Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

How To Make Conscious Choices and Stop Sleepwalking Through Life

conscious decision making

Note from Ellen: You may feel this is a little controversial. It’s not designed that way, only to make you think. The examples in it are just that, examples. But if you feel challenged by them, ask yourself why. Maybe there’s something to play with, there…gently.

Every day you make thousands of tiny choices.

Coffee or tea? The sofa or the chair? Which cubicle in the bathroom?

Small choices, but nonetheless a choice.

There are bigger ones, too. Decisions based on the core parts of who we are.

Our beliefs.

Our values.

Our ethics.

Will I get a steady job? Will I change my name when I get married? Will I live in the town I’ve grown up in, or will I move elsewhere? Will I follow the path those around me follow, or do something different?

Decisions you sometimes make…by not making a decision.

How Unconventional Choices Change Your Perspective

I’ve made some unconventional choices. I’m a vegetarian. I gave up my 9-5 consulting job to be a writer. I base myself out of Thailand despite having grown up in the UK.

Each time I make a choice to do something atypical, it forces me to really think that path through. Going against what everyone else thinks or does isn’t always easy, and you need to be really sure why you’re doing it.

When I became a vegetarian, twenty three years ago, it wasn’t a simple decision. I liked the taste of meat, but I wasn’t comfortable with killing an animal, and it seemed hypocritical to get someone else to do it. For integrity, I had to give it up, though I also acknowledged that if it was me or the piglet, it would be the piglet. It wasn’t a belief I would die for. However, all the time I could survive, and thrive, without meat, I would.

This isn’t a piece about being a vegetarian, or converting people to that choice. But to become a vegetarian, I had to think it through. I made a conscious choice. And I wondered, how many people have made the same active decision about eating meat? Have reasoned through the implications and consequences, and made a choice to eat meat? Or do they eat meat because everyone else does?

Whose Myths Do You Live By?

Sometimes we forget that we have choices. Before I left my 9-5, I lived by the myths of those around me, in my western, privileged, white, middle class world (which, don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about. I had a great upbringing which meant that I have the potential to make choices. I appreciate how lucky I am, and I wouldn’t change my life).

The myth went something like: go to school, attend university, get a job, earn money, buy a property, get promoted, pay tax, get a car, find a partner, get married, have children, and send them off to do the same (here’s a song I love about this).

Now, before you panic, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with any of these. That life served me well for years. And I do plenty of things that are very much ‘typical’. My clothes, my choice in music, my love of Ikea furniture – none of these are especially edgy.

Rather, I realise looking back that I didn’t actively choose this path, but took it because it was the way of things. I lived by other people’s myths, I didn’t choose my own.

Four years ago, my myth took a different path. I’d ticked off some items – gone to school, university, got a job, earned money, got promoted, bought a property, paid tax, got a car.

Then things went a bit off piste. My myth suddenly didn’t look so like that of the people I knew.

  • Leave the country. Travel. Find a new career. Find several new careers.
  • Be a writer, and a consultant, and a psychologist, and a blogger, and a facilitator, and many roles instead of one role.
  • Earn money where you can, how you can, as long as it’s aligned to your values, and trade on your unique skill set.

Suddenly, I had no blueprint to follow.

Why Should You Make a Conscious Choice?

What’s so wrong with doing what everyone else does, I hear you ask (perhaps a little put out).

Absolutely nothing, if it was a proactive decision.

And sometimes, we have other people to take into account. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum. We have to weigh the consequences of hard decisions. Consider whether the impact is worth it.

But when we just go along other people’s path, when we don’t put a little thought into what we’re doing, whatever we eventually decide, we can experience cognitive dissonance – where our actions and our thoughts are not aligned.

When we have cognitive dissonance, we end up rationalising oddities away, or putting efforts into making twisty choices somehow seem more appropriate.

An example of this, might be people who say: “I don’t eat meat if it looks like meat.”

It always feels to me when someone is saying that, that the underlying message is, “I don’t want to eat meat if I know it’s dead animal.”

