How to Make a Tough Decision—and Actually Stick to It

How to Make a Tough Decision—and Actually Stick to It

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From the moment we wake up to when we hit our heads back on that pillow, decisions need to be made. Sure, they’re a mix of easy (what to wear, what to eat) and hard, but when you have to make a tough decision—like, say, deciding to change careers, or take a break in your relationship—it can be difficult to know whether you’re doing the right thing. And for many, decision-making can feel downright terrifying.

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That’s because we start learning how to make those tough decisions when we’re kids. “Early experiences have a significant impact on your ability to make decisions effectively,” says Catherine Richardson, LPC, a Talkspace therapist. “Young children quickly learn from their environment whether they are capable of making decisions for themselves or are in need of an authority figure to do so for them. This sets the stage for what autonomy will look like in adolescence and adulthood.”

Translation: if you never have to make tough decisions for yourself at a young age, it can be that much more difficult to develop the skill as an adult. Throw other factors in the mix, like good ole’ perfectionism and chronic stress, and it’s likely you’re filled with a hefty amount of uncertainty when it’s time for you to give an answer.

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The good news: regardless of your upbringing, there are plenty of things you can do now to help make tough decisions easier (and faster!). Here’s what the experts say can help guide you in the right direction.

Take a few days to think.

While some choices can be made fast, life-altering ones like moving into a new home need a little more thought investment to help counteract the feelings that may be associated with the situation. “We are emotional beings and prone to making hasty decisions without thinking through the benefits and consequences of each scenario, Richardson says. “After your HVAC has broken down for the 50th time, it’s easy to decide you’re done with your current home. But instead of breaking your lease that night, take a breath, go somewhere with decent air conditioning, and create a list of the pros and cons to help you make an action plan for how to move forward.”

Doing so helps you avoid making difficult decisions based on impulse. “When the time comes to decide, things such as fear or excitement can dominate that initial period,” says Margaret Seide, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in New York City. “If you take two to three days to decide, potential drawbacks and benefits of your choice enter into your decision-making. You get to marry that initial frenzy with more level-headed reasoning, giving you the best of both worlds.”

That’s why Richardson suggests using at least 24-48 hours as a baseline requirement for thinking through any tough decision, giving you time to reason with both your head and heart (and maybe even ask a trusted friend for advice). For major decisions such as a career change, moving, or ending a relationship, she notes it can be helpful to take anywhere from five to seven days, as these decisions will have a greater impact on the trajectory of your life.

Why we’re struggling with decision-making

There’s a neurological reason so many of us are struggling right now. The brain is a muscle, and just like our biceps and glutes, it gets fatigued after lots of exercise. “When we are facing stress, especially when it’s prolonged chronic stress, it drains our mental resources,” explains Dr. Rebecca Jackson, a certified cognitive specialist for Brain Balance. “Change takes mental engagement to do things differently. And these past two-plus years have been constantly navigating change.”

That incessant barrage of calculations means our brains have fewer resources to support executive functions that get strengthened over time, chief among them the ability to make decisions. “It’s why we expect teenagers to be more prone to making bad decisions because they have less mature networks and pathways and those executive functions,” Jackson adds. “Our brains are functioning sort of like teens’, having a harder time making decisions, plans and focusing.”

If you’re someone who also has a hard time staying focused or managing your emotions and mood due to ADHD, anxiety or depression or other mental health concerns, Jackson notes that this decision fatigue is likely to hit you even harder.

8 Effective Ways to Make Hard Decisions Easier

Whether you’re about to make a personal or professional decision, you can follow data-driven and research-based approaches to make hard decisions easier. Note that efficient decision-making doesn’t depend on either innate talent or hard-earned personal experience. The reality is that it all boils down to efficient methods that are teachable and learnable.

Moving to a new city, asking for a raise, getting a graduate degree, deciding on whether to get into or out of a long-term relationship—all of these and many more represent important decisions. You can, of course, recover if you make the wrong ones during such life-altering junctures.

1. Identify the Need to Make a Decision

This is crucial because it allows you to take notice even when there’s no outward problem signaling that you need to make a hard decision or when you initially feel that you just need to make a minor one. Don’t forget that your natural intuitions can also make it uncomfortable to admit that a difficult choice needs to be made.

Keep in mind that the best decision-makers take the initiative to admit the need for a decision before they become an all-out crisis. They also don’t let their gut reactions affect their decisions.

What will help you maximize this method is to make sure that you are asking the right questions. It’s common to waste a lot of time trying to analyze a problem by heading straight to the data and a hasty conclusion. Focusing on good questions will help you avoid this.

2. Get Relevant Information From a Diverse Set of Informed Perspectives

The information could be from a friend, a colleague, a mentor, or even someone you are not closely related to, as long as they have significant knowledge regarding the matter. Furthermore, limiting your data gathering to just informed perspectives will keep you from over-investing in unnecessary data.

Make sure not to dismiss perspectives with which you disagree. After all, opposing opinions allow you to distance yourself from relying on your gut instincts and allows you to see any possible bias blind spots.

3. Decide What Goals You Want to Reach

It’s crucial to identify when a seemingly one-off decision is a sign of an underlying problem. Include dealing with these root problems as part of your end goal. This method will help you further streamline your decision-making process because it allows you to identify your targets clearly. This, in turn, helps steer your mind away from having to juggle too much information.

4. Form a Decision-Making Process Criteria

Form a decision-making process criteria to assess the different options of how you want to achieve your desired outcome. If possible, create the criteria before you even begin looking at your choices. Remember that our intuitions affect our decision-making process by pushing for outcomes that match our instincts. The result? You get worse results overall if you don’t make the relevant criteria before you examine your options.

5. Make a List of Potential Options That Can Help You Reach Your Goal

It’s quite common to generate an insufficient number of options when dealing with hard decisions, particularly when you need to address underlying issues. The best way to tackle this is to generate more options that seem intuitive to you. Aim for 5 attractive choices as the minimum.

Keep in mind that since this is a brainstorming method, you should avoid judging the options even if they seem outlandish. From what I’ve seen in my years of coaching people who were having difficulty making tough life decisions, the best choices usually involve elements that came from innovative options.

6. Examine the Options and Select the Best One

Avoid going with your initial choices when weighing your options. In addition, try your best to view your own preferred option in a harsh light. Another key point is to do your best to assess each choice from your opinion of the person who suggested it. This will minimize the effect of internal politics and relationships on the decision itself.

When examining options, avoid automatically choosing your original preferences. Also, view your own preferred choice in a harsh light and from many angles. Moreover, do your best to evaluate each option separately from your opinion of the person who proposed it. This will minimize the impact of personalities, relationships, and internal politics on the decision itself.

7. Implement the Option You Selected

Implementing this method calls for careful brainstorming and imagination. You will need to minimize your risks and maximize rewards because the goal is to arrive at the best decision possible.

To do so, first, imagine that your choice completely fails. Next, think about all the issues that led to its failure. Then, think of how you can solve these problems and integrate those solutions into the implementation plan.


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