But there is tremendous power in taking the time to reflect on what you do actually want.
We’ve all heard about the paradox of choice — how it’s more difficult to choose a cereal if there are 30 options on the shelf, compared to just 3 options, and when you pick 1 of the 30, you will likely be dissatisfied with your choice. Having too many options makes decision making more difficult, and can become detrimental to our emotional well-being by causing us stress and forcing us to overthink and waste precious mental energy.
Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice back in 2004 and since the book’s release we have been flooded with even more information, advice, quotes, and ideas than we could ever deal with. Schartz wrote about a choice overload that would make us question decisions before we even make them, create unrealistically high expectations, anxiety and a feeling of perpetual stress that we are falling short of the perfect life. This choice overload is still present today, but it is joined by the internet of endless distractions and apps designed to keep out attention by giving out dopamine.
In today’s world, it often feels like we are more confused, distracted and anxious about what we are doing and where we are going. We are being told we can do anything and be anyone, should dream big and hustle to get where we want, but we are also told that balance and rest is the key to a good life. We should be waking up at 5am, but also waking up naturally and getting enough sleep. If we follow our passion the money will flow, but we should also climb the corporate ladder, have strong salary progression and retire at 35. This abundance of contradicting advice is exhausting! It’s exhausting to think about all the different options of how our lives could be, of all the things we should be doing, drifting around following our whims, of not being fully content with where we are and what we have, and of not even enjoying the breakfast cereal that we chose.
“I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want”
At face value this phrase isn’t bad advice to follow. By removing the things that you don’t want in your life, like bad relationships or toxic jobs, you are freeing up space for better things to come. But in today’s world of choice abundance, removing what you don’t want isn’t enough. We spend so much time trying things and then deciding that we don’t actually want them, moving onto the next thing and repeating, that we think we are moving forwards but we are actually moving in circles. It is fine to listen to your gut instincts in individual situations, it’s important even, but if you don’t couple this with some goals of where you do want to go you can drift around trying things for years without getting any closer to the things you really desire.
If you don’t set the direction for your life, or even identify a rough vision or a north star, then you will be going from one thing to the next, deciding if you like it or not, without a framework of knowing what you are aiming towards.
A good example is your career. “ I don’t know what I want to do for work, but I know that I don’t want to present in front of people”. You might have your reasons for not wanting to do jobs that involve this, but if you don’t identify some aspects of what you do want you will end up taking the first job that is acceptable and doesn’t include these things. After a year or two, you no longer ‘want’ that job, maybe you are bored by it, or feel like it isn’t what you really want to do, and so you move to another acceptable one. You can go through an entire career like this, because it’s easier to accept what’s offered than to actively choose. But what if you missed out doing the work you would have loved to do and can make a difference in, just because it was easier to accept things that were given rather than to make the difficult choice of deciding what you do want.
“I don’t know what I want”
It’s perfectly okay not to know what you want. The abundance of choice can simultaneously make us want everything and also paralyze us into inaction. The first step is just to understand that at this time in your life you don’t know. Maybe you have some faint ideas, a hobby that lights you up, maybe you are jealous of somebody and their success, all of these are breadcrumbs on the path to knowing.
One important thing to understand is that there are different seasons of our lives. We love the story of the little girl who decided at 6 to become an astronaut, and followed that dream until she arrived at the space station aged 40. It’s a nice story, and she needed to fully believe in it to help her through the hard times, but most people’s lives are not so linear. Things happen, people change, and dreams can change too. We can have portfolio careers, and take sabbaticals, and learn new skills and do nothing except just be with ourselves, enjoying our lives. But we need to actively choose how our seasons look like, so that we are actually living the lives we want.
“I know what I want”
How powerful is this sentence? Say it out loud. “I know what I want. I want [ insert desire here]” How does your voice sound? Your voice and the mental thoughts that come after speaking the sentence will give you a clue as to if you actually know. Because you know. Deep down somewhere, you have rough ideas of what you want your life to look like. You just haven’t taken the time to explore the ideas. To block out the outside world and the constant advice and to start reconnecting within, to your intuition.
Listening to your inner voice takes a bit of practice, but it is easy and accessible to everyone. The more you practice doing it, the more you will get back from it. And it’s free — or rather it’s 30 minutes every morning or evening, or a few hours on the weekend.
The easiest way to start is with morning pages — every morning writing by hand 3 A5 pages of thoughts, annoyances, ideas, opinions, write down absolutely everything that’s in your head. The idea of the morning pages comes from the book The Artist’s Way and the blank page is there for you; to be dumped on, experimented upon, ultimately getting thoughts out of your head and onto the paper. It’s not beautiful writing, and no one should ever read them, not even you, but it’s about getting the trash thoughts out of your head, seeing them outside of yourself on paper and slowly changing them. By writing you can begin to free up space for your inner voice to start talking. With the pages, you’ll see the mood you are in that day, the repeated things triggering you or taking up your energy, what’s working and what’s not, and over time they will (or rather you will) start to bring up other possibilities and ideas from within you, dreams long forgotten or exploring what if concepts.
Another way to start thinking about what you want is by looking forwards. Trying to write 5, 10 and 20 year plans are great exercises to start thinking about life holistically. They can be as detailed or loose as you want — some of us have a clear vision, for others the future is more blurry but you wish it to feel a certain way, or your days might be filled with creativity as opposed to work. Your 5,10, 20 year plans can be bullet pointed, detailed , or can be written as a story following you through a day of your life. Write however you see fit.
The first draft of your 20 year plan might be disappointing. “I don’t know what I want”, okay, try again. What feels right, what can be changed? Should I be dreaming bigger or deeper? Or smaller? Do I need a big house? What does it actually represent to me? Is this the best plan ever for me? If not, change it! If you don’t love the vision you created, change it. Try again. It’s your life vision and it comes from you.
Over time with your life vision, you will get better at making choices because you know better where you are going. You’ve taken the time to nurture your own ideas and listened to yourself. You can then slowly create the world you want, taking steps in the direction you want to go towards. Through more alignment, you will feel more at ease. And the clearer your vision becomes, the more energy, purpose and possibility will appear.
While it’s easy to drift around and say “I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want” there is tremendous power in taking time for yourself, to look within and to start listening to what you actually want. Your vision might not be crystal clear, but it will already help you cut through the noise of today’s world of choice overload.
“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.” ― Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings