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Life-altering decisions can define our health and well-being

At this time of year, there are decisions to be made. What present should I buy for my uncle and his new wife? Should I even buy them a present? Should we travel or stay home for the holidays? OK, let's travel, but do we fly or drive?

And as the New Year unfolds, there likely are to be even bigger decisions. Do I start taking that new medication my doctor recommended, the one that's supposedly effective but has all those irksome side effects? Do I have knee surgery or do I wait? Do I put my house on the market? And if I do, where should I move when it sells?

As we get older, huge, potentially life-changing decisions loom over us and define our continued health and well-being.

Today, I offer you a system to assist with any decision-making process you encounter, big or small. A multitude of terms are used to describe it. Some folks call the process a "Pugh Matrix," others refer to tools of this type as "decision grids" or "decision tables." I call mine "Olivia." I'm not sure why. I think it has something to do with that name having a lot of soft-sounding vowels on the edges and a sharp "v" in the middle that suggests, "check this one off — decision made."

But I digress. The process usually starts like this: Clarify the decision itself. Just think about the options. As illustration, you may find the actual decision is less about selling your home and more about moving in with your daughter. Take a blank piece of paper and write down the decision to be made and the pros and cons of each option. Example: A "pro" of living with your daughter might be you would "get to see her more often," but a "con" might be "too much togetherness."

Exhaust your list of pros and cons — don't rush through this exercise. What comes next is scoring — my favorite part. You give each pro and con a numbered value. You can use a 1-10 scale or a 1-5 scale. I use the latter. A score of "1" means that issue is not very important and a "5" means it's highly important. Get the idea? I suspect you've done this before, but perhaps not as thoroughly. Once you have a numbered value for each item in both columns, add up the columns.

In my experience, "Olivia" has often surprised me with her results. I may not end up making the decision that gets the most points, but the process deepens and enriches my understanding of the choice.

For example, you may be surprised at how large a total score there is in favor of moving in with your daughter. But the decision may not meet what Dr. Kate Lorig of Stanford University, who has now imbedded this tool in the 2012 revised version of "Living Well" chronic-disease self-management workshops (www.sohealthyoregon.org), calls the "gut test." Even if the total score highly favors one particular approach, you may (in your gut) still feel like it's not what you want to do.

That's quite OK. After all, it's your decision. Olivia understands completely.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. You can reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com