One of my mentors recently shared with me an exercise that has guided her major life choices over the past twenty years. It’s a deceptively simple and yet incredibly useful way to find clarity when you’re faced with a myriad of options and no idea how to start sifting through them. Whether you’re questioning a career change, a rocky relationship or a new living arrangement, answering these three questions can help point you in the right direction. Fold a piece a paper into thirds, write these questions along the top of each section and list your honest, uncensored answers below.
1. What MUST I have? These are your non-negotiables. Is there a minimum salary that you need in order to cover your financial responsibilities- not desires, that comes later, but bills that must be paid and people who must be provided for no matter what? Is it important that your significant other share a specific religion with you? Do you need to live in a particular area or be close to certain amenities (e.g. within walking distance of a grocery store)?
2. What would I LIKE to have? This one is a little bit harder and requires total honesty with yourself. Would you simply LIKE a job that requires your post-graduate degree or is that a MUST for you? Is the ability to afford an annual overseas trip something you feel you MUST have or would you be okay if your job only pays enough for the occasional weekend out-of-town? MUST your significant other get along fabulously with all of your siblings or are you fine if they’re merely civil to each other? Do you NEED a guest bedroom or could you be perfectly happy in a house where your guests sleep on the couch? There are no right or wrong answers here because only you know what you value and what you could live without- even if other people disagree. Don’t let yourself feel pressured into categorizing certain things the way you think you should- be brutally honest about your feelings, that’s the only way this exercise will work. Remember, this list is a tool for you- nobody else needs to ever see it.
3. What do I absolutely NOT want? These are your deal-breakers and again- be honest with yourself even if you think somebody else would judge your responses. Unwilling to date an atheist? Put it on the list. Refuse to work for a company that won’t reimburse you for transportation costs? Absolutely valid! No housing that doesn’t face a feng-shui friendly direction? No problem! Identifying the things that you consider deal-breakers will help you eliminate options that might be swaying you because their seductive aspects distract you from the things you absolutely do not want.
This is not a one-time exercise. As your life changes so will your needs, wants and deal-breakers. Asking these questions may not prevent you from ever wondering if you made the right decision but it will help you narrow down your options and, hopefully, make a choice that meets your needs without subjecting you to anything you absolutely don’t want. If you get a few bonus desires met in there as well, even better, but if not, no worries- you already realized you didn’t need those things to be happy.