How to make a difficult decision

The Darwin Archive at the Cambridge University Library holds a remarkable extract from Charles Darwin’s journal, in which he wrote, in 1838, a list of pros and cons about one of his most important decisions ever: whether to marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood. As one side (in favour) seemed to outweigh the other, he concluded at the bottom of the page: ‘Marry – Marry – Marry QED.’ After the birth of his and Emma’s 10th child together, Darwin could have been forgiven for thinking that his decision-making approach was proven and irreproachable. Thankfully, there are more sophisticated methods you can use to choose from multiple options.

How To Make a Hard Decision in the Workplace

Making decisions in the workplace can sometimes be challenging, but developing the ability to make good decisions in any situation can help you in your career. The greater the impact of your decisions, the harder they can be to make. It’s important to learn how to make decisions, feel confident in your decisions and stand by them. When you do, you can more easily demonstrate your leadership abilities to others on your team. In this article, we explore proactive strategies to help you make hard decisions confidently and efficiently.

There are plenty of choices that you will have to make in the workplace every day but luckily there are also many different methods for making those decisions. Here are some ways you can make hard decisions more easily and be happier with the outcomes:

Think about your options without overthinking

For example, if you are having a problem with a coworker in your workplace, you might be torn about whether or not to talk to a supervisor or go to them directly. If you talk to your supervisor, they may be able to solve your problem for you, but it could get back to your coworker. However, the problem may not get fully resolved if you don’t go to upper management.

It is important to think through your options carefully but this does not mean you need to overthink your decision. Going back and forth between your options without a clear answer might bring unnecessary stress. In order to feel happier and more confident in your decision, try writing out your choices on a piece of paper. Write out the pros and cons so that you can visualize which ones outweigh the others.

If writing the options down does not solidify which choice to make, try asking a friend or family member for advice. Sometimes hearing someone else’s opinion helps you realize which choice feels right to you. For example, if you are trying to decide whether or not to ask for a raise, hearing a friend tell you to go for it might make you realize you wanted to ask all along.

What to do

I’d encourage you to read this section with one difficult decision in mind and use the exercises to help you work through it. Ideally, it will be one you are facing right now. If that’s not applicable to you, try revisiting a past decision instead.

When facing difficult decisions, it is likely that different parts of you might want different things. For example, when deciding whether to book a pricey holiday, one part of you (prudent) might think that this expense is unreasonable, while another part of you (hedonistic) prefers to make the most of life and go for it, while yet another part of you (serious) will think that work should come first. Decision-making involves the deliberation between the different parts of yourself. Resolving this conundrum involves getting them to sit together around an imaginary table to agree on an outcome they can all settle for. In practical terms, try writing down what each part of you wants and seeing if you can identify a solution that optimises the joint aspirations of your different inner selves. Even if you don’t get that far just yet, the simple act of recognising your own competing desires will help you to think through the decision more effectively.

The more you struggle with difficult decisions, the less distance from them you enjoy and the more bogged down you can become. And yet, psychological distance provides a sense of perspective that is a key component of effective decision-making. Already in the 16th century, the Spanish priest and theologian Ignatius of Loyola suggested three ways you can achieve more psychological distance from a difficult decision:

Back to contemporary times, it is reassuring that even the world’s most famous investor, Warren Buffett, credits some of his best decision-making to a method known as the 10/10/10, meaning: how will I feel about today’s decision in 10 days’ time, vs 10 months, vs 10 years? Here again, it is about creating more distance between yourself and your decision, to benefit from greater perspective.

In this quote, George Bernard Shaw spells out poetically the process that leads to creation: it starts with imagination. This is relevant to decision-making because we often make the mistake of limiting our scope. If you are confronted with two or three options and you’re struggling to decide, what you might be missing is that there is at least one more creative option available to you.

How can you think outside the box and see that other elusive option? One way is to adopt a childlike mindset. ‘As children go through a school education, grow up and learn to function as productive adults, one thing they tend to lose is their creative confidence, this positive emotion that comes from looking at tasks without preconceived notions of what outcome is expected,’ says my friend Marie Taillard, professor of creativity marketing and associate dean at ESCP Business School in London. But all is not lost! She adds that: ‘Adults can in fact train themselves to recapture their creative confidence. When primed to adopt a childlike mindset, for instance by experiencing the excitement and open-endedness of building with Lego bricks, adults can trigger their confidence and then boost their creative skills over time.’

Supporting Taillard’s assertion, when psychologists at North Dakota State University primed a group of graduate students to imagine they were seven-year-olds before completing a series of creativity tests, they significantly outperformed a control group who weren’t given that same instruction.

Objectives are the ultimate goals that a decision aims to achieve. For example, if I decide to move home, why is it that I concern myself with this decision? It could be because I want more space, a safer neighbourhood, better access to transport, or to nature, proximity to friends and family, or a combination of these and many more. When making a difficult decision, it is important to list your objectives and cross-check how many of them would be satisfied by each decision. Research by Valentina Ferretti at the Department of Management in the London School of Economics has shown that our decisions frequently suffer from having too narrow a range of objectives (perhaps because we are not thinking outside-the-box enough). Overall, Ferretti’s advice is to increase the number of objectives by around 50 per cent. So take a look at your objectives and see if you can list some more.

Consider the case of Michelle, a theatre director I worked with, who was faced with the decision of how to boost attendance at her venue. Before her appointment, attendance at the theatre, located about an hour’s drive outside London, had been decreasing year on year. Under her leadership, the theatre had raised funds to improve the quality of its plays, however the results were disappointing. Despite all the hard work, this approach had almost no effect on attendance.

The Board believed that the theatre needed to go further in this direction and attract ‘big names’. Michelle was faced with the choice between pursuing the same strategy, as her Board encouraged her to do, or take a radically different course. This is where widening the objectives was critical. A survey of theatre goers and – importantly – of theatre non-goers, helped with this, showing that what potential audiences most objected to was: distance from their home (especially for late shows), lack of parking, short runs of shows, poor quality of food and beverage options, long queues at the box office, poor quality of the website and booking experience. The quality of the plays had never been an issue.

Key points – How to make a difficult decision

  1. Understand why some decisions can be so hard. It’s not just the high stakes that can make decisions difficult: sometimes the reasons lie in your past.
  2. Avoiding a decision is in fact a decision. It can be tempting to kick a difficult decision down the road – but that itself is actually a decision, and probably the wrong one.
  3. Identify the parts of yourself that want different things. Be clear on which parts of you want what, and try to find a compromise between them.
  4. Create distance from the decision. Imagine advising a friend making the same decision or exploring how you would feel 10 days / 10 months / 10 years after making (or avoiding) a decision.
  5. Think outside the box. To unlock new ways of thinking about the same situation, adopt a child’s imaginative mindset or ask a particularly creative friend.
  6. List out your objectives. For this decision to be fully successful, what would it need to achieve? Including more objectives will lead to better decisions.
  7. Use a weighting system to compare multiple options. By methodically assessing your options against a comprehensive set of objectives, it is possible that one option will emerge as the obvious decision to take.
  8. Listen to your emotions. Learning to listen to your emotions and feelings is a powerful indicator of what you truly aspire to. Writing about the options can help.
  9. Use micro-decisions to overcome inertia. Having made a decision, it can be difficult to know how to begin to enact it. To get going, break down the big decision into a series of focused micro-decisions.

Some challenging decisions afford us the benefit of time. Choosing a new career, for example, shouldn’t be something you decide in haste. And in this type of situation, the steps listed above will help you gain confidence in your decisions and their likely outcomes.

At the other end of the spectrum, some decisions need to be made under pressure, sometimes within a few seconds. I’m thinking of the surgeon at the operating table, the nurse in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, the air traffic controller having to divert a plane in order to avoid an imminent accident, or the firefighter having to decide whether to send her crew into a burning building to rescue one life, while endangering all the others.

