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How to make a difficult decision | Psyche

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Guide

How to make a difficult decision

It’s tempting but unwise to delay important choices. Grasp the nettle by using both systematic checklists and gut instinct

by Joseph Bikart + BIO

Photo by Raymond Depardon/Magnum

Need to know

A couple of years ago, following the publication of my book The Art of Decision Making (2019), I took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ named after the 1981 hit song by the Clash. This is the question we face time and time again, whether it applies to a relationship, a job, the home we inhabit, or any other critical dilemma.

My work as an executive coach involves helping people make these tough decisions for themselves and ultimately by themselves. Unlike a mentor, this is not about giving advice. It is about giving people the tools and confidence to trust their own choices and to act upon them.

In this Guide, I will give you an overview of some of these tools and techniques, and how you can use them to accelerate and improve your decision-making.

Why decisions can be so difficult

Ultimately, what defines a hard decision isn’t so much the decision itself, but how it is perceived by the decision maker. You might feel that a decision is hard because:

  • the stakes, for you, are particularly high;
  • two or more options weigh the same in your mind; or
  • this decision brings back unhelpful memories or fears. This is the case, for example, where a choice is reminiscent of disappointing past choices. It is also the case for the individual whose psychological complexes are triggered by certain challenging situations. For example, a decision might unconsciously reignite a past traumatic event and alter your judgment as a result.

Consider the person who struggles with the decision to accept a more senior position with a considerably higher compensation, when many others would jump on the opportunity. This might be linked to their fear of failing in a high-stakes/high-visibility position. It could also be because the option of staying in a less senior role is equally attractive, but for different reasons, such as having more free time. Finally, for this person, perhaps breaking into this level of seniority throws up a whole range of issues that originated in their childhood. I have seen this often with successful professionals whose important decisions are regularly affected by the power of an overactive superego (that is, the image of a parent or another past figure of authority, irrespective of whether they are still alive or not).

In other words, decisions are complex, not necessarily because the choice between two options is complex but also, and more importantly, because human beings are complex.

The etymology of the word ‘decision’ provides further insight. It comes from the Latin word caedere meaning ‘to cut off’. Decisions cut us off from other choices, other opportunities and the possibility of better outcomes. For this reason, the act of deciding can feel like a self-inflicted wound.

Avoiding a decision is in fact a decision

When faced with a difficult decision, it can be tempting to take the easy road and procrastinate. This attitude illustrates what might be the greatest myth about decision-making: that, faced with two choices, we still have the option to not decide and to do nothing. In fact, procrastination is not the refusal to decide, or to ‘freeze’ a decision in time, rather it is the active decision to remain undecided. It is only when you realise that procrastination is a decision that you will start finding this option less attractive. Moreover, indecision and procrastination do not postpone the pains of a decision to a future day: they multiply that pain by spreading it across every minute of every day, until you finally decide.

Research from the 1990s led by the US psychologist Thomas Gilovich provides further evidence for why it can be shortsighted to kick a difficult decision down the road. Gilovich and his team showed that although, in the short term, people experience more regret from ‘errors of commission’ (taking an action that leads to a disappointing outcome), in the long term it is actually ‘errors of omission’ that lead to more regret – that is, disappointing outcomes that arise from not taking an action.

Therefore, over the long term, it is often wiser to act, and therefore to decide. As Ralph Keeney, a decision scientist and professor emeritus at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in North Carolina, put it: ‘Your decisions offer you the only way to purposefully influence anything in your life. Everything else just happens.’

If you struggle with decision-making – generally or occasionally – this Guide will help you understand some of the reasons behind it, and point you in the direction of solutions.

What to do

I’d encourage you to read this section with one difficult decision in mind and use the exercises to help you work through it. Ideally, it will be one you are facing right now. If that’s not applicable to you, try revisiting a past decision instead.

