After-math: What Do You Get When You’ve Made a Big Decision?
First, what you don’t get: In most cases you don’t get immediate, conclusive results. You usually can’t tell for a while whether you made the right choice.
Also, you don’t get whatever you decided against. That’s gone, along with all its potential benefits and costs.
What you do get after you make a big decision is a new mix of benefits and costs. Herein lies the most immediate if not necessarily the most accurate source of feedback on your decision. If you’re satisfied and stimulated after you make a decision, you’re not as likely to regret or reopen the matter as you would be if you were unsatisfied or unstimulated.
Decisions are either lose-lose, win-win, or some combination. Lose-lose decisions are the ones in which you’re facing two evils and hoping to pick the lesser. Chemo or radiation, this unpleasant, dead-end job or that one, the terrible relationship or loneliness. No matter which you choose, you won’t like what you get in the aftermath. With such decisions, no matter what you decide, you land in an unsatisfying lull that affords you ample time and motivation to rethink your decision.
In contrast, win-win decisions are embarrassments of riches. Relocate to Hawaiior Paris, this great job or that great job, delightful time alone with your favorite projects or an adventure with some of your best friends. No matter which you choose, you’ll like what you get in the aftermath. The aftermath of such decisions is usually so satisfying and stimulating you aren’t likely to wonder whether you made the right choice.
And in between are all those decisions in which the choices all entail some significant costs and benefits. With these, the aftermath is bittersweet. You receive the immediate benefits of the option you chose and forgo the immediate benefits of the options you didn’t choose. Likewise, you absorb the immediate costs of the option you chose and avoid the immediate costs of the options you didn’t choose.
What you get immediately after you’ve made a decision can distort how you perceive the quality of your decision. The long-run consequences of your decision aren’t immediately apparent, but the immediate delight and disappointment are so direct and vivid, they’re bound to influence your assessment of how well you decided.
By noticing the aftermath effect, you can compensate for its influences, doubting your certainty if the aftermath is fun, doubting your buyer’s remorse if the aftermath is not fun.
You’ve surely witnessed people under the influence of aftermath math–the careless spouses who leave for new and exciting love affairs and speak with unwarranted confidence about the brilliance of leaving; the mourning widows and widowers who can’t stop reassessing medical decisions made in the last few months of their deceased spouse’s lives, when in reality all the medical options were terrible.
The careless spouses are distracted by the immediate fun. The mourning spouses are undistracted, facing painful emptiness. No wonder they think their decisions were good and bad respectively, regardless of whether they were.
Of course, other people’s attitudes about your decision also factor into aftermath math. The more people congratulate you, the less you’re likely to doubt your choice; the more people furrow their brows when they hear what you’ve decided, the more it will stir doubts.
To counterbalance the aftermath effect, notice what kind of big decision you’re making. Not the topic, the general benefit-cost distribution of immediate outcomes. There are lose-lose decisions, win-win decisions, and a whole lot of mixed bags. (But no win-lose big decisions–if one option is obviously good and the other obviously bad, then the decision is small.)
Monitoring the aftermath math, and you’ll use your attention efficiently, doubting your big decision neither more nor less than is warranted.
Alan Watts said: “The lifestyle of one who follows the Tao* must be understood as a form of intelligence–that is, knowing the patterns, structures and trends of human and natural affairs well enough that one uses the least amount of energy dealing with them.”
Aftermath math is a pattern in human affairs. Know it and you’ll use the least amount of energy dealing with your response to the decisions in your life.
*Chinese for The way, short for Tao Te Ching, the way of truth and power.