Every day, you make decisions about everything from what you’ll eat for lunch to the route you’ll take to get to work. When you think of “difficult decisions,” though, you typically think of major decisions like accepting a job offer, purchasing a house, or asking for a raise.
Tough life decisions, such as those involving health or caring for a loved one, may be even more monumental. Making challenging decisions to ensure a safe, healthy, and financially secure future might be your definition of difficult decisions.
Everyone, however, is unique. For your best buddy, what you consider a difficult decision may be a no-brainer for him. Whatever level of qualification each of you assigns to this option, here are some practical measures to take.
Why decisions can be so difficult
Ultimately, what defines a hard decision isn’t so much the decision itself, but how it is perceived by the decision-maker. You might feel that a decision is hard because:
- the stakes, for you, are particularly high;
- two or more options weigh the same in your mind; or
- this decision brings back unhelpful memories or fears. This is the case, for example, where a choice is reminiscent of disappointing past choices. It is also the case for the individual whose psychological complexes are triggered by certain challenging situations. For example, a decision might unconsciously reignite a past traumatic event and alter your judgment as a result.
Consider the person who struggles with the decision to accept a more senior position with considerably higher compensation, when many others would jump on the opportunity. This might be linked to their fear of failing in a high-stakes/high-visibility position.
It could also be because the option of staying in a less senior role is equally attractive, but for different reasons, such as having more free time. Finally, for this person, perhaps breaking into this level of seniority throws up a whole range of issues that originated in their childhood.
I have seen this often with successful professionals whose important decisions are regularly affected by the power of an overactive superego (that is, the image of a parent or another past figure of authority, irrespective of whether they are still alive or not).
In other words, decisions are complex, not necessarily because the choice between two options is complex but also, more importantly, because human beings are complex.
The etymology of the word ‘decision’ provides further insight. It comes from the Latin word caedere meaning ‘to cut off. Decisions cut us off from other choices, other opportunities, and the possibility of better outcomes. For this reason, the act of deciding can feel like a self-inflicted wound.
Avoiding a decision is in fact a decision
When faced with a difficult decision, it can be tempting to take the easy road and procrastinate. This attitude illustrates what might be the greatest myth about decision-making: that, faced with two choices, we still have the option to not decide and to do nothing.
In fact, procrastination is not the refusal to decide or to ‘freeze’ a decision in time, rather it is the active decision to remain undecided. It is only when you realize that procrastination is a decision that you will start finding this option less attractive.
Moreover, indecision and procrastination do not postpone the pains of a decision to a future day: they multiply that pain by spreading it across every minute of every day until you finally decide.
Research from the 1990s led by the US psychologist Thomas Gilovich provides further evidence for why it can be shortsighted to kick a difficult decision down the road.
Gilovich and his team showed that although in the short term, people experience more regret from ‘errors of commission’ (taking an action that leads to a disappointing outcome), in the long term it is actually ‘errors of omission’ that lead to more regret – that is, disappointing outcomes that arise from not taking an action.
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.
1. Visualize Preferred Outcomes
Consider what you want before diving into the assignments and facts. Visualization is not a magical process, but rather a deliberate one. Organizations create strategic plans based on their goals. Visualization is credited to the success of leaders, influencers, entertainers, and sports, to mention a few.
Just ask any Olympic gold winner or sports psychologist about the importance of envisioning the greatest possible outcome in their achievement.
You don’t have to be playing at that level to apply this approach while making difficult judgments. So, take a step back and think about, and perhaps even journal, your intended outcome.
2. Do Your Homework
Gather pertinent facts to assist you in effectively ferreting out your alternatives before making any difficult decision—or any decision at all. If you’re deciding which college or university to attend, the devil is in the details (or sending your child to).
What are the placement rates, tuition, room and board expenses, variables affecting campus life, and, of course, what is their reputation in relation to your degree path?
The data collecting stage is crucial for narrowing down your alternatives and elevating the finest ones. Otherwise, you’re taking a chance on a shaky foundation.
3. Think Through Each Option
This may sound self-evident, but you may be having trouble if you’re only considering one option. Instead, go through all of the options and the pathways that each option takes. Consider it a flowchart. Where may you end up if you choose one path?
If you must choose medical treatment, you will most likely want to know all of your alternatives. Consider alternative medicine, a second opinion, or a different type of operation or treatment to feel more secure about your final decision.