Identify the parts of yourself that want different things

When facing difficult decisions, it is likely that different parts of you might want different things. For example, when deciding whether to book a pricey holiday, one part of you (prudent) might think that this expense is unreasonable, while another part of you (hedonistic) prefers to make the most of life and go for it, while yet another part of you (serious) will think that work should come first. Decision-making involves the deliberation between the different parts of yourself. Resolving this conundrum involves getting them to sit together around an imaginary table to agree on an outcome they can all settle for. In practical terms, try writing down what each part of you wants and seeing if you can identify a solution that optimises the joint aspirations of your different inner selves. Even if you don’t get that far just yet, the simple act of recognising your own competing desires will help you to think through the decision more effectively.

Create distance from the decision

The more you struggle with difficult decisions, the less distance from them you enjoy and the more bogged down you can become. And yet, psychological distance provides a sense of perspective that is a key component of effective decision-making. Already in the 16th century, the Spanish priest and theologian Ignatius of Loyola suggested three ways you can achieve more psychological distance from a difficult decision:

  • by letting go of your preferred option momentarily, to consider all options objectively (later in the Guide I show a way to do this);
  • by imagining that you are advising a friend making the same decision; and
  • last but not least, by imagining reflecting from your deathbed on the same decision, years (hopefully many decades!) later.

Back to contemporary times, it is reassuring that even the world’s most famous investor, Warren Buffett, credits some of his best decision-making to a method known as the 10/10/10, meaning: how will I feel about today’s decision in 10 days’ time, vs 10 months, vs 10 years? Here again, it is about creating more distance between yourself and your decision, to benefit from greater perspective.

Think outside the box

‘She did not know then that imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire; you will what you imagine; and at last you create what you will.’

In this quote, George Bernard Shaw spells out poetically the process that leads to creation: it starts with imagination. This is relevant to decision-making because we often make the mistake of limiting our scope. If you are confronted with two or three options and you’re struggling to decide, what you might be missing is that there is at least one more creative option available to you.

How can you think outside the box and see that other elusive option? One way is to adopt a childlike mindset. ‘As children go through a school education, grow up and learn to function as productive adults, one thing they tend to lose is their creative confidence, this positive emotion that comes from looking at tasks without preconceived notions of what outcome is expected,’ says my friend Marie Taillard, professor of creativity marketing and associate dean at ESCP Business School in London. But all is not lost! She adds that: ‘Adults can in fact train themselves to recapture their creative confidence. When primed to adopt a childlike mindset, for instance by experiencing the excitement and open-endedness of building with Lego bricks, adults can trigger their confidence and then boost their creative skills over time.’

Supporting Taillard’s assertion, when psychologists at North Dakota State University primed a group of graduate students to imagine they were seven-year-olds before completing a series of creativity tests, they significantly outperformed a control group who weren’t given that same instruction.

Another way to think outside the box is to ask friends or contacts who are known for this ability if they can see another option available to you.

List out your objectives

Objectives are the ultimate goals that a decision aims to achieve. For example, if I decide to move home, why is it that I concern myself with this decision? It could be because I want more space, a safer neighbourhood, better access to transport, or to nature, proximity to friends and family, or a combination of these and many more. When making a difficult decision, it is important to list your objectives and cross-check how many of them would be satisfied by each decision. Research by Valentina Ferretti at the Department of Management in the London School of Economics has shown that our decisions frequently suffer from having too narrow a range of objectives (perhaps because we are not thinking outside-the-box enough). Overall, Ferretti’s advice is to increase the number of objectives by around 50 per cent. So take a look at your objectives and see if you can list some more.

Consider the case of Michelle, a theatre director I worked with, who was faced with the decision of how to boost attendance at her venue. Before her appointment, attendance at the theatre, located about an hour’s drive outside London, had been decreasing year on year. Under her leadership, the theatre had raised funds to improve the quality of its plays, however the results were disappointing. Despite all the hard work, this approach had almost no effect on attendance.

