As kids, we had to be told to brush our teeth before we went to bed, and at some point, we decided that this was something we would always do. Once that decision was made, it was not a matter of whether we felt like it or not. On the other end of the spectrum, we may have had habits like playing with matches or sticking objects into electrical outlets that, at some point, we decided we would never do. Sound familiar? These simple examples represent a vast number of decisions we have made throughout our lives, whether we recognize the exact moment we made them or not.
Imagine that in all aspects of your life there is a spectrum of things you could do, and that this spectrum is divided into three sections. The far left section contains things you would never do, the far right section contains things you will always do, and in the section in the middle, which we will call the maybe zone, things that you would make a decision to do or not on a case-by-case basis.
The never and always zones are necessary for directing the path of your life based on your purpose, values, commitment, and perhaps your desire for long-term fulfillment and happiness. The maybe zone is necessary and appropriate for fun and spontaneous activities, as well as for providing you the flexibility to seize unique opportunities that may require situational judgment and action. If the maybe zone is too narrow and you are rigid about too many things you will always or never do, you box yourself in and miss out on the fun and potential benefits of spontaneity. If it is too wide, you end up being at the mercy of your emotions and short term desires, rather than being driven by your mission and your commitments.
When a person acknowledges that they are an alcoholic and they set out to stop drinking, there is a big difference between placing this decision in the never zone, as in, “I will never have another alcoholic drink,” versus leaving it in the maybe zone, as in, “I will try not to drink excessively.” The former removes the possibility of a decision to the contrary, and the latter leaves the options open and may result in a decision that is not in line with the intended outcome.
We all know of a few recurring decisions that we keep making to do or not do something that continues to hurt us. (Chances are we have received and ignored other people’s advice in those areas). The challenge, as we mature, is to no longer leave those decisions in the maybe zone and decide, once and for all, that we will never do or always do those things.
How do we safeguard ourselves against falling off the wagon?
It is important to establish flags that will keep us from being tempted to go against those decisions. The recovering alcoholic, for instance, may go beyond a commitment to never have another alcoholic drink and establish flags that would act like rumble strips to warn them that they are about to go off of the intended path. These flags may be different for different people, but they must be personalized. The key is to know the level of commitment you have to sticking to your decisions, and make sure there is always enough distance between you and the opportunity to violate what you have committed to always do or never do. In the case of the person who is committed to quit drinking, it might be to leave a gathering if drinks are being served and people are pressuring him to have one.
How wide should your maybe zone be? Consider this:
• Depending on the situation, you may choose to limit the rigidity of your decisions and leave yourself open to the possibilities. Examples of this may be when you are going on vacation or taking on a creative activity or project at work. You may have established a fairly rigid routine that you use to get your work done and make things happen in your day-to-day life, but you may want to widen your flexibility and allow for more spontaneity when you are on vacation.
• Some of the always and never decisions you made in the past are no longer serving you and they must be revisited. For instance, you may have asked a question in class in third grade and been told that it was a stupid question to ask, leading you to subconsciously decide that you would never ask questions in class again. Whatever the case may be, this is obviously a decision that hinders your experience of life in that area.
Decisions like this, which do not serve us well, influence many aspects of our lives and could perpetuate assumptions and beliefs that are simply not helpful to us. It’s important to periodically examine our assumptions and determine whether or not we want to give ourselves more flexibility to make certain decisions rather than stick with the decisions we might have made in the midst of a traumatic situation, or under completely different circumstances that are no longer present. In my book, The Transformative Leader, I explore this topic in greater detail in the One Point Lesson titled, “Pay the Parking Fee,” and suggest ways for you to discover your limiting decisions and get rid of them once and for all.
Recommended Follow-up Action
This week, begin to pay attention to how wide your maybe zone is and whether there is an opportunity for you to move some of the decisions that you make on the spot into the never and always zones, based on your current commitments. Also, begin to examine areas of your career or life where you experience stress or deliver sub-optimum results, and identify the limiting beliefs and decisions that you have been dragging around with you that no longer serve you, and set yourself free from those by allowing yourself to stretch beyond who you have perceived yourself to be and what you have perceived to be okay to do or not do.