Eyes-Wide-Open Decision Making: An Overview

A Value Orientation, Decision Making, Understanding Emotions

I’ve been asked to explain the difference between my Eyes-Wide-Open Decision Making Process1 and a typical decision process. The short answer is — my method offers a way to validate difficult decisions, when you can’t reach certainty.

Many decision methods can speed you to a conclusion when you need only a few minutes to clarify the issues and see that one option is a “no-brainer.” But on harder decisions, with deeper conflicts, that kind of certainty is not possible in a short amount of time. You need to act sooner rather than later. The question always arises, should I spend more time?

The Eyes-Wide-Open Decision process helps you quickly make a good choice, when you cannot afford the time to determine some theoretical “best” choice. It does this in part by helping you decide when more decision time is warranted, and when it’s not. It has 3 aspects:

  1. Cognitively: You have identified a rational reason for your decision.
  2. Emotionally: You have faced the value consequences of your decision.
  3. Practically: You are willing to take action based on your decision.

The 3-part validation process gives you an alternate standard for judging a decision when you can’t resolve the underlying conflict.

* * *

1. The Cognitive Validation: You have identified a rational reason for your decision.

Every decision is motivated, but not every decision has a reason behind it. A reason is the product of a logical chain of thought. To make sure you have a reason for your decision, not just an urge to do it, you need to state your reason in a sentence, and then test it in three ways: Is it clear? Does it appeal to rational values? Is there any evidence you are rationalizing?

For example, suppose you decided to eat fast food for lunch, “because I feel like it,” “Because I feel like it” fails at least the first test — it is not clear why you “feel like it.” However, if you took a minute or two to clarify why you “feel like it,” you might find that you’re tired and hungry and have very little time to get lunch before you need to be at a meeting. Therefore, although you don’t normally eat fast food, this is your best option today.

Your reason might be restated more clearly as: “I am going to eat six chicken nuggets and a salad for lunch, because it is the most nutritious meal I can get and eat in my narrow time window.” This reason also passes the second test, as it appeals to rational values: nutrition and timeliness.

The third test is one that only you can judge. Are you rationalizing? Sometimes the initial “reason” that occurs to you is just a superficial justification that hides the embarrassing truth. The best way to catch rationalizations is to pay close attention to your emotional reaction to the reason. Is there any guilt? fear? slyness? If so, take a cold hard look at your reason.

For example, suppose you decided to eat fast food “because there isn’t time for anything else, so I just have to break my diet.” If I heard this reason coming up, it would be accompanied by inklings that I was fooling myself. Even at a fast food joint, there are relatively nutritious options for the low-carb diet I’m on.

When you discover that you are rationalizing your choice, you often need to change your decision to embrace all of the facts. In my case, changing the decision from “I’m going to eat fast food” to “I’m going to have 6 chicken nuggets and a salad” would address the issue.

To meet this aspect of the cognitive standard, you just need to be honest. If you make the effort to look for the signs, but you don’t have any inkling that you are rationalizing. that is good enough.

For example, it may be honest to conclude, “I’m going to have a greasy hamburger and fries, partly because I can fit it in the time, and partly as a special treat — an unusual exception to my diet, because one exception will not overset my eating plan.” As events unfold, they will corroborate or falsify this prediction. If they falsify it, the next time you consider making that exception, there will be an inkling that it won’t work out right. At that time, you can challenge your assumptions.

The bottom line here is that when you face a difficult decision, you may not reach certainty as to the best option. But at a minimum, you need know the honest reason for your decision, expressed in terms of achieving a consciously chosen (rational) value. The system for “Eyes-Wide-Open Decisions” includes cognitive tools for doing that, quickly and effectively.

If your decision passes the cognitive test, you know that your decision is at least designed to send you in a good direction, even if it’s not an optimal direction. But if your decision doesn’t pass the cognitive test, you have no idea whether this option would be good for you or bad for you. You have not reached the minimum rational basis for action and you know that you need more time to understand the reasons for your choice.

2. The Emotional Validation: You have faced the value consequences of your decision.

What do I mean by facing the value consequences? I mean that you have visualized the future ramifications of your decision, in enough detail that you see how it affects every important aspect of your life. A test of this is that you experience an emotional reaction to what you imagine.