The Board believed that the theatre needed to go further in this direction and attract ‘big names’. Michelle was faced with the choice between pursuing the same strategy, as her Board encouraged her to do, or take a radically different course. This is where widening the objectives was critical. A survey of theatre goers and – importantly – of theatre non-goers, helped with this, showing that what potential audiences most objected to was: distance from their home (especially for late shows), lack of parking, short runs of shows, poor quality of food and beverage options, long queues at the box office, poor quality of the website and booking experience. The quality of the plays had never been an issue.

With a greater awareness of the objectives relevant to her decision-making, Michelle started scheduling earlier shows (to allow Londoners to catch the last train home); she negotiated with the local authorities to offer affordable parking to theatre goers; she invested more in fewer shows with longer runs; re-allocated front-end staff; and outsourced catering. With the little money left in the kitty, she invested in upgrading the theatre’s website – a significant portion of it being financed by online advertising.

By increasing her objectives from two to eight, Michelle was able to significantly improve her decision-making and the outcomes that ensued. Within two years, ticket sales increased by a third, despite a 15 per cent increase in ticket prices. This was a game-changer for the theatre, which is now able to promote cutting-edge work again, rather than merely relying on the ‘classics’ in its repertoire.

Use a weighting system to compare multiple options

By methodically assessing your options against a comprehensive set of objectives, it is possible that one option will emerge as the obvious decision to take. In many instances, though, more work will be needed.

The Darwin Archive at the Cambridge University Library holds a remarkable extract from Charles Darwin’s journal, in which he wrote, in 1838, a list of pros and cons about one of his most important decisions ever: whether to marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood. As one side (in favour) seemed to outweigh the other, he concluded at the bottom of the page: ‘Marry – Marry – Marry QED.’ After the birth of his and Emma’s 10th child together, Darwin could have been forgiven for thinking that his decision-making approach was proven and irreproachable. Thankfully, there are more sophisticated methods you can use to choose from multiple options.

Annie Duke, the author of How to Decide (2020), recommends considering each of your options separately, listing the potential outcomes were you to take that option, and making an estimation of the likelihood of each of those outcomes happening. I think this approach has particular merit if you are finding it hard to distance yourself from a preferred option, or to rid yourself from potentially irrational positive or negative biases.

With my clients, I often use the following approach that integrates considering your objectives with predicting likely outcomes:

  • First, what are the objectives behind your decision?
  • Next, what weight (from 0-100 per cent) would you assign to each objective: ie, how important is this objective to you?
  • Now, turning to each option available to you, what mark (between 1 and 10) would you give it to fulfil the various objectives?
  • I then ask my clients to add up and compare the options. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the option with the highest score is the one they must follow, but the exercise leads people to question what matters most to them.

To give you a sense of how this process can work, the tables below illustrate this method in the context of choosing one among three attractive job offers. In this case, although ‘salary’ has the highest weight, the first two options – despite offering higher salaries – are the least attractive once all the other objectives are duly considered.

Listen to your emotions

Admittedly, any systematic weighting exercise requires you to assign scores and probabilities in a way that isn’t entirely scientific and that relies on an element of ‘gut feeling’. However, this isn’t a weakness of these approaches, as tapping into the emotional part of your psyche is key to effective decision-making. In some cases, it is the most essential component.

As Sigmund Freud put it:

When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.

The more recent work of the neurologist Antonio Damasio also highlights the importance of emotions in decision-making. His research into what became known as the ‘somatic marker hypothesis’ showed that people’s gut feelings (their bodily based reactions to different options) often inform their decision-making in an advantageous way before they are consciously aware of the reasons for those feelings. When dealing with difficult decisions, then, learning to listen to your emotions and feelings is a powerful indicator of what you truly aspire to.

How can we access the ‘deep inner needs of our nature’? Freud’s ‘tricks’ to access the unconscious are well documented: from hypnosis (which he later abandoned) to dreams, free associations and, of course, the eponymous Freudian slips. But I do not recommend that your difficult decisions should be resolved by psychotherapy. Thankfully, there are alternative ways of ‘digging deep’.