High-pressured decision-making is the object of research by the British psychologist and Chief Fire Officer Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. She developed her approach to high-pressured decision-making in the context of incident command in the emergency services, but it can apply to many other areas, both in the corporate world and in our private lives. She recommends that individuals and teams ask themselves the following five questions:

Let’s see how this approach could apply in the corporate world, in a less dramatic situation in which you and your colleagues must decide how to act after your preferred, highly qualified candidate Lucy has received a pay offer from your main competitor that is 30 per cent above your offer (the clock is ticking because Lucy has told you that your rival has given her 24 hours to choose). The main decision in front of you is whether to match your rival’s offer or to let go of the chance of hiring Lucy.

You need to make sure that your decision will not be driven by a fear of missing out. You also need to ensure that you will not reject this promising candidate solely based on feelings of pride. Adapting Cohen-Hatton’s decision-making approach, in this situation, I would recommend you and your team ask yourselves these key questions:

As we reach the end of this Guide, it is worth remembering that difficulties with decision-making are not always the sign of a weakness that needs ‘fixing’. On the contrary, these difficulties may shed light on the fact that you are treading new ground, exploring the unknown and stretching yourself. In this case, a challenging decision should be viewed as an injunction to step up, a calling to grow into a higher version of who you are. And, in the process, you are likely to learn a great deal about yourself too.

. But also know how to make a tough decision fast.

If you don’t have a ton of time on your hands, Seide says to use 75 percent of what you have available to educate yourself about your options, and the remaining 25 percent to actually sit with that data, analyze it, and consider how each choice feels for you. Richardson also recommends jotting down answers to three questions that can help you stay focused on the bigger picture: Does this align with my beliefs and values? How will this affect my future? What am I willing to sacrifice for this?

While thinking things through is obviously ideal, you don’t want to drag your feet when choosing a path. “In all of us is this inner core of knowing what the next best thing is to do,” Seide says. “When you take too long to decide, that intuitive wisdom may start to wither beneath the weight of societal norms, messages from an invalidating childhood home, and cultural conditioning. We start to overthink and see things through the lens of worries, ego, the opinions of others, and limiting beliefs.”

“This is especially true for marginalized people who are inundated with messages about perceived limitations,” Seide continues. “In decision-making, we are trying to distinguish our own voice from the myriad of other voices telling us what we should or shouldn’t be doing.”

Plus, taking longer to make a decision allows room for us to slip into what’s comfortable, rather than what might be right. “A basic truth about humans is that our nature is to shy away from boldness and adventure, and bend toward sameness,” Seide says. “Most of us want to do tomorrow what we did today. [So] if we sit with something for too long, that tendency can take over our decision-making.”

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And don’t forget the risks you take when pondering for too long. Maybe the opportunity for that new gig disappears because someone else accepts the position, Richardson says. Or perhaps you become apathetic about that gorgeous home you’ve been eyeing because you’ve taken so long to decide.

Try to limit stress.

Asking someone to not be stressed is like asking an angry person to calm down—it just isn’t going to happen. But if there are ways you can limit the chronic stressors in your life (financial security, relationship issues), it could keep you from waffling when it’s time to pick a path.

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“Decision-making requires use of the prefrontal cortex, which gives you access to logic and reasoning,” Richardson says. “When you’re stressed, your brain uses the majority of its energy to help you complete basic functions, such as sleeping and eating, leaving little-to-no energy left for high-level thinking.”

Aim to establish as much stability as possible in the main areas of your life—career, money, relationships, family, etc—and look for little ways you can relax your mind and relieve stress throughout the day. (Bubble bath and scented candles, anyone?) You may just find it makes the answers to your tough decisions more clear.

How To Make a Difficult Decision in 8 Simple Steps

Making job decisions can be a challenge. Knowing which steps to follow simplifies the process, as you can go through each one to make your decision. You can use them to help you understand the options available and come to a conclusion that best suits your needs. In this article, we explore eight steps to follow when learning how to make a difficult decision and explain why decision-making is important in your professional life.

