How to Make Impossible Decisions

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Some decisions seem impossible to make.

No matter how much we think about them or talk about them or obsess over them, we don’t get any closer to a satisfying answer.

Why are these decisions so difficult?

In her TED talk on making hard choices, philosopher Ruth Chang asserts that decisions become difficult when the options are neither better nor worse nor equal. In other words, we struggle to decide when no single choice has more benefits than the others. The example she gives is deciding what to eat for breakfast: eating a donut would taste better, but eating a bowl of cereal would be healthier. Both options have roughly the same amount of benefits and drawbacks, but the benefits and drawbacks they offer are different.

So if no choice is clearly better, but they’re also not equal, then how in the world do you make impossible decisions?

Believe it or not, you can do it, no matter what’s at stake. Here are some ideas to help you:

Make sure you actually have a real decision to make

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people stuck because they were trying to make a decision that didn’t exist.

Often we try to make decisions before they’re actually real. Beth tries to decide what her answer will be to a job offer she might get. Jim wants to figure out what he will do if his roommate decides to move out. Mark really does need to decide where his daughter will go to high school, but only after she’s actually born.

The thing is, it’s very difficult—if not impossible—to make a good decision based on hypothetical information. Beth doesn’t know if she’ll even get an offer, or what the terms will be if she does, or what other offers she may have by that time. Jim has no idea what he’ll feel or what he’ll want if or when his roommate gives him notice. And if Mark thinks he can make decisions for a teenager without any input from her, he’s likely to be sorely disappointed.

Making imaginary decisions is not only difficult; it’s an incredible waste of time.

So if you’re struggling with a decision, the first question to ask is: Do I actually need to make this decision? And if so, by when?

If you’re not facing a real decision, or if your drop dead date is a ways in the future, then I recommend waiting.

I know, I know. If you’re like me, the idea of prolonging uncertainty sounds about as relaxing as a bath in hot tar. But I promise, you can do it, and it will save you time and energy and lead to better actual decision-making in the long run.

Embrace the fact that there’s no wrong answer

Often we struggle with decisions because we imagine that if we can just get it right, we’ll be able to walk down Easy Street the rest of our lives.

This just isn’t true. Remember what Ruth Chang said about the options in hard decisions: one isn’t better or worse than the others. They all have pros and cons. No matter what we decide, there will be benefits and challenges. There’s really no way to go wrong.

If you still feel you have to get it right, remember that every decision you make is just for now. Sometimes you can’t know whether something is right for you until you try it (if you think you should be able to figure everything out in your head, then please imagine trying to decide whom to marry without ever actually going on a date).

If you try something out and find that it’s not right for you, then you can adjust. Ruth Chang herself offers a great example of this. She had a decision to make about whether to be a lawyer or a philosopher. She chose law. It wasn’t a good fit. So she switched things up and pursued philosophy. Now she’s a professor at Rutgers and is giving TED talks watched by over a million people.

You are just as strong, capable, and adaptable. You can absolutely handle challenges and make adjustments if things don’t go your way. That’s the best way to grow into a wise, mature, and loving human being anyway.

A straight line between two points is definitely the shortest, but a crooked, wavy, and curvy line is probably the fun-est. Who wants life to be short, anyway?

Use your IQ, EQ, and SQ

As I say in almost everything I write, we rely on our heads too much in our current culture. Our heads give us great information, but if that’s all we’re using, we’re leaving a lot on the table.

I recently worked with a client who couldn’t decide if she wanted to find another 9-5 job or try to freelance on her own. She was caught in her head analyzing the decision and felt paralyzed, confused, and unable to decide.

She was applying her Intellectual Intelligence (IQ) quite effectively to the problem. But she was letting her Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Somatic Intelligence (SQ) lay idle. When she started to tap into the information her feelings and body were giving her, she realized how much more excited she was to work for herself. Bam. Her decision was made. And the more she tuned into her EQ and SQ, the surer she was it was the right one.

The key to using your EQ and SQ is to check in with your feelings and body sensations. Imagine yourself in each scenario. Paint a richly-detailed picture complete with sounds, smells, sights, and textures for each possible option. Or actually try it out. Hang out in the house you’re thinking about buying. Shadow a plumber for a day if you think you might like to be one. Take care of your friend’s pitbull for a week if you’re thinking you’d like to get a dog.

Then—and this is the most important part—pay attention to how you respond. What feelings come up for you when you’re snaking people’s pipes? What body sensations do you notice as you do yoga in the living room or take the pitbull on a walk? Are they opening, lightening, relaxing sensations, or do they feel more tense, heavy, and unpleasant?

You have enough intelligence in you to make even the most difficult decision wisely. Just remember your most powerful smarts are not always located between your ears.