Any decision needs to factor in both the short- and long-term consequences. When you first consider a choice, some consequences will be clear and more emotionally compelling. Others will be vague and abstract unless you spell them out. You need to take pro-active steps to flesh out all of the consequences. Once you see them concretely, the consequences will automatically trigger emotions. Your experience of the emotions is the test you’ve gotten concrete enough.

Facing the consequences can be fast and easy. Imagine trying to decide whether or not to eat breakfast before going to work, although it will make you late. You would think ahead to the work day, and imagine what it would be like if you’re a little late, but well-fed, as opposed to punctual, but hungry. Let’s stipulate you see no particular problem if you’re late, but if you haven’t eaten, you see yourself so distracted by your hunger that you need a break to get a snack — of junk food. Eating now is clearly the best option, as it’s best for both productivity and nutrition.

Such a decision is a “no-brainer.” A “no-brainer” is a decision in which the best option is obvious. When you visualize what happens after you make your choice, one option has the advantage in every important respect.

You don’t know that a decision is a no-brainer until you project those future consequences. The point of taking this step is to ensure you are not overlooking practical consequences that you need to factor into the decision.

For example, suppose you are debating whether to start the work day by catching up on email or doing concentrated work — for me, that would be writing work. I normally write first, because email stirs up so many ideas on so many projects that it is very difficult for me to concentrate after clearing my inbox.

Even though I think I know the “right” answer, I still take a moment to project all of the future consequences to make sure I am not overlooking something. Sometimes I get a surprise.

The other day, I projected that if I wrote first, I would get deeply into the work. I predicted that I would want to delay stopping until I had finished a certain article. I had started the article two days before and I was eager to finish it. However, I was concerned that I might not finish it in the two hours I had budgeted. This set up a concern about email. I was also drastically behind on email, and I urgently needed to catch up. I had put off email for a couple of days and I was horrified that something might stop me from clearing my inbox that day.

My choice between writing and email, usually so easy, was not so easy. I addressed this conflict by consciously downgrading a third task. I scheduled time for the third task — with the understanding that if writing ran late, I would cut this third task and use the time to clear email.

I describe this as an emotional validation step, both because you use your emotional reactions to help ensure you’ve identified unforeseen issues, and also because you need to be able to manage your emotions to complete this step.

Facing the possible consequences of your decision can be unpleasant or scary or even deeply distressing, especially when you reveal a conflict you hadn’t realized existed, or an unforeseen potential for failure.

Conflict is not a pleasant state. P. J. Eby says, with deep truth, that “suffering is a divided mind.” It’s no wonder that people can be averse to thinking ahead. This pro-active step often results in your seeing that you both gain and lose something, whichever way you choose. And you realize that instead of being certain, you are uncertain. You need to make a decision in the face of uncertainty.

Often the uncertainty concerns a risk of failure.

Fear of conflict, fear of failure, fear of knowing the downside that comes with success (which becomes fear of success) — these fears create an aversion to facing the consequences of a decision. But skipping that step invariably leads people to make terrible decisions. Managing that fear, so that you can actually see what option is in your best interest, right now, is a key element of the “Eyes Wide Open” method.

The bottom line here is that it takes courage to keep your eyes open when you make decisions. This is not the courage of combat. This is the courage to own the consequences of your own action. It is only by owning those consequences that you can create your own lasting happiness. The system for “Eyes-Wide-Open Decisions” includes emotional tools for doing exactly that.

3. The Practical Validation: You are willing to take action based on your decision.

Ideally, at the end of a decision process, you will have a clearcut choice which motivates itself. Acting on your decision is a “no-brainer.”

However, sometimes you may still feel conflict about taking action late in the decision process.

There are no necessary conflicts in your soul. You only experience a lingering conflict when you can’t easily make explicit all of the idiosyncratic considerations. Translating feelings into values is a skill. If idiosyncratic concerns have been repressed, forgotten, or never made explicit, it may be difficult to bring them into the deliberation. Identifying them can take more time than is practical in some situations.

