Indecision feels miserable. Everywhere you turn, you feel trapped by the choices in front of you. Your stress builds and pressure mounts. How will you ever get through this impossible, life-changing choice?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Making a Hard Decision
- How to Help a Loved One Make a Hard Decision
- Examples of Making a Hard Decision
Hard decisions are part of creatingg a meaningful life for yourself. The time you take wrestling with these issues helps define who you are. But if you’re unprepared, a hard choice can seem like an impossible puzzle with no right answer.
That’s kind of the trick, finding the right answer. Part of making hard decisions is defining what works for you as you make your choice. Is there an absolute right answer for every situation? Maybe, but maybe not.
This guide will take you through some helpful tips for making a hard choice. As you shift your mindset, you’ll learn how to see hard choices as opportunities for growth.
Steps for Making a Hard Decision
Making a hard decision can take some time. And a decision like this isn’t something you want to take lightly. Unless you’re facing an emergency, give yourself some breathing room. Take some time to deal with your emotions and look at your options before you make the final call.
1. Dealing with uncertainty
Does uncertainty make you uncomfortable? If so, you aren’t alone. Uncertainty can make people feel like a failure for not knowing the right course of action. Perhaps you feel like uncertainty is a sign that things are about to go wrong. It’s easy to fall into this trap, but your emotions don’t always tell you the right story.
Uncertainty is a normal part of everyday life. You’ll rarely get a day when everything goes your way. You already know how to handle small unexpected problems at work and at home. You probably handle dozens of these every day without realizing it. When you look at it that way, you may feel more confident about handling uncertainty on a bigger scale.
Moments of uncertainty can make you freeze up, especially if you feel fear or embarrassment. Instead, try to see these as opportunities to try something new. When uncertainty arises, your creative mind can kick into gear.
You can connect dots and see options that weren’t apparent before. Embracing uncertainty gives you the emotional freedom to see your hard decision in a new light.
2. There may not be a 'best choice'
Ruth Chang, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, says that we often look at difficult choices as if they can be measured and compared directly. In reality, some choices are on par with each other. The outcomes may be very different, but no single choice is superior.
Instead, take a stand for one of the choices and create reasons for why that choice works. For example, If you like two houses that could both work, rally behind one of them and show yourself why that’s the house for you. The reasons for choosing one particular house help define who you are as a person. The value you create to justify that choice is part of what you stand for.
We often dread hard choices, but Chang says these are golden opportunities to define what you stand for and what makes you unique. This reframe of hard choices can make the process less intimidating and easier to live with.
3. Simplify the picture to avoid becoming overwhelmed
Some decisions may seem hard because you’re trying to solve too many problems at once. Imagine you got two job offers, one across the country and another one a few hours away. You might feel overwhelmed with everything involved in choosing the best job offer. Where do you start?
Consider what you value when moving to a new city. How important is your living arrangement or your commute? Is one job considerably different from the other one? You might not mind certain aspects but feel picky about others. Prioritize a few critical elements and push aside the rest for now.
Focus on your top priorities and see how your choices match up with each one. Once you get rid of the clutter, you may feel more relaxed about making your decision.
4. Beware of the sunk cost fallacy
The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes you to base future decisions on past investment. You’re willing to give up a lot of opportunities to avoid losing something. In fact, you’re so inclined to avoid losing that you’ll step over perfectly good options to get to the safe bet.
This scenario explains how the sunk cost fallacy works. You want to break up with your partner because your relationship doesn’t work anymore. You want to find someone who’s more mature and a better fit for your life. But since you’ve spent seven years with them, you allow things to continue. You feel unhappy and have wanted to break up before, but the time you’ve invested in the relationship always stops you short.
Think of it this way: if you met this person today with the qualities they have, would you choose them as a partner? If the answer is no, then the sunk cost fallacy is influencing your decision instead of your true interests.
5. Avoid getting stuck on feelings
When faced with a difficult decision, you may feel a little stress or anxiety. That’s normal, but emotions can complicate the process if you don’t manage them well. It’s easy to get distracted by emotion, so find ways to stay calm and focused through the process.
- Have a friend or your partner check on your emotion now and then. Get your concerns off your chest and deal with them so you can keep moving forward.
- Avoid making decisions when you are noticeably emotional or stressed. Unless it’s life or death, calm down first before sorting your options. Your choices will look different with more or less emotion.
- Understand that feelings come and go. They aren’t a good way to measure the quality of your decision, either. Even good decisions can stir up mixed feelings.
- Don’t always trust your gut. Be sure you have solid information to base a decision on first.
- If you have time to sleep on a decision, do it. A refreshed mind will do a better job of sorting out the options than a frazzled, tired one.
6. Many decisions can be changed, even big ones
When you see choices as permanent, unchangeable paths, it’s easy to feel frozen. Why would you lock yourself into a bad choice for the rest of your life? If your mind is in knots over a big decision, try a different viewpoint.
Many decisions can be changed in some way, even big ones. Some choices will alter your life significantly, but you can take steps to work around problems. Encourage yourself to see decisions as a little more flexible, and you’ll take some pressure off your mind.
Realizing this also helps you avoid making decisions out of fear. Fear-driven choices can put you in the wrong direction. While some choices cannot be undone, many can be. Reversing your course can be frustrating and time-consuming. But seeing the wrong choice as the end of the world can freeze up your mind. Allow yourself some slack as you move through the process.
7. Get another perspective or two
Do you need advice or do you need emotional support? Sometimes another perspective helps you see things more clearly; other times you need better information. Maybe you just need someone to listen and support you as you work through things.
Get help from someone who can stay emotionally steady. You have emotion tied up in this decision, so a mature, reliable friend or mentor is ideal. Help them understand their role with you. If you need specialized advice, choose someone with experience and training.