Look Your Fear in the Eyes

Fear is like one of those annoying 24-hour news network pundits: it has an opinion about everything.

No matter what decision you’re facing, fear is going to be involved. So rather than pretend you can’t see it, why not give it a place at the table?

What are you afraid will happen if you make the wrong decision? What thoughts, when you have them, make your belly tighten or your blood run cold? What would you like to avoid at all costs?

Fear is not a bad thing; it’s simply an indicator that we care about something and we’re facing the unknown. You get to decide how much credence you want to give your fear.

Does the pundit have any useful suggestions for you? Something you want to pay attention to or keep in mind as you decide? If so, great. If it’s a bunch of hot air, that’s fine too. Either way, thank your fear for its opinions, nod your head, and then go back to more productive conversations with your other dinner guests.

If you’re having a hard time discerning your voice of fear from your voice of wisdom, try imagining yourself at 90 years old. Once you have a good picture of yourself after a successful and fulfilling life, ask your inner 90-year-old what he or she thinks of your decision. What would he or she recommend? Older people have a much broader perspective and tend to be able to distinguish fear from wisdom, even if they are imaginary.

Bounce it off someone else

Okay, you may have tried this already, and if you haven’t—why haven’t you? Other people can’t tell you what’s right for you (because there’s no way for them to know), but they can help you sense into what’s right for you.

Other people can:

  • Reflect back to you not only what they’re hearing from you, but how they’re hearing it (ie, “You just sound really excited when you talk about that possibility.”).
  • Help you think through factors you hadn’t considered, or see other options you didn’t think of.
  • Help you articulate things more clearly than they sound when they’re swirling in your head at a 100-miles-an-hour.
  • Say things that you can notice your response to (ie, if you find yourself arguing against someone’s suggestion, now you know what you really want).

I’ve found over the years that the people I talk to about my decisions usually have no idea about what’s best for me (how can they?). They have different values than me, and their experiences, though perhaps related, don’t necessarily indicate what the future has in store for me.

But in noticing how I respond to others, I get lots of information about what’s true for me. Recently I was deciding what color to choose for the roof of my chicken coop. I kept asking different people their opinion until I found someone who suggested red. Suddenly I didn’t feel the need to ask anybody else. Bingo. That’s what I really wanted all along.

 

We don’t have control over much in this world, but we do have control over what we decide. Maybe that’s another reason why decisions are so stressful, because on some level we realize that they’re the only influence we have on this wild and chaotic world.

When we realize that it’s only the decision itself, and not anything that follows, that is under our control, we can begin to relax into a sense of freedom.

I can’t guarantee that I’ll meet all my work goals or have a close relationship with my family or a stress-free summer or anything else I might desire, no matter how many brilliant choices I make. All results and outcomes depend on things that are far outside of my control—the choices other people make, the environment I’m working in, events that I have nothing to do with. So I can stop laboring under the illusion that if I just make the right decisions, I’ll get everything I want.

I can embrace instead the truth that no matter what happens, there will be gifts and challenges. That I am capable of handling whatever life throws my way. That whatever results, I can choose how I respond and find joy in what’s good. That often what happens is far better than what I could have orchestrated. And that good things often come from unexpected places.

When we realize how little we control in this world, and how unnecessary control is for happiness, decisions become a whole lot easier.

Get More Help to Make Impossible Decisions

If you’re trying to make decisions about your career, more help is available.  I offer individual and group coaching programs at various levels of investment that can help you learn how to recognize your inner wisdom and put your full intelligence to work in your decision-making.  Click here to request a free Clarity Call to talk about your needs, learn more about these programs, and discover how you can find the work you’re meant to do in the world.

***Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff//CC

2 thoughts on “How to Make Impossible Decisions

  1. A very useful article, thank you. However, any advice for permanent, irreversible decisions? I am struggling to decision whether to try for a third child at the age of 40 and worried about the associated risks and impact on my existing children. I cannot try this scenario out, or choose another path later. I have read much on decision making and this particular one seems unique in this respect.

    Many thanks

    1. Caroline, it’s a good question and a tough one. What helps me the most with difficult decisions, even permanent ones, is to tune into my internal guidance. Sometimes I do this by considering what’s the best thing that could happen in each scenario. What’s the worst? What would I gain by moving forward and what would I lose? Then I check in with my heart and body to see what they have to say. Often when I do that, one course of action feels more right than others. Usually if I’m still flummoxed, I wait until I get clarity.

      It also helps me to realize that there are always going to be unknowns and things outside of my control. In other words, I don’t make the world go round through my decisions. You can’t ensure good health or happy children no matter what you decide. All you can do is make the best decision you’re capable of and then respond as best you can with what results. As humans, we don’t have perfect vision or control, and we don’t need it. Our ability to influence events doesn’t sound like much, but in my experience, it’s more than enough.

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