7 Strategies Smart People Use When It's Time for a Difficult Decision

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Hannah Berman175
July 20, 2024 at 7:35PM UTC

Life is made up of a series of decisions. Sometimes these decisions come easily, such as when your coworker asks what you want to eat for lunch (sushi) or your kid asks to have ice cream while going in the bouncy castle at the street fair (absolutely not). However, not all the decisions you have to make will be so simple. Inevitably, there will be points in your life when you feel like you’re at a true crossroads; in these moments, it can seem almost impossible to choose your path going forward, for fear that you’ll regret the path you chose. 

Why you need to make tough decisions.

Though running from the responsibility or handing it off to someone else might sound deliriously tempting, making decisions is not something you should avoid. Being able to make a tough decision is actually a sign of maturity; if you find yourself cowering in fear of decision-making often, you’re likely struggling with the added responsibility that accompanies growing up. Which is OK, because everyone matures at different rates, but if that’s the case, working on your decision-making skills should be a new priority. Part of maturity is learning how your personal actions affect others, and that means understanding that if you delay your decision by hemming and hawing, it will have an adverse effect on everyone involved. 

Strategies for difficult decision making.

1. Take your time.

If the decision isn’t time-sensitive, but will have a lasting impact on both your life and the lives of the people around you, you should devote some time to thinking about the consequences of your actions. Making a tough decision in a rush is the easiest way to end up regretting it. Allow yourself the space to truly consider all your options. Some people find meditation or hiking helpful to clear their mind; if that doesn't work, you could always head out to a bouncy castle with a cone of ice cream yourself. No matter how you achieve the mental state necessary to contemplate your situation, you need to get to a headspace where you can evaluate things rationally — and that requires time. 

2. Consider your values.

Though values are not static, they’re still a good jumping-off point for decision making. If you strongly believe in the worth of education, that will inform your decision to go back to night school; if you value kindness, that will make it harder to decide to cut off a close friend because of toxicity in the relationship. If the choice you’re making involves offending your morals in some way, that should be an indication that you’re not choosing the right path, and that you should maybe reconsider. (Sometimes, of course, a choice will involve a sacrifice of morals no matter how you cut it.)

3. Make a decision-making matrix.

This tried and true tool for decision making is rather time-intensive to complete, but it should help you figure things out quite nicely. It involves listing out all the options you have to consider as rows, all the factors that go into making the decision as columns, and then giving each option and factor a number score that symbolizes its weight when making your decision. It will involve a bit of math, but when you eventually add up all the corresponding numbers for each option, the option that makes the most sense will be the biggest number, and your decision will be made for you. 

4. Or… make a pros and cons list. 

If the decision-making matrix sounds a little too complex for you, or if there are only a few options in front of you instead of a whole fleet of opportunities, there’s nothing wrong with a classic pros and cons list. To do this, you write down the decision you’re making at the top of a chart—e.g., ”I will buy the Honda,” or “I will break up with my girlfriend”—and then list the positive and negative aspects of this choice. This method may be old-school, and simplistic, but there’s something about putting pen to paper and really concretely thinking about the effects of your decision that will sober you up enough to make an educated choice, every time.

5. Talk to people you trust who are not directly involved.

If you’re preoccupied with the feelings of those people who will be directly affected by your decision, it might be time to consult someone who can be objective about your predicament. Let’s say you’re considering taking a job in another state despite being well established where you are. You’re risking breaking up your relationship in the process, and all your friends in your current city will be furious. In this case, it’s important to talk to someone who doesn’t have a stake in your decision, like a therapist or a parent, in order to get advice, because they will be able to see the bigger picture. They can more easily gauge whether it’s worth it for you to follow your dreams away from the life you know so well, because they aren’t feeling the pressure you’re feeling. 

6. Talk to the people who are involved, too.

Difficult decisions often involve more than one person, and even if it’s your decision to make, you should keep the lines of communication open between you and the other people who are involved. After you’ve consulted someone who has a more objective viewpoint, also talk things over with the people whose lives will be altered by this decision. For example, if you’re considering spending your inheritance on an enormous bouncy castle for the backyard, talk to your children about why they won’t be going to college; or if you’re considering pulling the plug on your comatose grandfather, talk to your parents and siblings about what this death will mean to them. Although you ultimately need to make a choice that will benefit yourself before others, you should still consult people who will be affected, as they could have valuable input that might change your mind.

7. Listen to that little voice inside of you.

Often, after you’ve completed your decision-making matrix, received advice from your wise elders, and maybe even settled on a solution, there’s a little voice somewhere inside of you screaming that you’re wrong. This voice is not always right; its motivations might be emotional instead of rational. Yet if something still doesn’t feel right at the end of your decision-making process, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't pay attention to that feeling. Even if you don’t end up following the voice’s advice, evaluate why it’s there, and whether you can afford to ignore it. 

How you respond to adversity shapes who you are as a person, and the difficult decision you need to make will end up affecting you in ways you cannot foresee. Therefore, you need to make sure not to rush yourself. Weigh all your options and consider all the factors going into this decision. Don’t keep the process to yourself. If you manage to keep your cool, your choice will be well thought out and more likely to bring you ultimate happiness, instead of stranding you in a world of pain, wondering what could have been. 

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