It’s OK to consult more than one person if they provide different help for you. You might ask a friend in your career field about different job choices, and ask a financial advisor for budgeting advice. But bringing in too many viewpoints can be confusing, so be sure you know why you’re asking someone for their help.
8. Accept loss as part of the process
Making a choice will cause a loss of some kind. You might have to let one job opportunity go to pursue another. You’ll give up some financial security if you leave your bad relationship, even if it’s safer and emotionally better for you.
It’s an easy mistake to think that making the right choice will fill you with happiness. So if thinking about both choices stirs up feelings of sadness or doubt, are you doomed to be unhappy no matter what you do? Probably not.
Loss is a normal part of the decision-making process and doesn’t mean you’ve made a bad choice. You may even feel some grief over the choice you’ve had to let go. This can feel uncomfortable, but it’s all normal. Accepting a state of mixed feelings can help you stick with your decision and minimize doubt.
How to Help a Loved One Make a Hard Decision
If you’re helping a loved one make a tough choice, use the following tips to support and guide them through the process.
Help them feel comfortable exploring all the options
Some people feel pressured to make decisions to please others. They make choices that put everyone else at ease but don’t serve them well. Encourage your loved one to explore all the options, even unpopular or unconventional choices. Some choices make more sense when you really clarify what your options are, even ones that sound outlandish. Be a safe person for them to bounce ideas off of and just talk things out.
Help them get clarity on the bottom line
Once your loved one has explored some choices, they may have a better idea what their bottom line is. Knowing this is essential. Their bottom line can give them a mental anchor, especially when their emotions creep up. Their difficult choice may cause them to cross other boundaries they don’t like. Keeping everything aligned with this core belief or stance can give them purpose as they follow through.
Help them take ownership and be proactive
Indecision can be stressful, especially if their situation seems murky or full of bad options. It’s tempting to just give in to whatever happens and let the chips fall where they may. But giving up can feel like defeat. Even if a person has to make an undesirable choice, being proactive can empower a person to move forward. Encourage them to focus on the benefits of their choice.
Help them remember they’re doing the best they can right now
Nobody can truly see the future. Your loved one probably wishes they could catch a glimpse of it before they make their choice. But without that foresight, they’re simply doing the best they can with what they know now. That’s all any of us can do. While some things are fairly predictable, there’s still uncertainty in the present moment.
Circumstances change, unexpected events occur, and even the best planning can go awry. So remind them if they start second guessing or regretting what they’ve done. Doubt is part of being a human, and it’s normal to wonder “what if” sometimes.
Be supportive of their struggle
Making a hard decision can be taxing, both mentally and emotionally. Even if the choice seems clear, there may be many consequences to deal with. Processing the decision and the aftermath can take a toll, and they’ll appreciate your support.
And even when they finalize their choice, they may second-guess themselves. This is normal and isn’t necessarily a sign they’ve made the wrong choice. If it’s a difficult situation, there may not be a 100% best option. Acknowledge that, and help them come to terms with their challenge.
Examples of Making a Hard Decision
The realistic examples below cover a few common difficult decisions you may need to make. Use them to help you better understand what you might do.
About a career
You know your supervisor wants you to take their position when they get promoted next month. The pay is good and you like your team, but you really don’t like management as a career move. It’ll be a lot more time-consuming and isn’t what you want to do all day.
You’ve been working more with technology and would love to get into a hands-on job in a completely different industry. But you know you’d start at the bottom, and you may need to take a pay cut. Do you accept the predictable promotion now, or decline and take a chance on a new career?
About a relationship
Your close friend from high school hasn’t matured in the same way you and your friends have. They often act like they did in high school, gossiping about others and stirring up controversy in public.
One time you tried talking with your friend about their behavior. They became upset and didn’t talk to you for a while. You were surprised at how much you missed them and didn’t want to do that again. But it’s gotten bad recently and you feel stuck. Do you bite your tongue and stay loyal, or do you speak up and risk losing the friendship?
About your health or treatment
You’ve been treating a long-term health condition with the same doctor for years. Something has to change, but nothing from your doctor has helped so far. You decide to see a different physician for a second opinion. They recommend a new medication that’s been helping many people with your condition. Used carefully, this medication can help. But it may also put other parts of your body under stress.
Do you try it now to get much-needed improvement in one area? Or do you play the waiting game and hope your condition doesn’t get worse while you look for a less risky treatment?
You’re ready for a change in your job, your environment, or maybe something else. You live close to family, and that’s been wonderful for so many years. But you know you want to experience other areas of the country, or even the world.
It seems like everyone is happy with your living situation but you. If you move away, you know you’ll miss out on the most important relationships in your life. But if you stay put, you’ll deny another very real part of you. Do you bite the bullet and move away? Or stick around and keep pushing off your dream?
Make Hard Choices Easier to Live With
If you wrote a letter to your future self, you’d have the wisdom to share about making tough decisions. These kinds of choices are always easier to understand when looking through the rear-view mirror. In many cases, hard decisions feel that way because we are hard on ourselves.
We allow our emotions and mental habits to take over. With some guidance and a fresh perspective, your next hard choice can be easier to live with.
- Pan, Pan. “Four Principles for Making Better Decisions.” INSEAD, September 4, 2014, knowledge.insead.edu
- Rich, Mollie. “Throwing good money after bad – Why We Fall Victim to the Sunk Cost Fallacy and How to Beat It.” Colby.edu CogBlog, April 21, 2017, web.colby.edu
- “Ruth Chang: How Can Making Hard Choices Empower Us?” NPR, March 10, 2017, npr.org