I’m a vegetarian, so I clearly have a view on this, so you’ll have to take that into account, but I feel that it would be better for people to understand the choice they are making, and then make an informed decision about whether or not they want to eat meat. My father was someone who was like that – he’d thought through what being a meat eater meant to him, and made a choice to do that, rather than eating meat because it was what everyone did. He understood and accepted the implications and consequences of the choice.

Mind you, he and I had to decide how to live with each other’s choices. He cooked veggie meals for me when I came home, and I accepted him, and others, eating meat around me.

What Do You Choose?

This isn’t a morality piece. The point isn’t to tell you that living by any particular choice or set of choices isn’t wrong. I think the world is a better and more interesting place with a diversity of choices.

But I ask you to gently question the choices you make. To understand whose myth you are living. To ensure you make conscious choices, rather than following the crowd without thought.

Try a thought experiment. What, in your life, seems the most natural thing in the world to you? Flip that paradigm around in your head, and imagine it was different. For example, if having a steady job with a regular salary is, ask yourself why – imagine life if you chose to be an entrepreneur. If a monogamous marriage is, ask yourself why – imagine life if you chose to be polyamorous and never get married. If living in your country of birth is, you guessed it…ask yourself why, and imagine life if you chose to live in another country.

When we let things happen, without stepping back and checking we have made a proactive decision that they would be that way, we can be surprised or disappointed when the secret dreams in our hearts aren’t fulfilled. But we have to take accountability for that.

How can they be when we’re following someone else’s script?

When we’re mouthing words someone else has written?

When we’ve never really considered the meaning behind the myth, the choices, the dream?

Choose the life you’re living. Determine your own way forward. Decide the path you want to take.

It’s okay if it’s the same as everyone else. And it’s okay if it’s different.

As long as you made a conscious choice.

20 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Ivan Jordon January 20, 2017, 9:55 am

    Be aware in the situation around you and learn to deal with it. Time to make stand for yourself.

    • Ellen January 30, 2017, 4:43 am

      Thanks Ivan. Yes, it’s all about raising our awareness.

  • Mark Tong January 24, 2017, 6:22 pm

    Hey Ellen

    Absolutely! It’s fine to be the same and it’s fine to be different, so long as it’s your choice. Well put:)
    Mark Tong recently posted…The Ultimate Guilt-Free Guide To Saying NO!My Profile

    • Ellen January 30, 2017, 4:44 am

      Thanks Mark, appreciate it.

  • Hilary Ward January 27, 2017, 5:38 pm

    Thank you for discussing this subject with us Ellen. For me, recognizing our connections with family and friends is an important component of the decision making process. I’m so glad that you wrote about it because it is an aspect of conscious choice making that is often ignored.

    When we are making choices within a community, frictions can develop between people with different perspectives. You mentioned your choice to be vegetarian in a family that eats meat and I can relate to the difficulties around food choices within families.

    One choice that I have made is to raise my son with some exposure to religion and I’m doing this in a family that is angry with the religious establishment. I introduced very light exposure with bed time stories for kids, not anything extreme. Within my extended family the emotions that have been raised have created tensions that are hard to navigate.

    Sometimes the tensions that arise from our conscious choices force us to examine our values more deeply than we would otherwise do if everyone agreed on a particular world view. I guess the dilemma is to find techniques that help us navigate these tensions while being true to ourselves and our decisions.

    • Ellen January 30, 2017, 4:49 am

      Thank you so much for sharing Hilary. That’s a great point that making this kind of decision gives us the opportunity to really think about what’s important to us.

  • Dianna Heston January 28, 2017, 5:31 pm

    Excellent advice and suggestions Ellen! As one who far too often let circumstances make my decisions for me when I was younger…simply not knowing any better (and sometimes being afraid :-/) I fully agree with what you’re saying here. Excellent reminder for us all!

    Big hugs!

