Decision-Making Tool: The Weighted Pro/Con List

In a previous blog (here), I introduced a tool for helping us make decisions that have us stymied.  When we are facing a complicated decision, we can become stuck and paralysis by analysis can set in.  This post will introduce a spin on a common tool that may help you clarify which option is best for you and will hopefully help you to take steps in that direction.

We are all familiar with the tried-and-true pro/con list.  It is one of our most fundamental decision-making tools and is usually very helpful for us to see which option is more heavily weighted.  But I have often spoken with folks who have completed a pro/con list and still have no further clarity over which option is ideal for them.  Some of the choices we face are so nuanced and complicated that a traditional pro/con list may not pierce the fog of indecision.  It is these types of situations in which the following augmentation to a pro/con list may be helpful.

The procedure is as follows:

  • Make a traditional pro/con list (or multiple pro/con lists if your decision has multiple options).  Be thorough.  Brainstorm as many items as possible, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the factor may be.
  • Assign a numerical value of 1 through 3 to each item on the pro/con list based on how important that factor is to you.  1 would indicate that this is a minor or fairly insignificant factor, not closely aligned with your values or priorities.  2 would indicate a moderate level of importance or alignment with your values or priorities.  3 would indicate a high level of importance or alignment.
  • Now we do some math.  (eek!  But worry not, it is just simple addition) We add up the numbers in each column (add all of the pros and then all of the cons).  We can now compare the ratio of pros to cons.

What we have now is all of the benefits of a traditional pro/con list with the added benefit of a numerical representation of how important and impactful each category is.  And if we had multiple choices and therefore multiple pro/con lists, we now have a way to compare these lists.  If you feel comfortable with these math concepts, you can also use the ratios or fractions of each list to further compare the multiple lists.  But even if you do not feel confident in these math skills, simply comparing the raw number is often telling enough for this to be a useful assignment.

Let me provide an example to show this process and the math involved works.  Let’s say that we are trying to compare options for an upcoming vacation.  We have 2 options: Disneyworld or a visit with family in a nearby state.  Here is the pro/con list for each option with the weighted values:

In this example, if this had been just a traditional pro/con list, the outcome would have been unclear because the lists were equal in terms of how many items were either pro or con.   But when we weighted each item, the numbers revealed that there was a significant difference in terms of which option held more important items in each category.  When we take into account our values and what we find important, a clear decision emerges. 

When this is the case, it can allow us to easily move forward with the option that was the clear winner.  But what about the scenario when both/all options still end up either closely or evenly weighted?  In those situations, I often advise people to rely on either the coin flip strategy detailed in the previous blog post (here) or some other way of randomizing the choice.  We can have fun and be creative with this (throw darts, spin a bottle, etc.) and remind ourselves that we are choosing between identically attractive options, so there is no wrong answer. I hope that you find this strategy to be useful and helpful in your future decision-making quandaries! 


The Workings of Our Minds Series: Emotions

               Many sessions with clients are spent, either directly or indirectly, exploring the dynamics of the workings of the mind.  One of the foundational understandings in this area is that there are 3 inter-related domains of our being: behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.  This post will briefly dive into the third of these aspects: our emotions.

               One powerful realization is that while we do not have direct control over our emotions, we do have a significant degree of control over our thoughts and behavior.  And, as these 3 domains are inter-related, exercising this control over our thoughts and behaviors results in a degree of indirect control over our emotions.  The implications of this understanding are profound, especially if we find ourselves struggling with issues like depression or anxiety.  It points out that we cannot snap our fingers and make a decision to feel better, but there are things we can do (either behaviorally or thought oriented) that can move us in the direction of feeling better.

               The other aspect of our emotions that bears some attention is that our emotional landscape is nuanced and multifaceted.  Therefore, we will not always have easily understood reactions and/or feelings to the events in our lives.  To respect this reality, it is often more productive to use language that emphasizes “both/and” rather than “either/or” dynamics.  When contradictory emotions arise, it can be a confusing and disorienting experience.  But if we keep in mind the “both/and” principle, it can allow us to more easily acknowledge and navigate our nuanced reactions.