A more practical approach is to write about each option (half a page each time on a separate sheet), and explore how you feel while writing; also, how you feel about each sheet in front of you. If you throw them into the wastepaper bin one by one until one remains, what are the emotions and feelings prompted when you dispose of them? Another shortcut into your emotions is to close your eyes when thinking about each option and try to identify the colour that you see (with your eyes still closed) when thinking about one or the other option. If, for example, one option evokes a dark-grey colour whereas another one brings about a more positive, bright-orange tint, this could be another sign of the unconscious knocking at the door…

I’m not suggesting that decisions are a matter of gut feeling only. However, there is value in checking your more rational modes of decision-making against your deeper intuition.

Use micro-decisions to overcome inertia

Having selected your best option, you need to act upon it. This is what trips up many people. They find it hard – sometimes even impossible – to get started. One way out of such a dilemma is to break down your big decision into a series of micro-decisions.

Here’s an example. Imagine Paul has been renting his apartment in New York for 15 years and has finally made the important decision to buy a home rather than keep renting. However, he seems unable to act upon this decision. The solution is for him to break down this major decision into a series of ‘micro-decisions’, such as:

  • Decide on the sum he can invest. For this, the first step would be to call his bank or a financial advisor.
  • Decide on a location to buy, and the minimum size property he would be happy with. It is also at this step that Paul should consider other objectives (eg, distance from work and friends, access to parks, etc).
  • Decide which available properties are within his budget, and rank those he likes against his objectives.

This is only the beginning of the process, but getting started with this level of clarity can create a momentum that is more likely to lead to progress.

Another reason why we sometimes fail to act upon our decisions is because of a lack of conviction in the option(s) we have selected. When that’s the case, it is worth revisiting each of the previous steps in this Guide until you become more confident in your final decision.

Key points – How to make a difficult decision

  1. Understand why some decisions can be so hard. It’s not just the high stakes that can make decisions difficult: sometimes the reasons lie in your past.
  2. Avoiding a decision is in fact a decision. It can be tempting to kick a difficult decision down the road – but that itself is actually a decision, and probably the wrong one.
  3. Identify the parts of yourself that want different things. Be clear on which parts of you want what, and try to find a compromise between them.
  4. Create distance from the decision. Imagine advising a friend making the same decision or exploring how you would feel 10 days/10 months/10 years after making (or avoiding) a decision.
  5. Think outside the box. To unlock new ways of thinking about the same situation, adopt a child’s imaginative mindset or ask a particularly creative friend.
  6. List out your objectives. For this decision to be fully successful, what would it need to achieve? Including more objectives will lead to better decisions.
  7. Use a weighting system to compare multiple options. By methodically assessing your options against a comprehensive set of objectives, it is possible that one option will emerge as the obvious decision to take.
  8. Listen to your emotions. Learning to listen to your emotions and feelings is a powerful indicator of what you truly aspire to. Writing about the options can help.
  9. Use micro-decisions to overcome inertia. Having made a decision, it can be difficult to know how to begin to enact it. To get going, break down the big decision into a series of focused micro-decisions.

Learn more

How to make difficult decisions under pressure

Some challenging decisions afford us the benefit of time. Choosing a new career, for example, shouldn’t be something you decide in haste. And in this type of situation, the steps listed above will help you gain confidence in your decisions and their likely outcomes.

At the other end of the spectrum, some decisions need to be made under pressure, sometimes within a few seconds. I’m thinking of the surgeon at the operating table, the nurse in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, the air traffic controller having to divert a plane in order to avoid an imminent accident, or the firefighter having to decide whether to send her crew into a burning building to rescue one life, while endangering all the others.

