How to make that big decision in life when you’ve got too many choices

So much choice, so little time… Ellen Tout is overwhelmed with ideas for new projects and endeavours, but which ones are the right ones?


How to make that big decision in life when you've got too many choices

5 minute read

What do I want to do with my life? They say the most interesting people never have just one ‘thing’ they want to pursue, and that chimes with me. In the past couple of months, I’ve signed up for a novel-writing course, which I’ve not had time to complete; had ideas for new vegan products, which I don’t know how to launch; and dreamed of turning my love of yoga into a career. Oh, and I’ve scrolled through Instagram and decided that, actually, I want to buy an old van, turn it into a camper and escape to the Scottish Highlands.

I flit between plans not knowing whether I want to chase any of them. I feel like I should somehow be juggling them all – in addition to my job writing for Psychologies.

I talk to coach Carolyn McDonald, who trained with Barefoot Coaching. Can she help me work out what will really light me up? Or whether I should stick with what I’m doing? ‘Happiness is often defined as pleasure, meaning and engagement,’ she starts. ‘What gives you pleasure? What brings you meaning? And how do you actually activate and engage in those things?’

She asks how I would define happiness. There are lots of things: feeling fulfilled creatively, walking my dog, time with friends and family, work that matches my values, experiencing new things and spending time in nature. McDonald says I have a good grounding in what makes me feel content – so where is this itch for change coming from? She encourages me to explore my core needs, which are linked to happiness. ‘It sounds as if fulfilment to you means flexibility and being present in experiences that enrich your life – they meet core needs in you,’ she says. For example, switching off for a few hours in the countryside is a need – hence my dream of travelling in Scotland. ‘But how do you manage that enrichment and know your boundaries? If you spread yourself too thinly, it detracts from your enjoyment and your core value of being present is impinged.’

This is a light-bulb moment – I see I’ve been committing to so many opportunities, I’m overwhelmed and unable to properly enjoy each experience or work task. It’s at these times that I fantasise about change.

Too much of a good thing

McDonald says that to appreciate the good in our lives, and pinpoint what needs to change, we must find balance and space. ‘You can’t constantly be in a place of peak happiness – you would be exhausted,’ she says. If I experience the high of something that excites me – like climbing a mountain – every day, I would get weary. I love writing, but if I write all day, every day, I will tire of it. The admin part of my job creates a pause in my engagement with writing.

So, am I simply overwhelmed? When I fantasise about change, it’s often triggered by feeling that I don’t have enough time. I suggest social media plays a role, particularly for millennials like me who, branded the ‘want-it-all generation’, can reject the idea of one job for life. I know if I’m feeling lost, I fall into Instagram’s lure. ‘Social media representation is of that ultimate moment, all the time,’ says McDonald. ‘We don’t see the in-between. There’s an expectation that it’s always sunny. If you want the highs – the travel; the good job – you must accept there are lows, too. That aspect is missing in social media.’ These idealised snapshots don’t show the mundane parts of life that are not only inevitable, but what we need; a change of pace. They make you feel like you’ve failed if you haven’t travelled, volunteered and juggled a portfolio career.

I’ve looked with envy at posts by friends who went travelling straight after university – selfies dancing on Thai beaches or climbing to Everest Base Camp. That’s when my ‘shoulds’ and ‘what ifs’ come up. But, do I enjoy the fantasy of leaving to go travelling more than the reality? I know that when I’m away for more than two weeks at a time, I miss my home.

When I catch up with a school friend who has spent the past few years backpacking across Asia, she tells me how envious she is that I ‘seem to have everything figured out’ – a good career, a partner and my own flat. We laugh when I admit that I feel the same about her! I think these feelings come from an idealised perception of others’ lives, which is intensified by social media. I realise I need to listen to what I actually want, rather than what social media tells me I should want.

McDonald encourages me to explore these ‘shoulds’ further. She says they often come from family, friends or colleagues, but I think mine are more about the pressure I put on myself – ‘I should make the most of life’ – which stems from believing that life is short. But, by seizing the day, I am drowning in too many commitments, and unhappy.

To regain balance, McDonald recommends I try viewing the ‘shoulds’ as ‘coulds: ‘I could study creative writing’, ‘I could take a gap year’, ‘I could sell vegan cakes’. This small switch in our self-talk releases some of the pressure.

Baby-step thinking

We then take an item from my bucket list and try to break it down further. ‘Rather than saying “I want to write a novel”, say “I want to see what would happen if I tried to write a novel” so it is a more manageable leap,’ McDonald explains. This feels less intimidating and more like an opportunity to explore my options.

With any fantasy, says McDonald, it is helpful to start to turn it into a doable reality, to see if you want to continue. She lists questions to consider in my journal: ‘What is the first action you need to take? What will be the long-term result? What is its benefit? List things you could do to move your dream forward. What may get in the way and how can you deal with that? What would you say to someone else facing the same dilemma?’

By engaging with the reality of our aspiration, we will soon learn if it’s something that lights us up and we want to pursue it or, in fact, if it’s not for us, after all. ‘If we engage with our desire, it’s no longer a fantasy,’ McDonald says. ‘As long as it feels unattainable, an aspect of ourselves we’re not meeting in our day-to-day life, we can put lots of feelings into it. Sometimes, if it becomes what we actually do, we don’t want to engage any more and lose the fantasy.’

The nitty-gritty of want

I realise that what I’m actually craving is control and being creatively fulfilled. When I fantasise about my start-up, I’m really yearning to be the decision-maker. As a writer, penning a novel feels like something I ‘should’ want. Yet, when I look closer, I realise that many of the authors I admire write memoirs and nonfiction. I am seeking another creative outlet, but it may be journalism, blogging or writing a factual book.

‘Can you meet your desire in your daily life?’ asks McDonald. I decide to commit time to figuring out what I want to write about. I love telling the inspirational stories of real people and writing environmental and travel pieces, combining my interests of veganism and exploring. Could they be what I want to write a book about? I also realise I need to be more selective with work – to give me the control I need. I vow to explore new avenues in my job. By making small changes, I step closer to my dream while testing the water.

Although I enjoy the fantasy of the open road or my own business, I see now that I don’t need to follow every dream at once. Fantasy is healthy but, in the future, I’ll ask myself: what do you really hope to gain? By breaking down ideas into realistic steps, I can choose to pursue some, and see others as escapism. Right now, a new vision of writing an environmentally conscious book about walking is bubbling away. And my other dreams? Some may remain just fantasies, and that’s OK.

Ambition assessment

Do you have a dream, but don’t know if you want to pursue it? Answer these questions honestly… 

First steps: Do you know what you need to do now? Have you tried committing 10 minutes to it every morning? Why have you been putting it off? Is this your impostor syndrome saying you’re not good enough? Do you lack time, or is it just a fantasy?

The fantasy: Think of someone who does the thing you crave – say a novelist. What’s their daily life like? Is your picture realistic or idealised? Could you see yourself doing that every day? Have you considered the challenges or lows of the reality?

Core needs: What values are you yearning to fulfil? Do you have a core need for flexibility, freedom, routine, control or creativity, for example? Could you first tweak your life as it is to meet these? How can you engage with your values and your dream?

Carolyn McDonald is a coach, mediator, consultant and director of Adapter Consulting.

Image: Getty