When they face a lingering conflict, many people give up thinking and leap into action. Some believe that once they have reached a logical conclusion about which choice is best, they should then force themselves to act on it, regardless of their feelings of conflict. Others believe that they should only act if they feel motivated — so they act on whichever option pulls most strongly, regardless of their logical conclusions.

These mistaken approaches have appeal because moving into action is critical to success. Both approaches seem to move you into action when thinking has not resolved the conflict.

However, both of these approaches fail in the face of a sufficiently strong conflict. If your conflict is strong enough, your resistance to doing both what you think you “should” do and what you “shouldn’t” do becomes so high you become paralyzed. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, so you can take no action.

Worse, both of these approaches set up a vicious cycle. They create stronger conflicts over time, because both require that you ignore or suppress one side of the conflict in order to act. They bury the information further, by treating one side of the conflict as unworthy of attention. Because you blind yourself to the conflict, you make poorer decisions — decisions which cause regrets in the long-term.

At root, these two approaches undermine your very power of choice. The “just do it” approach burns up your reservoirs of willpower, until you don’t have the mental resources to think about a complex decision. The “do what you feel like” approach undercuts your self-esteem, so that over time, you lose confidence in your ability to make decisions that will achieve your goals.

In contrast, the Eyes-Wide-Open approach has you take another moment to identify an action you are willing to take, by doing what Marshall Rosenberg calls “holding all of the values with care.”

A bedrock assumption of this method is that there are many ways to achieve any rational goal. You always have a choice. Therefore, once you see what direction is best for you, you need only find a next step that you are willing to take. The well-known rule of thumb to “take a smaller step” is an application of this principle.

You simply find a step, which moves you in the direction that you have determined is rationally your top value right now, and which does not trigger undue resistance.

The test of whether the step is selected well is: are you willing to take it? You do not have to enjoy taking the step. We often take unpleasant steps in the present in order to achieve an important value in the future. You may grumble, but you are willing to do it. But you should not feel you have to force yourself to take it. When you force yourself, you are shutting down contrary motivation.

When you only take steps you are willing to take, your action sets up a virtuous cycle that reduces conflict over time.

First, acting toward your top rational value reinforces its value, shifting your value hierarchy so there will be less conflict in the future. For example, when you first have children, you may feel conflict over the constraints children put on your schedule. But if you stay focused on the value of spending time with your children, that conflict withers away, and your new priorities become “the new normal.” Then, when they leave the house, you may feel lost for a time, until you build up new values.

Second, taking the uncomfortable step is guaranteed to pay off if you are keeping your eyes open. Often, the resistance is due to a small unknown issue, and taking a step gets you “over the hump.” You almost immediately see that whatever was holding you back was baseless. It dissolves.

Occasionally the resistance is due to a big issue — some deep old baggage that you don’t understand. Well, the moment you take that little step, you discover it’s a hill, not a hump. The step will uncover additional value information, in the form of compelling emotions, that are easy to introspect. You are in fact digging out the conflict with your small step. The first step of solving any problem is to identify the problem — and you just did that.

When you discover that you have some old baggage that distorts your motivation, you need to factor that into your decision. Old baggage can be resolved in time, but you never know how long it will take. Whatever next step you take needs to be doable by you — given this old baggage. If you keep your eyes open, every uncomfortable step you take will chip away at the old baggage, until one day it dissolves in a flash of insight, and you never feel that particular conflict again.

Finally, taking a small step toward your top rational value fuels your sense of efficacy. You experience yourself as an autonomous human being, in control of your destiny, not at the mercy of stray motivation. This experience adds meaning to every step you take, activating the deepest source of motivation there is: your own self-esteem.

* * *

When you use the Eyes-Wide-Open process, you take advantage of everything you’ve learned from the past (your knowledge), you make maximum use of your best predictor of future outcomes (your value hierarchy), and you stay focused on acting in the present — the only means you have for affecting future results.

Taken as a whole, the Eyes-Wide-Open approach to decision-making shows that value power trumps willpower. It helps you conserve willpower so that you always have the knowledge, energy, and motivation to take steps toward your top values.


1. For a while, I taught this process under this name in a workshop called “Focused Choices.” That workshop evolved into Do What Matters Most–which reframed the course around the payoff in action instead of the necessary cognitive process. But the process is still there!


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