How to Make Hard Decisions Easier

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A reader recently asked a great question in response to a piece I wrote about how to make impossible decisions.

That’s all fine and good, she said, but what about permanent, irreversible decisions, like whether to have another child? You can’t just try it out and you can’t choose another path later.

It’s a good point, and she’s not alone in struggling with such a choice. I know from experience how stressful, terrifying, and even paralyzing big decisions can be. It can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and if you mess it up, you (and perhaps the people you love) will pay a huge price.

The thing is, most of our stress in making choices comes from a misunderstanding of what’s at stake. Here are 3 ways to make hard decisions—even permanent or irreversible ones—easier:

Embrace your lack of control.

When we face a hard decision, we usually want something.

Consider a decision you’re in the process of making and ask yourself what you want out of it.  Now think about all of the factors that influence these results. How many of these factors are under your total control?

The truth is that almost all outcomes depend in large part on the actions of others, genes, timing, circumstances, luck, and a whole host of other things that have nothing to do with anything you can change. Yes, you have influence and power, but you’re not even close to being in control.

And that’s okay.

I mean, you’ve made it this far, and without knowing you, I’m quite sure that you’ve accomplished a lot in your life even though you’re not in control. In fact, things often turn out far better on their own than they would have if we had been in charge of everything.

Flawless decisions won’t guarantee ideal outcomes. But we don’t have to control things for them to turn out just fine. Our best efforts and imperfect influence are enough.

Know that you’ll always have options.

Even if your decision is irreversible, you’ll always have options.

Example #1:

The other morning I was feeling overcommitted and desperately tired. I couldn’t think of a way to get out of my upcoming commitment and still feel good about myself, but I could find a way to make time for a nap later that afternoon.

Example #2:

I had a client who was fed up with her job but felt like she needed it for now for the income. So while she worked to get clear on her next steps, she also chose to advocate for projects she wanted and assert herself with her boss more. This took the sharpest edge off her work and allowed her to enjoy it more. She still had the same job, but her choices made her experience of it better, while opening up new possibilities for the future.

Example #3:

I had a friend who decided to go to Stanford’s law school. Three years and over $100,000+ later, she decided she didn’t want to be a lawyer after all—and there was nothing she could do to undo the debt she had taken on. So she made a choice. She took a corporate job that she really didn’t want and worked for a couple of years. She did everything she could to make her life as enjoyable as possible while she paid off her debts. When it was over, she made another choice to move to Europe with her family and make a fresh start as a teacher, writer, and speaker. Her choices may have been imperfect and irreversible, but they didn’t stop her from finding what she was looking for.

Don’t believe in heaven or hell.

There’s a story about a Zen master who’s visited by a samurai warrior. “I want to learn about heaven and hell,” says the samurai. “Do they exist?”

“Tell me,” answers the master, “why would I waste my breath explaining that to an ignorant brute like you? Don’t waste my time with your stupid questions.”

The enraged samurai lifts his sword and prepares to kill the man. Just before his sword descends, the master says calmly, “This is hell.”

Understanding dawns on the samurai as he realizes that he has just created his own hell of hatred and resentment. Realizing this, he is freed from it; his eyes fill with tears and he bows to the master in gratitude. “And this,” responds the master, “is heaven.”

Heaven and hell are internal states.  The best decision cannot guarantee joy, and the worst decision does not doom you to misery. You can find good in just about any path you take.

And if nothing else helps, remember this one thing: nothing—neither heaven nor hell—lasts forever.

The best thing you can do is make the best decision you can—and then breathe, try to relax, and enjoy the ride.

Over to You

What helps you make difficult decisions?  Please let us know by sharing your experience in the comments.

Make the Best Decisions Possible

If you’re struggling with a decision that feels impossible to make, come find help.  The next Pathfinders: Group Hike and Conversation to Find Your Calling is coming up.  You’ll meet other people facing difficult decisions, have the chance to talk through your dilemma, and learn techniques to get in touch with your intuition, all while going on a beautiful walk through the woods.  To find out more or to register, click here.


Photo credit: Bill Ohl//CC

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