Think about every single choice you made today. How many were small decisions? How many were big? Do you pay close attention to every choice you make in a day? I know I don’t. With the vast amount of decisions we make during a normal day, it’s impossible to give every single one the same degree of thought. That’s why our brain helps us by creating mental maps. These maps are paths our brain follows when we come across situations that are similar to past events. By travelling these paths, our brains don’t have to expend a lot of energy and effort navigating through familiar events. We make many choices almost unconsciously. Seems great, right? And it is – except when we begin to move through our lives on auto-pilot without even realizing it.
Think about driving to work. Have you ever gotten into your car at home then suddenly you’re at work and don’t even remember how you got there? That’s what mental maps are like. We wake up in the morning and make choices without thinking about it – whether to shower, what to eat for breakfast, or stopping to pick up coffee. Those choices become so routine it’s like we’re using cruise control.
But, are there areas of our lives where we’re on cruise control when we should be making more conscious choices? Do we get caught up in our routine and just coast at the expense of things that matter in life? Then, when life throws obstacles in our way, we’re unprepared for thinking through our options and can get stuck. How many times do we complain about situations where we feel we have no choice?
Think again about driving to work. You leave home, make the necessary turns, thinking about work, making grocery lists in your head, or singing along to the radio. You reach a 4-way intersection and see your regular path ahead is roadblocked. What do you do with this unexpected event? A few choices are readily available; you can:
- drive ahead, trying to force your way through the barrier,
- follow the labelled detour (for this example, we’ll say turn right),
- turn a different direction (say, turn left) and find your own way,
- go back home the way you came; or
- stay stuck in your car.
Let’s look at each of these choices in a little more detail. First, we can drive into the barrier and try to force it to move so we can keep our route the same and avoid change. How many times do we try to force our way through when confronted with a choice we don’t want to make? Think about challenges you may have at work, with your relationships, or at school. By trying to avoid making a conscious choice, we plunge ahead, only causing more damage and disrepair.
Alternately, we could find a different path. Clearly labelled detours provide some level of comfort, knowing the route will lead us around the obstacle, but maybe not exactly where we want to go. Detours allow us to apply some decision making but also provide us an “easy out”. Think of detours like following the advice of our friends and family or set procedures. It’s better than just forging ahead, but we may not be making the best decisions for ourselves. Instead of following the detour, we could turn the opposite way and forge our own path. This route may require a lot of thought, effort, and course correction. This could be the right path for us, but we may also arrive at the same location without the familiarity of support.
We could come to the conclusion that our path is blocked, we can’t get to work and head back home, following our original path. Sometimes, when situations don’t go well for us, we tend to retreat and avoid similar situations to avoid the hurt and pain. This is a conscious choice on our part, but not a productive one. Backtracking doesn’t lend itself to growth and development. We just keep driving backward instead of making progress.
Finally, we can stay in our car, stuck and unable to move forward – not seeing the choices in front of you. Picture this in your mind: you’re driving along and come to an intersection with a roadblock ahead. Picture yourself shifting the car into park and sitting there, unable to move. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Especially when there are obvious choices like the ones we’ve discussed or others we haven’t even considered.
Yet, how many times in life do we come to an intersection and just sit there, unable to move? Do we feel stuck in a job we hate? A relationship that’s not working? A career path we’re not certain about? How many aspects of our lives are we just coasting through, letting our mental map trace our path and unable to see the choices available to us.
Making conscious choices is about recognizing the choices available to us, thinking through our options even if they aren’t clearly mapped out and feel somewhat uncomfortable. It’s about getting unstuck, avoiding backward movement, and the damage that comes with avoiding obstacles. It doesn’t mean having to quit the job or leave the relationship, but it does mean paying attention to the little decisions along the way. Are the choices you’re making at work effective or do you need to explore another route? Would a detour lead to a happier, more fulfilling experience? When you argue with your partner, are the choices you’re making turn you toward or away from the relationship?
Leading a fulfilled life is about knowing when your can go on cruise control and knowing when you need to put conscious thought into the choices you make along the way. It’s about recognizing the choices available to you, evaluating your alternatives, and having the willingness to explore the discomfort of a road less travelled. Who knows, you may choose to take a different route every now and then to check out the scenery.
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