    • Ellen January 30, 2017, 4:52 am

      Thanks Dianna. And I am sure many of us have had that – we get carried along by what’s happening and forget we have a choice. And even when we know we do, it’s not easy to engage with those choices. We have to remind each other :) <3

  • Ellen. Being Change. February 23, 2017, 7:16 pm

    I really loved reading this Ellen. Thank you for writing such an honest piece. I think we could all benefit from a conscious check in every now and then. It’s definitely not the easiest path to take but – as you’ve demonstrated with the conscious choices you made in your life – it can be so much more fulfilling. I’ve just started a yoga teacher training course and feel that reading and getting to grips with yoga philosophy is helping me think much more about the choices I make.
    Ellen. Being Change. recently posted…Invest wisely: is it always about money?My Profile

    • Ellen February 24, 2017, 2:05 am

      Thanks so much Ellen (great name!:)). Really appreciate you commenting. I think the Yamas and the Niyamas (and so much more) in yoga philosophy can be very helpful in making conscious choices. I hope that you get a lot out of your training.

  • Andrea Still March 12, 2017, 8:55 am

    Hi Ellen,

    What an excellent discussion topic!

    The most disturbing realization can be for people (including myself) just how little conscious choices they make on a day-to-day basis. If you peel back the layers deep enough, it becomes obvious very quickly just how much is fed to us from advertisements, society or even the people around us.

    It also needs pointing out that going with the grain is more comfortable and less emotionally challenging. So those who do manage to break out have to be very strong to bear the backlash that follows. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a supporting environment. :)

    All the best,
    Andrea Still recently posted…Quiet by Susan Cain The Power of IntrovertsMy Profile

    • Ellen March 12, 2017, 6:55 pm

      I think that is such a good point Andrea – we do let hundreds – thousands? – of choices slip past us all the time. But for sure it’s not an easy path.

  • Elle Sommer April 10, 2017, 7:43 pm

    I would also add to this great and thoughtful piece Ellen, how little awareness we practice during our day…about anything. For the most part we live on automatic, doing the same things in the same way, thinking the same thoughts, and not surprisingly experiencing pretty similar results.

    Choosing who we want to be, deciding how we want to think, and stepping up our awareness of where we currently are versus where we want to be is, in my opinion, the best way to live life as it is meant to be lived, rich, fulfilling and filled with blessings.

    It’s far too short to do anything else. :-)

    Really enjoyed reading your perspective Ellen. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ellen April 11, 2017, 6:42 am

      Thank you so much Elle. And yes, totally agree on the awareness piece. It’s so easy to just go through life on autopilot – but what wonderful things we can miss when we do!

  • Sandra Pawula April 11, 2017, 12:46 am

    So important! I didn’t always make conventional choices, but I didn’t necessarily think my choice through until the last decade. That meant doing years and years of work that wasn’t a good fit for me and depleting my health.
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…15 of the Most Awesome Self-Care Gifts EverMy Profile

    • Ellen April 11, 2017, 6:41 am

      I think this is definitely one of those things you learn with experience – there have certainly been times I didn’t even realise I *was* making an unconventional choice until someone pointed it out. And still there are many things in life I just ‘go along with’ without thinking about it.

  • Debbie Hampton April 11, 2017, 9:25 pm

    Oh, ellen, you raise so many good points in this post.

    I lived, unconsciously, for the first four decades of my life. Like you and many others, I just did what I knew was expected never questioning whether it was right for me or even what I wanted.

    As you know, I blew up my former life in a big way 10 years ago. While I do not advise the way that I did it, I do advise shaking up your life – as you did too. I am much better for it and happier.

    I live consciously now. There is more uncertainty, for sure, but there is also a lot more choice! (They kind of go together!)
    Debbie Hampton recently posted…How To Banish Negativity With This Simple Mind ToolMy Profile

    • Ellen April 12, 2017, 4:41 am

      Gosh, yes Debbie, you have done some very unconventional things! And you are right that uncertainty and choice go together. Making our own way in the world can be tiring, but so rewarding.

  • Zeenat Merchant Syal April 16, 2017, 10:25 am

    Ellen, this is such a wonderful perspective to take on. And I am a happy conscious decision maker :)
    xoxo, Z~
    Zeenat Merchant Syal recently posted…5 Special Steps to Boost Your Happiness with Positive ThinkingMy Profile

  • Hempsoft June 17, 2017, 10:47 am

    Thanks for information great blog.
    Hempsoft recently posted…Hemp Oil and CBDMy Profile

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