Four Steps to Helping Students Make Good Decisions

Alex is a college student I enjoyed a coffee with recently. Our discussion revolved around all the options he was staring with next semester, including courses and jobs, clubs and other extra-curricular activities. Like so many others, Alex is suffering from “decision fatigue.” It’s the experience of being worn down by making lots of choices in a short amount of time.

In a Times Magazine article “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” John Tierney explains how having to make a series of decisions can take a toll on any of us:

“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.” 

Four Stops on the Path

When faced with many decisions, we—and our students—can suffer from this syndrome. And Tierney is correct in his explanation. In such times, our brains look for shortcuts to an acceptable decision. We take the shortest path to the answer; after all, we’re tired.  So, I began to reflect on the “path” that intentional people tend to take toward a decision.

For this path to be memorable, I want you to imagine you’re walking through a typical town. As you journey through it, you’re looking for a “good decision.” In fact, you’re on a hunt. Those who are intentional usually make four stops in route to their decision:

1. First stop is our Memory Bank.
We search past experiences for guidance today.

We make many deposits in this bank, every day, so making a withdraw is usually our first stop. Because our memory banks store lots of past experiences we search for a previous deposit that will inform our current decision.

2. Second stop is the General Store.
We search what others have said for insights.

If we can’t find any memories to help us, our next stop is the General Store, where we search the shelves of a myriad of insights others have shared, either in a book, an article or in a Google search, for ideas to guide us.

3. Third stop is a Group of Friends.
We search the brains of those closest to us.

If we can’t find something relevant in the General Store, our next stop is a group of friends we spot chatting on the street corner. They’re close enough to approach, and they know us, so inquiring of them makes good sense.

4. Fourth stop is Wisdom Reservoir.
We search the depths of this reservoir for ideas.

Finally, if we’re still paralyzed about making a decision, Wisdom Reservoir is often the ultimate spot to find answers. Fishing in this reservoir is always fruitful, though it may take a while to catch something helpful. We must be patient translators.

In Wisdom Reservoir, there are timeless, universal principles under its depths; principles that may have been around for centuries: quotes, tips, proverbs, fables, sayings, and scriptures. If we’re smart, we will fish for them, and learn how to translate their wisdom to our current situation. I am a huge fan of “principle-centered living.”

This is exactly what we endeavored to compile in Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes. Beginning in 2003, I began sorting and assembling what I felt were the most important and relevant truths young people need to learn, as they lead themselves and as they influence others. Rivers or Floods, Tollbooths or Roadblocks, Chess and Checkers,  the Starving Baker, Quarterbacks or Referees are each metaphors (images) that teach a timeless wisdom principle Millennials and Generation Z need today. We have over 130 of them in nine courses—ready to be discussed and digested, so good decisions can be made.

We must be careful to insert the timeless into the timely context of our lives today.

To check out a sample of Habitudes, click here.

Four Steps to Helping Students Make Good Decisions