The 5 questions to ask before you say yes (or no) to anything

Have trouble making decisions? Here’s how to get to the right one for you
By Suzan Colón  Published on 11/29/2018 at 9:00 AM EDT
Illustration by Suzan Colón

There are books that celebrate the joys of saying yes to everything in life. There are an equal number of books about how good it feels to say no. What I really needed was a guide to making decisions, instead of staying in a perpetual rinse cycle of wishy-washyness.

Making decisions has always been pretty difficult for me. I’ve waffled so much you could cover me with maple syrup and serve me for breakfast. Weighing pros and cons is generally a good thing, unless it becomes a cycle of debate that, instead of helping you come to a resolution, pushes a firm decision further away.

I’ve tried just saying yes immediately, and I’ve ended up low-balling myself in salaries and fees. I tried saying no and cut myself out of potentially valuable experiences. I needed a middle ground that would help me consider options, get out of the wishy-washy rinse cycle, and get to a decision that felt right.

Part of learning how to do that came with the understanding that I’d been trying to make decisions without having enough information. Instead of immediately blurting out a definitive answer, I needed to carefully ask more questions.

Here are the five questions I now ask before deciding on pretty much anything above pizza-topping level:

  1. Do I want to do this? We are each the CEO of our own lives, even if we work for someone else. There may not be much leeway in a regular job to pick and choose what we want to do, but in other areas of life, examining an important factor—do I want to do this?—is a good start. Primo life coach Martha Beck has a great trick for answering this question: Consider saying yes to whatever you need to make up your mind about and see how you feel in your body. Now consider saying no and see how you feel physically. If one of the answers makes you feel kinda queasy and the other makes you feel energized and awesome, you’ve got the first part of your decision.
  2. Do I need to do this? In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the greatest spiritual texts ever written, a prince named Arjuna has to fight a war that will free his people from a despotic jerk of a leader. He really, really doesn’t want to fight this war, but he knows if he doesn’t, his people will never be free. His decision is based on necessity. Hopefully there aren’t any situations that large on your shoulders, but asking whether something you don’t feel great about is necessary will help you find an answer.
  3. How much time will this take? I’ve said yes to things that initially seemed small and that ended up eating my life. They may be enjoyable, but if other responsibilities are going to get roller derby-elbowed out of the way, factor that in to your decision. Find out as best you can what kind of time a request will take you to fulfill. Then, ask the next question…
  4. Do I have the time to do this? Okay, so you found out how much time it will take to do this thing you’re pondering. Do you have that time? Caution: Desire can force a “Sure!” here. We all have memories of putting off necessaries to do something fun, saying we’d have plenty of time to do the work later. The less consideration you put into this question, the greater the chances for ass-biting results.  
  5. What benefit will this bring? This is the trickiest question, because most of the time the value of an action we’ve taken is only apparent in the rear view mirror. Hindsight gives us the clarity to see results we can’t begin to imagine before we set out to do something. Yet some benefits may be immediately apparent, so write ‘em down and see how you feel about them.

Some of us are born with decisive genes, but for those of us who aren’t, the days of over-thinking are just over. If we train ourselves to gather the information we need with the 5 questions, we’ll learn to trust ourselves to come to the right decision. At least that’s something you won’t have to think too hard about.

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