               There is a wonderful analogy that captures this: thinking of our emotions like the weather.  This analogy yields 3 powerful realizations:

  1. Multifaceted – as previously discussed, we can experience several emotions in different combinations, much as the weather can combine in an infinite number of combinations.  Think of the combinations of variables of: temperature (hot/warm/cool/cold), atmosphere (sunny/cloudy/gloomy), wind conditions (still/breeze/wind), precipitation (clear/drizzle/rain/storm).  So it is with our different emotions.
  2. We cannot control the weather, but we can prepare for it and react to it appropriately.  If it is rainy, we can grab an umbrella.  If it is cold, we can grab a jacket.  So it is with our emotions.  If you are sad, you can engage with things that will be uplifting.  If you are angry, you can employ things that can help you calm down and look at things from a different perspective.
  3. It won’t last forever.  I live in Arizona and the summers are long and hot.  When it is the middle of summer and it feels like it will never end, I remind myself of the beautiful weather that we have in the winter.  While it doesn’t make it any cooler outside, it does help to persevere.  Knowing that it will not be like this forever can make it more tolerable.  And so it is with our emotions and moods.  Knowing that a depressed mood will not persist forever can make it possible to better tolerate these lows.

Keeping these dynamics of our emotions in mind can aid us in weathering the storms that difficult emotions represent.


The Workings of Our Minds Series: Contemplation, Predictions, and Fantasies

               This will be the first post in a series that explore the many different aspects of the workings of our minds.     

               Please allow me a moment to state the obvious: our minds are complex.  In my counseling practice, most of my day is spent helping people understand these complexities.  To understand the inner workings of our minds allows us to know how to best harness the power and strength that the mind offers.  I would like to focus on one aspect of our mind’s working in this post, and that is the concept of mental rehearsal.

               This concept is relatively straightforward; anytime that we are anticipating events or thinking about the future and possible outcomes, we are engaged in mental rehearsal.  Sometimes this is a purposeful act such as when we are weighing our options on how to handle a situation.  Other times it takes on the more mindless (or not purposeful) form of daydreaming or getting lost in mental fantasies.

               We often regard this latter category as benign and harmless, but it is important that we realize that our mind uses this as rehearsal for performance.  If you find that your mindless fantasies often drift to worst case scenarios and bad outcomes (such as: “I imagine that I won’t be able to reach the goal that I have in mind” or “I can picture how badly it will go when I try to talk to my coworker”), we are inadvertently preparing to make that outcome a reality.   We would be much better served to rehearse success and scenarios with a positive outcome.  Our minds can be a very powerful tool in deciding whether we approach a fearful situation or not and whether or not we successfully navigate the situation.  Our minds can keep us stuck in fear, powerlessness, and anxiety or it can help us to overcome these emotions.

               Now, that doesn’t mean that we need to take optimism to an unrealistic level to where we picture complete smooth sailing with no struggles or barriers to success.  In fact, it can be helpful to try to anticipate some of these hardships, but to focus on our strength and resiliency to cope with and overcome them.

               The main idea here is to remain mindful of the fact that our mind uses our contemplations and fantasies as rehearsal, and we are likely to perform in ways that are influenced by how we have rehearsed.

               Another way that I have heard this framed is using the analogy of going to a gun range.  One of the very first things they tell you in such a setting is to always keep your gun pointed down range.  It is an easy mistake to make to turn around and point the gun somewhere other than down range.  This presents a potentially dangerous situation where you could accidently fire the weapon and hit an unintended target.  If we think of our minds as the gun in this analogy, we want to ensure that we keep it pointed towards the intended target and not let it drift onto unintended targets.

