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How People Make Big Decisions

We all go through psychological steps when we make big decisions. Some people call this the “existential cycle,” which really has four stages: doing, contemplating, preparing, and experimenting.


Echoing Tolstoy on regret avoidance, Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently:

These four stages are much like exercises in risk management. No one wants to look back on his or her life at some point and say I wish I would have or If only I had.

While there are other ways, the existential cycle helps us make life changing decisions — like who to marry, where to work, and where to live.

The first stage, “doing,” is where you spend most of your life: It is your settled, equilibrium position. The doing may be all sorts of things— writing emails, riding horses, reading books, washing up, going to meetings, listening to lectures, cooking, dancing, running, sharing stories with friends, telling jokes, or making love. Of course, these are not done all at the same time (not unless you’re really talented). Whatever the activity may be, and however enjoyable or dull it is, you are doing it and it tends to keep you occupied.

Sometimes we get to “contemplating,” where we consider whether or how things would be different. What would life be like if you move to California? (Hint: It won’t make you happier.)

Then occasionally we move to “preparing.”

You search on the web for real estate agents in San Diego or Key West, find out what property prices are, check weather patterns, possibly even visit your preferred destination on your next vacation. You have moved beyond imagining how things could be different to investigating the practical options for how to make them different.

Finally you make the change.

You leave your job, buy a house, and move all your possessions. This stage is called “experimenting.” After you’ve settled in and started the beachside bar you’d dreamed about, this becomes your normal way of living, and you are once again in a state of doing.

The process isn’t overly complicated or hard. The challenge becomes moving through it at the right pace in a way that aligns with your principles.


The Doing Magnet

As you travel around your cycle, you will have conversations with yourself that stop you from moving on to the next stage and instead take you back to doing.

Sometimes these thoughts can be very sensible and prevent you from wasting time or following the wrong path. But sometimes, unfortunately, they prevent you from both spotting and taking opportunities that could dramatically improve your life. The trick lies in recognizing the internal conversations and being able to make an informed decision about whether to listen to them or to ignore them and move on.

When the Doing Magnet is Weak

Irrational exuberance are those people who are forever saying things like I wish I hadn’t rushed into that or If only I’d thought about it first. Rather than never crossing the Rubicon, they’re happy to head over far too easily— without ever considering the size of the army on the other side. In terms of the existential cycle, their doing magnet is relatively weak— the centrifugal momentum of the next new thing is stronger than the gravitational force of the status quo.

If you find that you can’t hold down a job, you can’t keep a relationship, you spend money on a whim, or you haven’t gotten around to making your home into a place you like living in, and you regret it, then you may be suffering from a form of irrational exuberance. The best advice in this situation is this: spend longer at the preparing stage before wading across your Rubicon.

For example, consider one of these choices:

  • Think through all the possible disadvantages of taking this course of action as well as the advantages— really make an effort to present the case for caution on this occasion.

  • Contrast the allure of the new situation with how your existing life might improve even if you don’t make this big change. People who are always moving on to new jobs often fail to consider how their current jobs could get better. A new job may be attractive, but it is wrong to assume the old one will stay the same. New possibilities could open up. What happens when your boss moves on?

  • Contemplate the bigger and better gains and pleasures you could have if you didn’t always go for instant gratification. Could the gratification get more gratifying?

  • Consider any decisions you made in the past that led to situations you later regretted. What can you learn from these that will help you make a wiser decision this time.

If you Want to Improve, you have to Cross the Rubicon

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

You have a choice in how you run your life. There is no “can’t,” only “will” and “won’t.” The trick is knowing why you are, or aren’t, moving around the existential cycle and, in particular, crossing your Rubicon. Like we’ve said, the right thing isn’t to always cross or always not cross. The right thing is to understand why you want to cross or don’t want to cross, and then make your decision.

Nevertheless, none of us want to live our lives in a constant state of doing. I might not be in good enough shape today to swim 2.4 miles, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be in the future. Plus, our reasons for remaining in one state may not be strong. At some point, in certain aspects of our lives, if we want to progress, we must cross the Rubicon.

A decision to not cross the Rubicon based on the wrong reasons— when catastrophic fantasies rule our mind-sets— is what causes people to look back on their lives and think If only. … All of us who have looked back and been proud of what we have done have crossed the Rubicon at least once and maybe many times.

There’s a famous Latin maxim, carpe diem, which translated means “seize the day.” The question you have to ask yourself is, When it comes to crossing Rubicons, just how much of a Caesar am I prepared to be?