How to Make Really Hard Decisions (5 Steps)

Make  Hard Decision

Lately I’ve faced some tough decisions in my life. Decisions like where to live, how to best support my family, and whether to stay in my current position or take on a new role.

It hasn’t just been me facing hard decisions lately either. Some of my closest friends and family all seem to be coming up to crossroads in their lives. Do they stay or go? Do they take that risky next step? Do they quit the job? Do they go back to school?

Each of us faces hard decisions in our lives, and in those moments the decision can feel completely overwhelming. We are so scared that we might make a mistake or make the wrong choice. Sometimes that fear can leave us paralyzed.

Choose your Path

I’m a firm believer that, more often than not, either potential option can be a good one. The different options may take you down dramatically different paths, but usually each possible option will bring some good things into your life, but also have some drawbacks. If this wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t feel so stuck.

Well of course, you might be thinking, I’m struggling exactly because there ARE pros and cons to each choice. You are telling me the obvious.

The reason I find it helpful to think of my choices as different paths, instead of a right choice and a wrong choice, is that it takes that crippling weight off the decision. You are simply choosing one path, and one set of benefits, over another one.

Now that we are all feeling a little bit lighter, how do we go about weighing those pros and cons?

Here’s a few steps that I have found helpful:

1. Write it Down

The good old pros and cons list is a staple for a reason. When we think about things without writing them down, we are more likely to go round and round in circles with our thoughts – not making progress in any direction. Pros and cons lists are especially useful when there are many factors to consider in making the decision.

Once you put pen to paper, you can make sure you get down every possible advantage and disadvantage. Think through things like cost, location, impact on your relationships, and every other factor you can come up with.

This stage can also involve information gathering. Are there any additional facts that you need to make your decision? Perhaps you need to calculate exactly how much each option would cost. Or maybe you need to research what kind of jobs people get after graduating in a specific program. If some of the factors on your pros and cons list need a little further digging, make sure you get the information you need.

I also find that for me it can be helpful to quantify the factors. Just how MUCH of an advantage or disadvantage is this? I will often turn this into a number value and then total up my scores for each potential option. I don’t make my decision based only on this number, but I find it really helps to put things in perspective and gets me thinking about what things matter to me the most. This brings us to Step 2…

2. Consider Your Values

When I first started using this technique it was a major game changer for me. The reason this step is so powerful is because it makes you personalize your pros and cons list to what it most important to YOU.

Often our pros and cons list can look like a laundry list – more money versus less money, more stress versus less stress, more family time versus less. Comparing your pros and cons to your values does a much better job of tailoring your decision to what matters most to you personally.

To do this step, you need to get really clear on what your values are. For me this was actually one of the most difficult parts of the process. What were my values? And didn’t some of those values conflict?

To start thinking through your values, first start with a big blank piece of paper and write down everything you can think of that is an important value to you. That might include things like “living a healthy lifestyle,” “personal growth,” “financial stability,” or “friends and family.” When I first did this exercise, my list was huge. There were at least 30 values on my list. This wasn’t so helpful.

At this point, you want to focus in on the top 3-5 values that are absolutely the most important to you. One way to do this is to start looking for patterns in what you’ve written down – things that are similar to each other. For example, I had written multiple things like “continually improving,” “doing my best,” and “learning new things.” I decided all of these could be captured under the value of “growth.” Growth, I realized, was a fundamental value for me.

You can also think about moments in your life where you have felt especially proud, or particularly content and at peace. What was it about those moments that resonated with you? On the flip side are their moments where you felt you were not being true to yourself or not living your values? Why did you feel that disconnect?

There are also some excellent online lists and tools that you can use to help you think through your values. These are two that I used:

Brene Brown, “Living into Our Values” worksheet:

Personal Values Quiz:

3. Map it Out

I’m a visual person, so when I say “map it out” I literally am talking about making a drawing or map of each potential path. But this map can look different for each person. For some of you this might be an Excel or a chart.

The point of this exercise is to look towards the future and imagine where each of these different choices and paths might take you. Don’t just look at the immediate pros and cons but look at where this choice might take you down the road.

For example, let’s say you are considering graduate school. In the short term, paying a high tuition fee might conflict with your value of financial stability. But in the long-term, maybe you will be entering a field with good salaries and an abundance of jobs. And maybe those future jobs line up with other important values for you, like “excellence” or “achievement.”

Think about whether this path takes you closer to your values and to your goals. I chose to write, at the very bottom of the page, my key long-term goals. Then I try to draw each of the options as a path. Is this decision taking you closer or further away from those goals.

4. Talk it Through

At this point you have written out the pros and cons of your potential decisions, you have compared those pros and cons to your values, and you have considered where this choice might lead you in the future. This is all a lot to think about!

Find someone whose opinion you value and talk through these options. Try to make sure this is someone neutral about your decision and doesn’t have anything on the line. It’s even better if this person might have some experience with the issues you are grappling with.

What do they think about your pros and cons? Is there anything they can add that you haven’t thought about? Do they agree with your analysis? Even just talking through the problem out loud can sometimes clarify things for you.

5. Commit

This is the hardest step for many of us. Once you have decided on a course of action you need to really commit to that decision and act on it. Decide on a time or place to make your decision a reality.

If you find yourself second guessing your decision, remember that this is normal. You likely are thinking through the costs that came with that decision. But remember there would have been a cost to choosing the other option as well. In fact it’s perfectly normal to feel doubt or uncertainty, and that does not mean you made the wrong decision. Allow yourself to feel those emotions, but stay the course.

We are each the product of our decisions. Allow yourself to commit to the decision you made, and fully embrace that new path and chapter in your life.

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