Knowing how to make a difficult decision comes with practice. Through trial and error, you can discover major life lessons by making incorrect decisions. Likewise, making the right decisions for yourself can lead to career advancement and personal growth. Practising the following steps may help you make decisions more logically and confidently:

1. Put it on paper

Writing the details of the decision on paper simplifies the process of reaching a conclusion. Attempting to consider all aspects of a choice in your mind may affect a potential resolution. There are simpler ways to note the different points you may need to take into consideration. For example, you might write your choice down on paper and then follow it up with various ideas and reasoning. Doing this helps you to create a tangible list of opportunities and obstacles.

When you have a clear idea of all the pros and cons, it makes it simple to focus on the most important aspects and avoid overthinking about hypothetical situations. As a result, making a choice becomes more manageable and less stressful.

2. Understanding your goals

When you’re struggling to make a decision, ask yourself what your goals are. Considering your objectives may offer a minor tweak toward a final decision. For example, perhaps you have been offered a new job that provides greater perks, but you enjoy your current position. Instead of choosing one or the other, you may approach your manager to talk about increasing your current benefits.

Life changes are another point to consider when making a decision. Usually, they’re a little more challenging. For example, perhaps you have outgrown your current position or you would rather start your own business. Taking time to understand what is important to you and what you wish to achieve may bring clarity. Doing this can make the decision-making process more straightforward.

3. Set aside time to think

Attempting to consider things while distracted by other tasks may prolong the process when making a choice. Taking time to focus on the decision allows you to consider all aspects of the options and reach a logical conclusion. Choose a time when you are feeling focused and centred to sit down and look at things logically.

4. Gather all the information

When you know and understand all the facts and options available to you, it becomes easier to see what would be an opportunity and what would be an obstacle. Conducting research may also prevent you from doubting your final choice. When you’re well-informed, finding the right answer for you becomes simpler.

Once you have considered all the options, you may find you are more comfortable with your decision. Achieving contentment once you have made a choice may leave you feeling more confident. This may help the next time you may need to make an important decision. It can also make it easier to know what to consider when making future choices.

5. Base your decision on what’s right for you

You may find yourself tempted to base your decision on what you’re supposed to do rather than what is suitable for you. The opinions of others may influence you, or sometimes, you may feel that one option is better because it looks like the right choice. Understanding the available options and knowing your goals makes it simpler to make a tough decision.

For example, you may be offered the perfect job with your ideal pay and greater benefits but in a position that differs slightly in the tasks you may be performing. On the other hand, you enjoy your current job, but the salary and benefits might be better. Most people would advise you to take the position with the increased pay. But, perhaps you know you would be happier advancing in your current company. Examining your choices and selecting an option best suited to your needs might be better.

6. Take action

Making a decision quickly may help you grow in a positive direction, even if the outcome differs from what you had expected. Even if your decision produces different results than those you were aiming for, making a choice helps to get things going. Moving forward provides you with direction and helps you to end up where you ultimately want to be.

For example, if there are a few career paths you want to follow, you might have the choice to continue working as a pet sitter, or you could take up a position as a receptionist. If you choose to remain where you are, you may never expand your skill set. But, if you take the job as the receptionist, you can add to your skills. This allows you to grow within the company or can help you apply for a job in your field of interest. You can add these new skills to your resume and boost your chances in the job application process.

Why is decision-making important?

Decision-making is essential for advancing your career and professional development. It can involve more critical choices about how to complete a project, or whether to accept a job offer. It can also involve smaller decisions, like how best to contact a potential client or how to delegate tasks within a team. M ore minor decisions are relatively straightforward choices that may take just a few moments to consider. More profound decisions require more thought and introspection.

Sometimes the approach to decision-making is what can make a choice more challenging. Understanding a few simple steps to streamline how you make a selection may help you achieve an answer and reach your goals far more quickly. You can learn to become efficient in making difficult decisions by practicing. You might even follow some of the tips included here to help simplify your process.


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