Which way do I go? When you have a tough decision to make

Here’s some advice about how to choose which path to take when the way forward is not clear. The top line is that it’s helpful to have an intentional process of some kind when facing a tough decision. Otherwise, our default mode may use fear or reactivity as a guide, which gets in the way of leading with our values. Two additional resources here and here.

  1. Tough decisions are often ones about which we feel conflicted. Different parts of us prioritize different things. Try a short writing exercise in which you start every sentence “Part of me is afraid that….” as many times as you need to until you’ve voiced all the fears. Listen out for what other parts of you have to say; give these parts names so you can listen out for their distinct voices as you work through your decision.
  2. Decisions can be tough because there’s not an obvious “ideal” option. For those of us who lean perfectionist, any less-than-ideal option may feel like all the choices are “bad.” We need to accept that choices involve tradeoffs in which we have to let go of something in order to get something else, even if temporarily. Don’t get stuck in the trap of trying to have everything by not making a choice. To not decide something is also a choice.
  3. Turn “shoulds” into “wants” and “needs.” Most of the tough decisions we face don’t have objectively right answers. There will be choices that align better with our values or that are more right for us in this moment of our life. The task of deciding is not about looking outside of you for what you “should” do, but to look inside you for what you want or need.
  4. Tough decisions can take time to work through; meantime, you have to live with more uncertainty and that’s a hard thing to do. Acknowledge that explicitly and be kind to yourself in it. Do what you need to to support yourself in coping with the increased uncertainty, while granting yourself some time to make the decision. Try not to force a decision because uncertainty is uncomfortable; there will be more uncertainty around the next bend and it will serve you better to get used to that idea.
  5. Tough decisions are usually made with some combination of rational pro/con type thinking and feelings or intuition. There are tools in those resources above to guide you through each of those. It can help to disentangle the head and heart aspects of thinking through a problem while still honoring both.
  6. Break down a tough decision into smaller parts. That may clarify where you’re really stuck. If you’re frozen at the first fork in the road, taking small steps down either or both paths — in your mind or in reality — can get you unstuck. Don’t worry about “wasting” energy on the “wrong” path — life is a series of experiments and we often have to try things on to know they don’t fit.
  7. Do some reflecting and writing about the things you value most dearly in your life. Step back from the current moment and think about your life from the far end of it. What do you want to be able to say came first when you look back on your life?
  8. Live out a thought experiment: imagine that you’ve made a choice and try it on in your mind for a for a few days. Let go of the other option(s) and try on having already picked a path. Make notes of the thoughts and feelings that come up over the course of that time as you imagine you’ve already made the choice.
  9. Make intentional time to reflect and write; don’t let ruminating on your choice run in the background while you’re doing other things. When ruminating about it crops up, grab your computer or a piece of paper and write about your thoughts and feelings for a defined period of time (10-15 minutes, say) and then return to what you were doing. If the ruminating returns, remind yourself that this kind of problem-solving is best done in short, focused bursts and not by brooding for long stretches about it.
  10. Take “meta” notes about your process: notice where you tend to get stuck in working through tough decisions. Do you minimize the validity of your experience? Do you engage in a lot of self-doubt? Do you avoid and procrastinate? Are your expectations perfectionist? Is anxiety hampering you? Are you easily discouraged? Identify how you get in your own way and learn how to respond to your particular kind of self-undermining. A coach or therapist can be particularly helpful here, as well as a good friend or trusted colleague.