               Our minds operate to help us execute and pursue our goals in ways that are both conscious and subconscious (meaning operating outside of our direct awareness).  Therefore, if we allow our minds to fixate on fantasies or predictions of negative outcomes, we may inadvertently activate the power of our subconscious mind to bring about those outcomes.

               Remaining mindful of which targets we are aiming our minds at can help us harness the full power of our minds to work towards desired outcomes and achieve our goals.


A “Fruitful” Analogy

I have found analogies to be incredibly helpful in deepening our understanding of situations we face in life.  One of the most powerful and fruitful analogies pertains to our social life, and that is what I want to share with you in this post.  It represents a way to think about the important relationships in our lives and how we nurture these connections.  The analogy is to think of our social landscape and relationships as a garden.  Each relationship is represented as an individual plant.

To understand and utilize this analogy, you need not be an expert on the subject; you needn’t have a green thumb for this to be useful for you.  Even as a complete gardening novice, we can grasp the idea that plants in a garden require attention and care in order to nurture a healthy and thriving plant.  The same applies to our relationships with others.  As we nurture our connections with the people in our lives, these connections become deeper and more robust.  If we neglect a plant, especially before it reaches full maturity and becomes hardy, it will likely wilt and eventually perish.  Again, this concept plays out with our friendships. 

We all are likely to have some number of long-lasting friendships that can withstand prolonged periods of no contact.  But as soon as we reconnect, it’s as if no time has passed, and we pick up right where we left off.  These are truly the treasures and centerpieces of our social garden.  While we may be giving more consistent attention to other relationships in our lives (such as our co-workers with whom we regularly interact), the deeply rooted relationships tend to be far more central to our identity.

And that is where this analogy really starts to deepen our understanding of our social lives.  Ideally, our garden will feature an array of different types of plants.  Some will be of the variety that we give attention to everyday, even though they may be relatively shallow.  This typically applies to our colleagues and acquaintances with whom we interact with every day and may or may not be friendly with outside the work confines.  Others will be the types of plants that we give periodic attention to that have deeper roots.  These tend to be medium to long time friends or family members.

Perhaps a somewhat uncomfortable truth that also underpins this analogy is the idea that all living things die.  So, too, might our friendships.  Sometimes the actual death of the person is the cause of the death of the relationship; other times it can be a falling out, a move, or just a loss of contact with the person.  We can picture the life cycle of a plant: from seed to sprout to blooming plant to mature plant to dead plant.  So, too, with our friendships (though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge this fact). 

But this knowledge allows us to be prepared.  Both for myself and for several people with whom I have worked, an unexpected ending of a friendship can be such a painful experience.  The damage done is compounded for those who don’t have many other plants in the garden.  Ideally, we will have several plants at different stages in the life cycle.  So, even if a robust and hearty plant in our garden dies and leaves a void, it can be filled more easily with a plant that is more developed than a seedling.  If the end of a relationship strikes at a time when we haven’t even begun planting the seeds of other connections, it can be a daunting task to consider rebuilding what has been lost.  We would be looking at years before we could recover and begin to fill this void.  This is not to say that relationships are easily replaceable or that the people in our lives are expendable, but making some effort to diversify our energies in a range of relationships is often an effort that will serve us well.

This is often made more challenging if we have personalities that are low in openness (those who value tradition and routine) or if we are introverted.  However, even if this personality profile is present for you, it would be a wise investment to challenge yourself to reach out to a larger array of people than may be customary for you.

The last thing that I wanted to draw from this analogy is the idea that sometimes there are weeds in our garden.  They drain resources like water and nutrients in the soil that could otherwise be used to nourish the desirable plants in the garden.  It would be wise for you to look through your social circle (including your social media) every so often and assess if there any such weeds in your garden.  Do any of your friendships or connections leave you feeling drained or negative after interacting with them?  While it may feel complicated or threatening to do so, we are often best served by finding ways to weed these types of people out of our lives.  We don’t owe it to anyone to continue to interact with them if they are not enriching our lives.  And, yes, this even applies to family members.  Sometimes the healthiest thing we can do is to draw boundaries with these types of people and learn to preserve our own well-being.  If this is something that you would struggle to do, this might be a good indication that talking to a therapist might be helpful.

