Separate the “shoulds” from the “wants.“ Most people have an idea of things they think others expect of them versus the things they actually want. You may feel you should be more organized, you should go back to college, or you should settle down and get married. But all those shoulds won't get you anywhere if you have no drive to do them. If you do manage to do them, the energy may wane and then you're back to the starting point five or 10 years down the line. Get rid of your shoulds now so you can focus instead on what you want.
Most people have trouble seeing which urges are shoulds and which are wants. Take a moment to figure out which is which. What do you actually want? What do you feel like the rest of the world wants you to do? Are you feeling pressure from your parents, your community, society, or peers to do something they feel you should do, but you don't feel passionate about?
Make a list of what you'd do if you lived without fear. All people have intangible, abstract fears. Many people are afraid people aren't going to like or respect them, that they're going to be broke, that they won't find a job, have friends, or that they'll end up alone. To get at what you want, erase all of those for just a second. Fear can control you and keep you from what you want.
Make a list of all the things you want despite your fears. What would you do if you weren't afraid of what people thought, afraid of money, or afraid of getting hurt?
Figure out what dissatisfies you. You probably already know what dissatisfies you. Almost everyone is better at complaining than they are fixing it. By identifying the places in your life where you feel dissatisfied, you can begin to strategize how to change or eliminate those things. Make a list of what makes you unhappy. Why are you dissatisfied? What is it that you're craving? What would make things better? Write down the answers to these questions.
For example, think about your job. If you hate your job, it may be possible that you don't hate the job, but only hate aspects of it. Those aspects need isolating. What things would you change if you could? How might that change your outlook?
Simply identifying dissatisfying elements of your life won't make them better. Once you've made this list, you need to start thinking about if these are things over which you have some control, and what you can do to change them or remove them from your life. If you hate your job, maybe you need to start figuring out how to find a new position. Or, if it's simply certain aspects of your job you don't like, brainstorm ways to improve those things and talk to your boss about implementing some new ideas.
Make a list of what is important to you. When you don’t know what you want, it can be helpful to get a clear idea of what your values are. Start by making a list of what is important to you. You can include abstract ideas, like love, or concrete things, like food.
To help you identify your values, ask yourself these questions:
Which moments in your life thus far have been the most satisfying or fulfilling? What was it about that moment that made you feel satisfied?
If your house were on fire and you could only grab 3 objects (all pets and family members are already safe), what would they be? Why? What do these things represent to you?
Think of two people you respect and admire. What characteristics do you admire the most about them? Why?
What issues get you the most excited when you talk about them? Could you talk for hours about foreign policy, or fashion, or animal rights?
Look at your answers to these questions and ask yourself if any themes, principles, or beliefs emerge from your answers.
Once you have identified your values, you should find that making decisions that are in line with these beliefs will help you feel satisfied and happy.
Values can seem too vague or philosophical to be helpful, but they can give you clues into which decisions and outcomes would be most satisfying.
Choose values that cause an emotional response. Values can be described as the combination of goals, beliefs, and positive or negative emotional attitudes. Values play an important part in emotional health because they can produce strong emotional reactions based on if our behaviors align with our values or not. When making your list, don’t just put what you think you should put. Think about things that cause you to feel emotions.
For example, if you value family time most but make the decision to continuously work 80 hour weeks, you may feel guilt or shame because you have violated a value that is important to you.
If you value family time, make it a point to always be home by 5 p.m., and never work during family time, you might feel proud and fulfilled because your behaviors reflect your values.
Question yourself. Knowing what you value can help you make decisions about what you want and don’t want. If you’ve never thought about what you value, you may have a difficult time figuring it out. Ask yourself these questions to help you start thinking about what you value:
At the end of your life, what will you want people to remember about you? That you contributed to science? That you loved your family? That you were honest?
If you had to choose between work and family, which would be most important?
What topics are you passionate about? Environmentalism? Women’s rights? Finance? Use your passions to help you narrow down what is most important to you.
If you could only save a few items from a house fire, what would they be? What about those items gives you clues about some of your core values?
Use your values to make changes. Write down the answers to the questions so you can see them. These answers give you an outline of what you want in life. You can even add to this information as you continue to think about what is important to you. Once you have an idea of what you value most in life, you can begin to construct a clearer picture of what you want. Then, you can start making choices that align with your values.
For example, if you highly value green energy and recycling, but the company you work for deals mainly in oil, you may feel dissatisfied with your job or even frustrated and angry because much of your work is supporting something that you don’t agree with. You now can recognize this and work to find a job that also values green energy so they can align with your values.
