vocationally, but unemployed socially and moving into a brand new community. thankfully, we have dreams and plans. Getting over the hump of “who the heck are we now” will be the challenge.

    1. Jeanette Lewis says: Reply

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
      With your husband’s retirement, your own retirement journey will change. Perhaps this will be a time to re-focus on some aspects of your couple relationship and develop new interests and hobbies that both of you share. My husband retired two years after I did and we have found new activities to share. I was surprised when he began coming to my daily aqua fit classes! Your husband probably has lots of ideas of things he might do now that he doesn’t need to serve a congregation.
      Moving from your community will be unsettling. I hope that you choose a spot for your new home where you can ‘put down roots’ and live your dreams. One of our ministers retired a few years ago and we were surprised when the family stopped coming to the church until the regulations were explained. I understand that the regulations are there to ensure that boundaries are maintained but it is so unfortunate that meaningful relationships are arbitrarily stopped.
      I wish you all the best in the next few months. Cut yourself some slack and trust that the resources both of you need will come to you.
      Be well,

  2. Interesting post, Jeanette. My personal decision making tool has been the SWOT analysis. Many years ago I learned that making a decision, even if it was the wrong one, was far better than being undecisive.

    1. Jeanette Lewis says: Reply

      I have used SWOT for decision making but mostly during strategic planning session. It can certainly be adapted for personal decisions and would be worthwhile. Thanks for the memory jog.

  3. Marcelo Gomez-Wiuckstern says: Reply

    I always learn something by reading your posts Jeanette. Thank you! I can use this strategy in my life 🙂

    1. Jeanette Lewis says: Reply

      Good luck! Life decisions are always tough and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much when we blow one or two of them!
      Be well,

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