4. Identify the Pros and Cons
Remember the “old school” advantages and disadvantages list? It’s not as out-of-date or inane as you would assume. Putting your alternatives down in black and white allows you to physically evaluate your possibilities.
For example, suppose you’ve been given a new job and are unsure whether or not to accept it. At the top of your page, put “remain” or “go,” and then list all of the advantages and disadvantages of each. This is where you’ll put your research findings, views, advantages, and dangers for each option.
In most cases, the column with the longer list is the preferable choice. However, there are a few more measures you need to do to feel more secure about your decision.
5. Consider Others’ Opinions
Speak with others who have already traveled this path. Bring questions to the conversation that will not only be respectful of their time but will also allow you to obtain real-time advice and views.
These discussions should include family, friends, coworkers, mentors, coaches, and, of course, anybody who will be impacted by this difficult decision.
They will not only provide you with valuable information, but they will also act as a source of support, reassuring you that you are not alone in the process.
Keep in mind that not all decisions require the opinion of others, and you may have to make the difficult decision on your own. However, if others will be impacted by your difficult decision, they will advocate for you.
6. Expect Pushback
You should never dwell on the negative consequences of your decisions, yet any decision will be met with opposition. Others will express their displeasure with your decision, and they will surely let you know.
Remember that you won’t be able to please everyone, and you shouldn’t try. Otherwise, emotions will take precedence over facts, clouding your judgment.
Even though every decision will include some emotion, you must rely on the hard work you’ve put in thus far, as well as the facts and opinions you’ve gathered.
When individuals express their concerns, let them know that you’ve heard them and that you value and appreciate their viewpoint. You should be able to allay their fears and get their cooperation by doing so.
7. Be Willing to Course Correct
If you don’t succeed the first time, try, try again. No one is flawless; you are human, and you will make errors. When you own up to your error, though, it’s much more likely that people will rally behind you if you need to make a course correction.
It’s unhealthy to blame others (and yourself) for your faults. Instead, take pride in the work you put in to achieve this.
Remember that you’ve previously described the options, pathways, and outcomes that you may attempt again. And, because you’ve previously prepared for a course adjustment, you should feel even more confident.
8. Be Confident in Your Decision
You’ve gone through the stages so far—and there may be more—and you’re ready to make your difficult decision. You should be confident in your decision. You should also be pleased with yourself for putting in so much effort to reach this position.
Start letting go of your doubts and concerns regarding the decision you’ve made if you haven’t already. If you still feel like you need to do more effort and aren’t sure about your option, go back to step one and imagine fresh results.
9. Trust in Yourself
Famous leaders, corporate moguls, and industry gurus all have one thing in common: self-confidence. They are adamant that once they’ve reached this stage in making a difficult decision, they must have faith in themselves.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “trust your gut.” When it comes to making difficult judgments, intuition may be quite useful.
Somatic markers—those feelings inside the body that correspond to emotions, such as increased heart rate—often drive decision-making, according to scientific data. 
When the greatest possible conclusion is unknown, consider how each option will make you feel in the end. And in certain situations, such as when it comes to exam answers, your gut feeling is correct.
It’s fine to be anxious about a difficult issue, but not to the point that it impairs your ability to make difficult judgments.
Steve Jobs has openly stated that he didn’t always know what he was doing or that he always made the best judgments. “You have to trust in something—your intuition, destiny, life, karma, whatever,” he believed once he was ready to make the difficult decision.
This method has never failed me, and it has made a significant difference in my life.”
10. Make Your Tough Decision
While making difficult life decisions isn’t always simple, it’s also not always enjoyable to put them into action. You’ll feel better once you’ve made the difficult decision.
So, take a minute to appreciate your careful screening, the hard work, and the thinking that went into making this difficult decision. There has been a lot that has led you to this point.
As a result, you should be pleased with your journey. Now is the moment to make a decision and take action.
You will have to make difficult decisions throughout your life, but by following these steps, you can make the process much simpler. As you imagine good possibilities and acquire the information needed to evaluate your options, your confidence and clarity will grow.
Remember that it’s fine to make errors and course-correct along the way, but you’ll get more support and buy-in if you engage others in your decision-making process.
Too many decisions are made on the spur of the moment, with little thought to the consequences—but you shouldn’t. You now have a strategy for making difficult life decisions. So, go ahead and bring them on!