Focus on the present. Not knowing what you want or not being able to decide often leads to feelings of worry or uncomfortableness. A lot of this worry comes from being afraid of making a wrong decision. As you begin to make decisions about your life, keep your focus on the present or the near-present. Trying to go too far into the future can lead to stress.
Research shows that our ability to predict what we’ll want in the future is skewed, so you can only make decisions that are right for you in the present with the information you have now. Don’t focus so much on getting it right for your future-self.
Start by making small decisions. Making decisions can be difficult and scary. You may need to decide what you want from life, or you may need to decide how to get what you want after you know. If you don’t know what you want, making decisions can be difficult. Learning how to make decisions can help you become better at deciding what is right for you. Start with small decisions first, so that you become more comfortable and confident in your ability to make decisions for yourself.
Not making any decisions at all is also a deciding choice. Sometimes, not making a decision at all often causes more regret than making any decision.
State the decision that needs to be made. Being able to make informed decisions is helpful because poor decisions or no decision at all can sometimes bring about feelings of pain or regret. You can start building these skills by stating specifically the decision that you want to make.
You can write down the decision or state it mentally. You need to make it known to yourself what decision has to be made so you can start working towards what you want.
For example, if you are trying to decide which college major to choose, you would write down, “Decide between engineering and nursing.” If you are trying to decide how to deal with a friend, write, “Decide how to deal with my friend who makes me feel bad sometimes.”
Gather more information. In this stage, you should gather as much information as you can about your options. Making an informed decision is extremely important because this helps you feel like you have made the right decision. Make sure to include information that is important to your values. You can make a pro/con chart, list details about each option, and make notes about how each option will impact your life, future, and other’s lives.
For example, you may look up salaries, job opportunities, and amount of time in school when choosing a career. You may consider that nurses deal with and help people daily while engineers deal with numbers and building plans.
List out all of the information which is important to you.
Look for alternatives. In this phase of the decision-making process, you should ask yourself if there are options you haven’t thought of or considered yet. This may take a few days to complete. You can do research, talk to people, or think the topic over for a few days. Ask yourself if these are the only choices you can make in the decision. Have you been fair to yourself? Is there another decision you can make that you haven’t written down? Make sure you have all your options listed before making the decision.
For example, maybe you’ve limited yourself too much in just deciding between engineering and nursing. Possibly, you could also consider a general business major, an art degree, a career as a contractor, or even medical school.
Evaluate your options. At this stage, look at all the information and possibilities you’ve gathered. Now imagine each possibility carried out through the end and what that would entail. Imagine the outcome of each decision and evaluate your emotional response. Do you feel satisfied with this picture? Does the outcome support your values? The answers to these questions can help you make your decision.
For example, you can imagine yourself in engineering classes working with computers and numbers, then to your first job at an engineering firm. Imagine yourself doing this type of work every day and evaluate your emotional response. Are you satisfied with this picture? Does your work support your values? Then do the same process with nursing.
Implement the choice. Review all of your information, and make the best possible choice that is right for you, has fulfilled your values, and seems to align with your professional goals. Then implement the choice. This is the action part of knowing what you want. This is where you start going after what you want.
For example, you can go to your academic advisor or the dean and formally change your major. Then you can sign up for the appropriate classes.
Be willing to make mistakes. Sometimes knowing what you want will not be clear until you’ve tried something out. Once you’ve tried something, you can find out if it isn’t for you or if it’s a perfect match. So if you don’t know if it’s what you want, go and try it. Making mistakes is part of learning what we want and discovering what we want.
Studies show that not knowing an outcome causes more anxiety or discomfort more than knowing that the outcome will be unfavorable.
For example, if you’re still undecided about nursing or engineering, take active steps to decide which you will like. Look for internships at an engineering office to get a feel for what the work environment might be like. Ask an engineer to show you what he or she does all day. Ask questions to understand more about what the job entails and what to expect. You can shadow a nurse and follow him or her around during the shift to see what a nurse actually does.
Another possibility would be to take a class specific to engineering and at the same time volunteer at a hospital. Maybe at the end of the semester you'll find that you actually can't stand working with computers all day and that you have a knack for calming patients at your volunteering job. Even if you don't go into engineering, the class wasn't a waste of time — it helped you make a more informed decision, and you probably still learned a lot from the class.
Reevaluate your decision from time to time. Just because you want something at one point in your life doesn’t mean you may want something different later. Periodically, go back to your choices and decide if they are still what you want.
Reflect on the decision to see if it still fits with your goals and values. If it does, you can stay on your current course, but if not, it may be time to reevaluate and go through the decision making process again — and that's okay.