I hope you have found my favorite analogy to be helpful, useful, and beneficial in the way that you think about and care for your garden. 


How To Decide Between Two Options

We’ve all been there before: faced with a decision big or small, seemingly unable to decide which of the two options we face would be best for us.  You’ve ran through the pros and cons, considered every possible angle, but are still unable to get a clear sense of the best road forward.  You feel paralyzed to make a decision.  What to do?

I’ve discovered a solution that may seem odd, but bear with me and read through this thoroughly because it is more complex than it will first appear.  I’ve found, both in my private life and in suggesting this to my clients, that it is effective in helping solve these decisional stalemates. 

As odd as it may seem, I want you to take out a coin and assign one option you are considering to the “heads” of the coin and the other option to the “tails” of the coin and then, you may have guessed it… flip the coin.  Allow this coin flip to decide which option you will pursue.

Now, you may be rolling your eyes and realizing that there is absolutely nothing new about this approach, but here is the rub…  After this deciding coin flip, turn your attention to your gut reaction to the outcome.  Are you disappointed or happy about the outcome?  You will likely have one of these two reactions (disappointment or acceptance).  Something along the lines of “ah, man, I was kinda hoping it would be the other one” or “oh, good.”  Even if your reaction is just “ok, I guess that’s the one,” that falls into the acceptance category.

This quick exercise is an effective way to gauge your subconscious and previously undiscovered leanings in the decision you face.  I have personally used this exercise in decisions big and small; in quandaries ranging from what to get for dinner to major purchases and I have been struck by how helpful this approach is.  And even though a part of you knows the “trick” that you are playing on your mind, it still somehow remains effective in uncovering your subconscious opinion.

So, next time you are debating between two options, try this exercise out and please share your experience in the comments below.


Getting Around to Talking About Procrastination: 3 Simple Principles to Stop Delaying and Getting It Done

I have intended to write this post for 3 months now.  My process has been as follows:

Identify the topic – check.

Brainstorm an outline of what I want to say – check.

Stagnate – check.

Stall – check.

Finally get around to actually writing – check.

Granted, other things have come up that demanded my attention.  Some legitimate, some mere distractions, some blatant attempts to not do the thing that had been hanging over my head.  This is the very essence of procrastination.  I put off to tomorrow what could have been done today.  I know better.  I counsel and advise others on how to avoid this pitfall.  I know the short-term benefits of avoiding are not outweighed by the long-term consequences that will follow.  Yet none of these chiding thoughts prodded me into actually writing this post.  Up until this moment as I write, I had not followed my own advice.

I have been on both sides of the procrastination battle; both as a victim to the temptations of delay and as a victor over the siren’s song of postponement.  I can say that being the victor is far more satisfying and rewarding.  Following the three simple principles that follow will help guide you to be victorious over procrastination more often than you fall victim to it.  I know firsthand: it is simple, just not easy.  But it is well worth the effort.

Front Load the Work

We often have a lot of things that need to be done and a lot of things that we could do that would be beneficial, wise, and productive uses of our time.  Some of them are responsibilities and some are things to unwind and relax.  Most likely, the items on the responsibilities lists are the ones that will be put off to some other time.  We prioritize other activities over what should be done.  How this typically plays out is that we will engage in some other (less important) activity, all the while feeling the weight of the thing we are not doing hanging over our heads.  This tends to rob us of some of the enjoyment of what we are doing.  It is likely to be hard to fully enjoy going out with our friends if we know that we really needed to be working on a report that is due the next day.

The fix for this is to “front load” the work.  Do the thing that needs to be done first and then you can fully enjoy the rest of your time, free of the burden of knowing that work awaits you once you are done.  You will feel good about getting the to-do item accomplished and then you can engage in whatever activities that follow with a clear conscience.

