Making big decisions can sometimes feel like an impossible, almost paralyzing task. These tips can help you break free of uncertainty and confidently move ahead.
Sometimes even the simplest decisions, like what to have for dinner, can slow you down. Making a big, potentially life changing decision can feel like climbing an impossibly tall mountain. What if you make the wrong choice?
It can feel tempting to delay decision-making and bury your head in the sand. No decision means not having to worry about potential consequences.
Decision-making is tough, and so much goes into it, from your personal history to the values you learned growing up, says Dr. Morgan Levy, a licensed psychologist based in Florida.
“It’s “normal” to experience lots of different emotions when making a decision. It’s common to experience fear and worry and sometimes even regret. It’s very rare to find anyone who has gone through life without ever regretting anything,” says Levy.
But you can learn how to make a big decision and be more decisive. Consider the following tips to help you confidently make a decision.
Whether you’re deciding on something minor or something that might change your life significantly, it can help to ask the right questions.
When considering what to eat for your next meal, you might ask yourself, “what am I in the mood for?”
But for a potentially life changing decision, digging deeper can be helpful. Levy recommends asking yourself the following when trying to make a big decision:
- What are my options?
- What are the pros and cons of each outcome of this decision?
- How can I handle each outcome?
- How can I cope if the decision backfires?
- What am I giving up by making this decision?
- Will this decision impact my psychological well-being?
- How will this decision impact the people around me?
- What if I fail?
- What if I succeed?
Dr. Wayne Pernell, a California-based author, speaker, and leadership expert with a PhD in clinical psychology, also suggests asking yourself:
- Does this serve my future identity?
- What resources might be required for pursuing this?
- How will this enhance my life?
Unless you’re in a position or profession that involves life and death immediate decision-making, such as a nurse or ER doctor, you probably have time to make your big decision. The hustle and bustle of life can sometimes make it harder to focus and reflect.
Finding a moment for quiet reflection may help you connect with your inner thoughts and feelings, says Levy, who recommends practicing mindfulness to stay grounded in the present moment.
“One of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness is by focusing on my senses. This involves just taking a few moments to name what I am seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and physically feeling,” she says.
When you’re in the moment and not stuck on thoughts of the past or future, you may find it easier to make decisions.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a choice in front of you, writing things down can also help you make sense of your options.
“By putting our thoughts to paper, it helps them feel less jumbled in our mind. This space that is cleared up helps us to gain the clarity to pick the decision that feels the best for us,” says Levy.
When creating this list, she recommends not focusing too much on the number of items in each column.
Instead, tune into the big picture. “One emotional point could outweigh ten practical points. Our emotions matter,” Levy adds.
Pernell recommends starting with the cons and paying attention to whether you feel any particular fears as you list them. “Or, potentially, you are feeling excited about being able to get to list the pros,” he adds.
Noticing how you feel when making a list might provide more insight than the list itself.
One of the scariest parts of making decisions is knowing there’s a possibility of making the wrong choice, which can feel like a failure.
“When we recognize that we are human and we make mistakes and that we will inevitably experience failure, it becomes much easier with decision making because we trust that we will be able to get through whatever the outcome is,” says Levy.
However, being comfortable with the idea of bad outcomes can take practice. So how do you get better?
Levy points to learning the skill of ‘Radical Acceptance,’ which involves recognizing that bad outcomes don’t feel great, but there’s room to move forward. “Failure is inevitable, and it’s all about how we move through it,” she says.
Consider, too, that the “wrong” choice may not necessarily be all bad. Pernell says he’s a fan of the idea that there is no failure, only lessons learned. “Whether you are winning or losing, what are you learning?”
Setting a deadline is one way to encourage yourself to “bite the bullet” and make a decision. It can be a helpful way to avoid decision paralysis, says Levy. “By setting a deadline, it helps us move forward instead of staying stuck in the fear of making the “wrong” decision.”
The best way to set a decision-making deadline? Levy recommends scheduling your final decision date, so you have some room to weigh the pros and cons and sit with your thoughts and feelings.
But while giving yourself time to research and collect data can be helpful, Pernell cautions that it can also lead to procrastination.
You might think asking for help making a decision is a “cop-out.” In reality, leaning on a solid support network can be invaluable when you’re finding it tough to decide on something big.
“It’s okay to ask for input and for their perspectives, but it can become harmful when you’re consistently doing that because you’re afraid of disappointing them,” says Levy.
Instead of asking people what they might do, ask for their perspective on the situation, suggests Levy. You might find a new way of looking at things you hadn’t considered.
Pernell explains that there’s often a risk when looking to others for advice in this context. “You are likely to get responses reflecting their own need for safety and security,” he says.
Looking for help outside your immediate support network may be more helpful. If you feel stuck in your decision-making and need guidance, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for help.
Suppose you’re looking for additional resources to help support you with your decision-making process. In that case, Levy recommends resources from Brené Brown, who frequently broaches the subject of moving forward in life. And Pernell suggests Edward DeBono’s work on lateral thinking.
It may sound like “hocus pocus,” but your gut can help when making tough decisions.
“As a clinical psychologist, I’m a strong believer that every person is capable of knowing what feels right for them. It may take time to trust yourself, but it is not impossible,” explains Levy.
“Usually, our instinct and gut feelings are based on our own life experiences, memories, and emotions that inform our decision-making. Every emotion and instinct that we experience is our own psyche informing us about the impact of something and providing us with useful information.”
If you don’t feel confident about trusting your gut, Levy recommends trying a mindfulness technique like the STOP technique to get in tune with your gut feelings:
- take a breath
Levy explains that
“It’s not about being confident that the outcome is correct, but rather that you can make a decision and know that you can handle any outcome that results,” says Pernell.
Levy notes that it’s essential to keep in mind that living with a mental health condition can make decision-making very challenging. “A lack of confidence in decision-making could be a symptom rather than a cause,” she says.
These symptoms may be associated with mental health conditions, such as:
If you have trouble making decisions, you’re not alone. Even the most confident, self-assured people can experience decision paralysis.
“The most important factor to remember is that there is no perfect choice or only one right choice. There are pros and cons to every single decision that we make,” says Levy.
More important is to realize that you can get through whatever decision you make, whether it ends well or not. There’s also no ideal strategy for making big decisions, Levy adds.
“Each person will have different factors that are most important to them when it comes to making a decision. A helpful first step is to learn what type of person you are and what is most important to you.”