If there is a more challenging question for any of us in life, I do not know what it is.
Deciding when to act, especially in important situations where the stakes of our decision are high, is stressful, complicated and often characterized by a highly uncertain risk-reward calculation. No wonder many of us are prone to procrastinate, to think and re-think these decisions, sometimes almost to the point of exhaustion. And it matters little whether our consequential actions are professional or private. When you consider the mental and emotional toll difficult decisions can have on us, there is little difference between a difficult business decision and say deciding when to get married, change jobs or retire.
So what is the best way for us to make a decision to act? As a young man, the answer seemed clear. You think hard about the decision, weigh carefully the pros and cons, and when the pros have the advantage, you have your choice. Then summon the courage to act.
Over the years, however, I have come to realize it is rarely that simple. There are often so many factors in play that even the simple task of listing pros and cons frequently produces a seriously inadequate list.
Yet there often comes a moment when a powerful, almost overwhelming feeling tells us NOW is the time to act. It is a moment that renders the issue of acting a matter of EMOTIONS and THEIR ASSOCIATED FEELINGS rather than just conscious thought. Moreover, once that feeling moment passes and our cognitive processes take over, the impetus for action can receded almost indefinitely.
What is at work here modern neuroscience tells us is our emotions represent real wisdom. It is our emotional brains where dopamine neurons — the molecular source of our feelings — continually collect and catalog every thing we experience in life be they grand events or subtle things our conscious mind ignores. And drawing upon this vast repository of empirical data our emotional brain is able to make predictions concerning future events and signal us when it is time to act. Even when we make mistakes or experience new or unexpected things, our emotional brain simply updates its program and moves on. In essence our emotional brain is a perpetual learning organism.
Experienced drivers will tell you they knew another driver was about to cut them off split seconds before it happened. How did they know before they consciously had time to process it? It was their emotional brain at work; some subtle thing was unconsciously perceived and signaled you to hit the brake before you realized consciously you were doing it.
This does not mean, of course, that we should solely rely on our emotions and feelings when making decisions. Our emotional brain can be fooled and tricked. Our conscious reasoning capacity matters. The ability to consider and balance both what our emotional brain is telling us and what our conscious thought processes suggest is the essence of good decision making.
But over thinking matters is generally a bad idea. So also is ignoring what our emotions are telling us concerning the time for action.
For many of us humans, learning to acknowledge and trust what our emotions and feelings are telling us about a situation is difficult. This is especially true for individuals who have come to deeply trust their ability to logically reason through the elements of any difficult decision. Yet neuroscience has taught us our emotional brain is often far wiser and better informed than we think and the better indicator of what we should do.
The time to act is often primarily an emotional not a thinking decision. So pay attention to how you feel, then summon the courage to act accordingly.