If you get into the habit of doing the work first and then playing afterwards, you can achieve a balance to where you are fully productive and fully engaged in fun and fulfilling activities as well.  This balanced approach will help prevent you from feeling burnt out or overwhelmed.


Present Me and Future Me

               The second principle is to remember that future me is not going to be any more motivated, energetic, or capable than present me.  To understand this principle, you must first understand that you hold two versions of yourself in your mind at any given moment.  The first is “Present Me,” which is the you that you are currently experiencing.  Present Me is currently reading these words.  Whatever you are thinking, feeling, and doing in this moment makes up Present Me.  Future Me is the idea of what you are going to be like outside of this moment.  You may be thinking that Future Me is going to cook dinner, or go to that movie you have been wanting to see, or take that vacation you have been dreaming about.  Future me gets to do all sorts of things, both pleasant (like the movie or the vacation) and unpleasant (like chores, pay bills, and get root canals).

Problems with procrastination occur when we start to assign too much stuff to Future Me.  We may begin to think that Future Me is going to develop super-powers of super-human will, motivation, and energy.  Or at least Future Me would need to develop these super-hero abilities in order for them to accomplish all that is being assigned to them.  When there is this rift between what Present Me and Future Me is capable of, we are deep in the waters of procrastination.  And we are likely drowning in those waters.  We need to understand that Future Me is going to feel exactly like Present Me does.  Future Me does not like doing dishes any more than Present Me does.  Future Me does not possess an amazing ability to balance the checkbook any more than Present Me does.

Future Me and Present Me are the same person.  When we understand this, we may be less likely to heap loads of responsibilities onto Future Me.  If you use the first principle of front loading work, Present Me can accomplish some things and then go and have some fun rather than Present Me hogging all of the fun and Future Me getting the raw end of the deal.


Motivation Follows Action

               The final principle deals with how we perceive how we get things done.  When asked, people will often respond that they do something when they feel like doing it.  “I get the inspiration to accomplish something and then I set about doing it.”  Some things will happen in this sequence.  But if we are procrastinating, it is this process that has gone awry.  We are waiting to feel the motivation to do something before we start doing it.  And typically, that motivation just ain’t coming any time soon.  This way of thinking is what I call “action follows motivation.”  You can think of it as motivation being the engine and action being the trailer that is pulled along by the engine.

This simply does not work when we are faced with a procrastination problem.  In this case, we must force ourselves to flip the sequence and realize that motivation will follow our action.  When discussing this, I often think of how I feel when there is a sink full of dishes from dinner.  I don’t really want to do them, but I know that I want them to be done.  If I wait around to feel like doing the dishes, I would probably still be sitting here with a sink full of dirty dishes.  So instead, I start doing them and, after about the second plate, I realize that I am motivated to finish the job.  It feels good to be making progress towards being done with this chore and I am looking forward to when I can go sit down and enjoy some quality time with my family and unwind.  What has happened here is that motivation has followed my action.  And when you think about it, the flipside of that is that being unmotivated follows inaction.  The longer we avoid doing the things we know need to be done, the less motivated we feel.

Procrastinate No More

We will all likely struggle with procrastination from time to time, but now you are armed with these three principles to assist you in combating procrastination.  It may have taken me three months, but I eventually took my own advice, kept these principles in mind and completed this post.  And I feel much better for having done so.  I wish you the same success!

Edited by Shirley Sachs

Uncertainty: The Only Certainty In Life

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“If you want to be successful in this field, you’d better learn to love ambiguity.”  A professor said this to her class 12 years ago.  As a student in that class, I can almost hear these words today as clearly as they were spoken over a decade ago.  This has stuck with me because it has proven to be true.