Broadly speaking, making decisions under pressure can blur people’s judgment in at least three ways:

  • Under stress, we tend to behave as if we are under time pressure even when we’re not. We often have more time than we think.
  • Pressure leads people to adopt a narrow vision of the situation at hand. In highly stressful situations, we tend to focus all our attention on the decision and ignore peripheral information, which may be vital. This is known as ‘cognitive tunnelling’.
  • Others will suffer from the opposite problem and experience ‘decision inertia’, an expression coined by the British forensic psychologist Laurence Alison, especially if confronted with what appear to be two or more bad options. According to Alison, ‘good decision-makers judge when further delay will end up costing more than any decision they take’.

High-pressured decision-making is the object of research by the British psychologist and Chief Fire Officer Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. She developed her approach to high-pressured decision-making in the context of incident command in the emergency services, but it can apply to many other areas, both in the corporate world and in our private lives. She recommends that individuals and teams ask themselves the following five questions:

  • Why are we taking this decision?
  • What do we think will happen if we do?
  • Is the benefit of taking this decision proportional to the risk?
  • Do we have a common understanding and position on the situation? In the case of a firefighting mission, this would mean ensuring that all the officers agree on their reading of the situation, and on the approach to follow.
  • Is the collective decision in line with my professional judgment and experience?

Let’s see how this approach could apply in the corporate world, in a less dramatic situation in which you and your colleagues must decide how to act after your preferred, highly qualified candidate Lucy has received a pay offer from your main competitor that is 30 per cent above your offer (the clock is ticking because Lucy has told you that your rival has given her 24 hours to choose). The main decision in front of you is whether to match your rival’s offer or to let go of the chance of hiring Lucy.

You need to make sure that your decision will not be driven by a fear of missing out. You also need to ensure that you will not reject this promising candidate solely based on feelings of pride. Adapting Cohen-Hatton’s decision-making approach, in this situation, I would recommend you and your team ask yourselves these key questions:

  • Establish whether your team is working towards the same objectives: in this case, what is the position you are trying to fill, and what are the qualifications you need?
  • What do you think will happen if you do, or do not, match your competitor’s offer?
  • If you did decide to match the other offer, what would be the implications for your company (both financially, and in terms of resource allocation and team management)? Also, if you failed to recruit Lucy, what would be the impact on your business?
  • Do you all agree that matching the rival offer makes sense? Do you agree on your best compensation package?
  • Does the decision you are leaning towards jar with your own professional/ethical judgment or are you fully supportive of it?

Working through these questions will help you to counter the biases that can affect decision-making in pressurised contexts.

As we reach the end of this Guide, it is worth remembering that difficulties with decision-making are not always the sign of a weakness that needs ‘fixing’. On the contrary, these difficulties may shed light on the fact that you are treading new ground, exploring the unknown and stretching yourself. In this case, a challenging decision should be viewed as an injunction to step up, a calling to grow into a higher version of who you are. And, in the process, you are likely to learn a great deal about yourself too.

Links & books

My book The Art of Decision Making (2019) explores the deeper roots of our indecision and provides a step-by-step guide to improving our ability to decide, as well as improving the quality of our decisions.

The video of my talk for Watkins Books in London covers some of the highlights from the book.

Also, my webinar ‘Decision Making Decoded’ (2021) explores the topic of decision-making as an equation, the components of which are explained using examples from our everyday lives.

The article ‘How to Tackle Your Toughest Decisions’ (2016) by Joseph Badaracco for the Harvard Business Review. Badaracco, professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School, has formulated five questions that can help us shed new light on our most challenging choices.

The article ‘How to Make the Right Decisions Under Pressure’ (2020) by the author Ian Leslie for the online magazine BBC Worklife provides interesting insights into some of the academic research into the impact of stress on our decision-making, and how to overcome it.

The book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (2003) by Antonio Damasio is enlightening as well as thought-provoking, as it creates a parallel between the works of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher and recent neurological discoveries.

The book The Heat of the Moment: A Firefighter’s Stories of Life and Death Decisions (2019) by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, who is one of only six female fire chiefs in the UK, and a doctor of behavioural neuroscience.

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5 January 2022

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