Can your body make a decision for you?

When it comes to big, important life decisions, my decision process is typically as follows: research the options, develop long pro/con lists, ask everyone I know what I should do, psuedo-choose an option, panic about said choice, and repeat.

When I visited Japan a few years ago, I read a wish someone had left on an Ema tablet at the Meiji shrine. The words reflected how I felt (and still feel) about decision making. In short, I wish to be better at it.

An Ema is a wooden tablet onto which wishes may be written. Meiji Shrine, Japan.

Can my body tell me what I don’t know?

Trusting your gut is one way to make decisions quickly. And there’s research to show that our gut feelings can help point us in the right direction.

When I was choosing business schools, my gut told me to go to London Business School. But I ignored said feeling and spent weeks (as well as a forgone deposit at another MBA program) going back and forth over all the reasons to go elsewhere.

Now, I have another big decision: whether or not to accept a job offer at a prestigious consulting firm. The alternative is to recruit for startup (potentially more ‘me’ ) jobs in the spring. My decision process has started as usual: I’ve had chats with people at the consulting firm, people who I know have left said firm, and people at other companies. I’ve read the firm’s Glassdoor and looked at the career paths of people who left the company.

At this point, the info I need now isn’t out there. It’s within. It’s time to be honest with myself: what do I really want?

Last week I received an email about an Embodied intelligence and Decision Making Workshop at London Business School:

“The Management, Science and Operations subject area is hosting an experiential workshop which offers a playful exploration into how our body can inform our decisions… Each participant is encouraged to bring one or two decisions they are considering to make.”

Moderating would be the incredibly accomplished professor Ioana Popescu, and she would lead us through a series of activities to get in touch with our bodies and assist us in making better decisions.

Yesterday I attended the workshop. Here’s how it went (and what I learned along the way).

Activity 1: Getting in touch with our bodies

We started the workshop with a simple group decision: Should we start the workshop inside or outside? It was a chilly, windy day in London, and I personally was not keen to spend time outside. Or was I?

Ioana pointed to a line on the floor of the room. To the left of this line is the decision to stay inside. To the right, outside. She had us stand on either side of the line and assess how we felt.

Left: Stay inside. Right: Explore outside.

The feeling was strangely powerful. Just stepping a couple inches over an imaginary decision affected my body.

On the ‘stay inside’ side, I felt warm and comfortable - but also constrained. The muscles in my back tightened at the thought of locking myself in this room for the full 2 hour workshop.

On the ‘go outside’ side, my shoulders dropped. It felt free and exciting. But I also felt cold and worried. When Ioana asked which side we preferred, I listened to what my mind had initially told me and voted for inside. But my body told me that there were pros and cons to both.

Verdict: Not a full decision, but my body provided some insight into my feelings behind the choice.

Activity 2: Life decisions — to stick with what’s comfortable, or not?

Ioana then asked us to consider a decision between a sticking with something known, or choosing to make a riskier, less certain decision. This is where I brought my personal decision to sign or not sign this job offer. On the one hand, it’s a great job, with a great brand name, and they would sponsor my visa.. On the other hand, I have personal dreams of launching a new brand at a startup. That job, however, may or may not materialize.

Ioana took a piece of string and created a circle in the room. The inside of the circle represented going with the more comfortable decision. In my case, accepting the prestigious offer. The outside, was going for the unknown, which for me would be not signing, and looking for a job in something new which may or may not materialize.

The inside of the circle represents the status quo. Outside of that, the unknown

But before we started playing, Ioana led us through a meditation to get in touch with our bodies. We stood with closed eyes and imagined our bodies filling slowly with Lego blocks. It forced us to ‘feel’ the parts of our body you never really think about: the backs of our legs, our elbows, our chins. With a new sense of bodily awareness, we started the next decision-feeling-activity.

When I stepped into the circle, I felt tight and locked up. My body rejected the idea of working for a company just because of its prestigious reputation. When I stepped outside of the circle, it was like stepping into a fresh field of flowers. I felt light and airy, but also nervous. There were a million directions to go, and no one to support me. Back in the circle, I felt supported by the weight of the company brand name and accompanying salary. Work travel and benefits would set me on a safe but exciting path. And yet, I felt angry. It was a decision I was making based on others’ advice, instead of my own personal wants. Outside the circle made me uneasy in some ways, but also strong. That strength came from a feeling of following my own conviction instead of the career paths of others.

“Stand where you feel most comfortable” advised Ioana.

I found myself outside of the circle.

Verdict: The activity forced me to assess how I really felt about my two possible futures, and pointed me toward not signing the offer.

Activity 3: Dropping the Fear

We moved to another side of the room for the final activity. Ioana drew another line across the room, and we all stood behind it.

“I want you to imagine the fears associated with this decision. Now ball them up, and pull them out of you.”

Ioana put her hands around an imaginary object, pulled it out of her chest and away from her body, and threw on the ground.

What were my fears? Fear of regret. Fear of not being myself. Fear of not reaching my potential. I balled them up and put them on the ground.

“Now cross the line and leave the fears behind you.”

Once across the line, we did the circle activity again. This time, without fear.

It was.. different. Now I felt evenly good on both decisions. When I walked into the circle (joining the prestigious firm), I felt freer than before. I did not feel constrained by others’ impositions on me. It was a decision I was making because this is the right job for me. And if I chose this job, I would make it me. I felt free to pursue projects in marketing and venture-building and innovation. I could be myself in this role.

Stepping outside the circle, I also felt good. Free to select the job for me. Free to pursue my interests. Fear attempted to creep back in. What if I couldn’t find a job in London? What if I regretted not joining the prestigious consulting firm? I threw the fear back to the other side of the room.

Verdict: an entirely new point of view on the decision, and a realisation that much of my decision making is driven by fear.

Reflections on embodied decision-making

This workshop didn’t necessarily help me make a decision. I left the workshop feeling again torn between two options. But getting in touch with my body taught me that fear is a key component in my decision-making. This is something else that I ‘knew:’ the note at Meiji shrine included a wish to stop letting fear rule me.

I’ve learned that fear prevents me from gaining clarity on decisions. Fear limits me to focus on the negatives and potential for regret when I could be focused on the upside. In reality, either decision will end up what I make out of it.

My goal, then, is to tap into fearlessness more often. It’s not easy. It took heavy focus to pull the fear out of my decision making, even for just a short activity. On the other hand, a new fear of losing my life to fear of regret may just help me focus on the upside of decisions.

Leave fear at the door to understand what is really behind decisions

Marketer. Writing about startups, media, and anything related to brands. Former @McKinsey @Ogilvy @ProcterGamble. Co-founder @OceanBottle.

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