From the moment we wake up to when we hit our heads back on that pillow, decisions need to be made. Sure, they’re a mix of easy (what to wear, what to eat) and hard, but when you have to make a tough decision—like, say, deciding to change careers, or take a break in your relationship—it can be difficult to know whether you’re doing the right thing. And for many, decision-making can feel downright terrifying.
That’s because we start learning how to make those tough decisions when we’re kids. “Early experiences have a significant impact on your ability to make decisions effectively,” says Catherine Richardson, LPC, a Talkspace therapist. “Young children quickly learn from their environment whether they are capable of making decisions for themselves or are in need of an authority figure to do so for them. This sets the stage for what autonomy will look like in adolescence and adulthood.”
Translation: if you never have to make tough decisions for yourself at a young age, it can be that much more difficult to develop the skill as an adult. Throw other factors in the mix, like good ole’ perfectionism and chronic stress, and it’s likely you’re filled with a hefty amount of uncertainty when it’s time for you to give an answer.
The good news: regardless of your upbringing, there are plenty of things you can do now to help make tough decisions easier (and faster!). Here’s what the experts say can help guide you in the right direction.
Take a few days to think...
While some choices can be made fast, life-altering ones like moving into a new home need a little more thought investment to help counteract the feelings that may be associated with the situation. “We are emotional beings and prone to making hasty decisions without thinking through the benefits and consequences of each scenario, Richardson says. “After your HVAC has broken down for the 50th time, it's easy to decide you're done with your current home. But instead of breaking your lease that night, take a breath, go somewhere with decent air conditioning, and create a list of the pros and cons to help you make an action plan for how to move forward.”
Make a tried-and-true pros and cons list.
Doing so helps you avoid making difficult decisions based on impulse. “When the time comes to decide, things such as fear or excitement can dominate that initial period,” says Margaret Seide, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in New York City. “If you take two to three days to decide, potential drawbacks and benefits of your choice enter into your decision-making. You get to marry that initial frenzy with more level-headed reasoning, giving you the best of both worlds.”
That’s why Richardson suggests using at least 24-48 hours as a baseline requirement for thinking through any tough decision, giving you time to reason with both your head and heart (and maybe even ask a trusted friend for advice). For major decisions such as a career change, moving, or ending a relationship, she notes it can be helpful to take anywhere from five to seven days, as these decisions will have a greater impact on the trajectory of your life.
Need to make a tough decision, fast?
If you don’t have that kind of time on your hands, Seide says to use 75 percent of the time 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?
But know when you’re procrastinating.
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.”
Does this align with my beliefs and values?
How will this affect my future?
What am I willing to sacrifice for this?
“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.”
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.
“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.
Make a list.
There’s a reason pro-con lists are so damn popular: “They’re a great way to get what’s in your head out on paper,” Richardson says. “Many times you have an idea in your head that makes complete sense, but once you flesh it out on paper you notice there are some holes. This gives you an opportunity to decide if you're willing to take the risks ahead or if it's wiser to stay the course.”
Pro-con lists are particularly useful when making multi-faceted decisions, like moving. You want to be sure to think through factors like cost, proximity to loved ones, proximity to work, and preferred setting (rural, suburban, urban). Doing so will give you an idea of the benefits and drawbacks of a choice.
If you want to go more in-depth with your list, try a toward-away version, Seide suggests. “List what you might be moving toward when you choose something, and what things you would be moving away from,” she says. “Is this decision moving you toward or away from the highest ambitions you have for yourself?”
Consider if the decision is moving you towards your goals.
Just be careful not to turn your list into a math competition, Seide warns. “No one should say to themselves, ‘I have five cons and seven pros, so I guess I should do the thing; the pros have it by two.’” Not every item on your list will be equally weighted, and it’s better to think in terms of value, she explains. There might be one pro that blows all the cons out of the water; helping to make your decision more clear.
Email a friend.
It’s not a lifeline on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, so yeah, you could text said friend or even meet up in person for a (socially distanced) coffee or walk. But when you’re choosing to, say, end a relationship—or make any decision that involves multiple people—it may be best to utilize human capital for help, Richardson says. Just be sure to ask someone who knows you and the other person well, is someone you trust to be honest with you, and who is completely neutral about the situation. Not only will that friend be able to think objectively, but they can also give you feedback based solely on the facts. (To really create an unbiased effect, Richardson says you could also email instead of talking face-to-face, as most people are more likely to give honest input that way.)
That said, keep your convos to just one or two confidantes, as Seide says too many opinions can add to your confusion. “When random people are weighing in on your deliberations—like your cousin, Uber driver, and the neighbor you never talked to before—you may be speaking to people who don’t truly know the inner workings of your life but won’t hesitate to offer an opinion anyway,” she explains. “These people just might be putting their fears and limiting beliefs onto you,” and could ultimately cause you to make a decision that isn’t necessarily the best.
If you're deciding on a new job, analyze your values.
When making a life-shaping decision, like shifting careers, it can be illuminating to examine all your values and look closely at how aligned your life actually is to them at the current moment, Richardson says.
First, think about the things directly associated with your job, like financial security and how meaningful your work feels. But then look at all the factors shaping your life outside the office, Richardson says. Note how much leisure time you have and compare it to how much you want, along with how often you see your family and friends, and how much you can invest in a romantic relationship. All of these are important components that will help shape where your career should go.
Throw a dress rehearsal.
For more visual learners, Seide says it may be helpful to take a day to inhabit the results of a choice you’re thinking about making. Visualize how you would spend your day, considering who you would be interacting with, what you would wear, and where you would go. If you can, it may even be helpful to actually do all of those things.
“Try that life on as much as you possibly can and see what feelings come up,” she says. “Then, spend the next day in the other option, and tune into the emotions associated with that.” Doing so can reveal how you feel about your decision, which is just as important as the tangible details. Capitalizing on the opportunity to re-enact and sit with those feelings can help make your choice more clear.
And here's how to stand by your choice.
Hooray, you’ve made your decision! But now you’re...second guessing that choice. Don’t worry, this kind of thing happens all the time, Richardson says. But that doesn’t mean your decision was the wrong one—it’s more likely you’re thinking about the cost that comes with your resolution, and that’s a totally normal part of the process.
If you’ve given the time and thought that the decision warrants...trust in what you’ve decided and move forward with your eyes wide open.
That said, if you find yourself ruminating about whether you did the best thing, simply remind yourself there is no perfect choice, Richardson says. “If you’ve given the time and thought that the decision warrants...trust in what you’ve decided and move forward with your eyes wide open.”
Have an accountability partner.
It’s a lot tougher to hem and haw about the judgment you’ve made when someone else is there to make sure you follow through on the action plan tied to it. So have someone hold you accountable, Richardson says, and set a timeline to make sure you’re making progress.
Case in point: “If you’ve decided to change careers, make a list of three to five goals and when they need to be accomplished, such as registering for additional training, reaching out to a recruiter, and attending networking events,” she says. Share those deadlines with your accountability partner, who can continuously check in and provide the gentle nudges you may need to continue your follow-through.
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