In my job I work closely with people, come to care for them deeply, watch them struggle and triumph.  And then, in the majority of cases, we stop seeing each-other.  This is the natural progression of therapy.  In the cold clinical sense it is meet, assess, treatment plan, intervene and then terminate.  I usually invite (if not outright plea for) follow-up calls, periodic check-ins.  Perhaps naturally, seldom is this invitation accepted.  Here is the ambiguity that my professor identified.  Did this person maintain their progress?  Did that issue ever resolve?  What happened with their spouse?  These questions rarely receive an answer.

But this post is not about me or the ambiguity that therapists encounter.  It is about how we all come to terms with the ambiguities and uncertainties in our own lives.

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The Search for the Positive

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This post is aimed at helping you through struggles.  Not of the external variety such as financial stress or interpersonal problems, but targeting those struggles that reside within our own minds.  This is about the way that we see and interpret the events that are happening around us.  The manifestations of these struggles may be as mild as being in a bad mood or a bit grumpy for a small spell all the way to a full-blown depression that lasts for months on end.  While these endpoints are quite different, the same process underlies both results.

On a surface level, you are likely familiar with what this discusses.  People may have told you to “search for the silver lining”.  Others may have attempted to encourage you by saying that “things are not as bad as they may seem.”  Heck, even Monty Python told you to “Always look on the bright side of life.”  While well intended and on the right track, these suggestions and advice have likely been ineffective in pulling you out of the negative that clouds your thinking when you are feeling down.  Why is this?

Basically, this is prescribing the very thing that is most out of reach to you at that moment.  It’s like telling someone who is lost in the desert and dying of thirst to “just drink some water.”  When this suggestion is presented without appreciating the difficulty it entails, we are likely to reject it out of hand.  This is quite unfortunate, because the wisdom behind the suggestion being offered actually has some value in terms of the behavioral health benefits.  I will attempt to dig beneath the surface of what is being said when someone offers this type of advice and transform it from quickly discarded tropes to something that may be meaningful and helpful.

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Sleep 101: How to Give Yourself the Best Chance at a Good Night’s Sleep

               It’s been a long day.  From the time the alarm went off until this moment, as you lay your head on the pillow, you have been going full steam ahead.  Meeting the demands of your job, your kids, the household chores, the errands, and your social life has taken every last ounce of energy you have.   You expect to fall into the oblivion of sleep the moment your head hits the pillow.  But once you get there, “it” happens.  Your mind starts going, thinking about the things left undone, the things you worry about, the plans you are making.  Now sleep is just about the last thing you can do.  But you know you need to.  You start doing the math.  “Only 6 hours until the alarm goes off.  I have to get to sleep now or tomorrow is going to be a disaster.”  The more pressure you put on falling asleep, the more unlikely it becomes.

               If you can relate to this story, you are not alone.  The sleepless are not just in Seattle; sleep issues are a factor for nearly every client I see in my practice.  Thankfully, there are some very straightforward things that you can do to improve your sleep.  While these guidelines are simple, they are not easy, as many of our bad sleep habits are deeply ingrained.  However, with dedication, you can see some dramatically positive improvements in your sleep within a few weeks.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go: How to Decide What to Do With An Unfulfilling Job


Chances are, we’ve all been there: dreading to go to work the next day because we just absolutely despise our job.  Perhaps it is due to the work itself: too boring/unchallenging or stressful/overwhelming; perhaps it is due to your co-workers or boss; perhaps it is due to the clientele you deal with.  Whatever the reason, nothing can be more dispiriting and have a stronger impact on your overall well-being than being stuck in a job you hate.  The connection between work stress and negative effects on both mental and physical health is well established, even if all other aspects of your life are fulfilling and healthy.  Hopefully, these suggestions will help you to navigate what to do if you are currently in a negative work situation.  Instead of reading this article word for word (which you’re welcome to do if that is your style), I recommend that you skim through to the sections that apply to you and your particular brand of job dissatisfaction and then read the section on coping efforts.  After doing so, you will hopefully have a clear answer to the question posed by The Clash in their 1982 song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”

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