Editor’s note: this is a guest post from Stephen Roe
It’s maddening, isn’t it?
When friends or family have a big decision in front of them, they nearly always come to you for advice. You’re clear-headed, objective, and decisive. The way forward always seems so clear.
But when it’s YOUR life? You constantly second-guess yourself, agonize about every possibility, and spend your days worrying you’ve made the wrong choice.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Research has shown that analyzing data leads to easier and better decision-making. Data requires you to stay attuned to your feelings, weigh them against other factors, and ultimately makes the decision simpler.
I should know. I left my job, changed my living situation, started a business, ended a work commitment I’ve had for eight summers, began a new relationship and revamped my diet and exercise routine—all within the last nine months.
Without data-driven decision making, I would have been a basket case. But data helped me feel confident about my decisions, and I came out the other side happier than ever.
When it comes time to make a tough decision, these steps will reduce stress, bring peace, and allow you to make the best choice possible.
Strategy #1: Use the power of a coin flip
One of the greatest barriers to simple decision-making is ignoring its complexity.
Too often, we think a question like moving to a new house is simple. But while we only think we’re weighing two options (stay in the old house or move), our minds are actually racing between half a dozen—put an offer on that house, stay in the old one, invest in a renovation, build an addition, look for other real estate options, or finally design our dream home?
Instead, we need to recognize the complexity, and then simplify.
To find the complexity, write down every option you are considering. Compose the list over the course of a day or two–you’ll be surprised how many options are actually on your mind.
For example, you might be considering these choices in a career change:
Recognizing the complexity helps, but we aren’t finished. Next, we’ll divide our options into a series of two choices, or what I call a “coin-flip choice.” Of course, you shouldn’t use random chance to make your decision, but the analogy of a two-sided coin describes it perfectly.
We are not creating a false either-or choice, but simplifying an overwhelming number of options into a series of smaller ones.
To start, break each choice down into categories and subcategories.
Now we’re going to reduce these choices into a binary decision tree–each choice will only have two options. It might take some wrangling, but any decision can be worked into a coin-flip choice.
You will end up with a tree like this:
When we break a complex decision down, we make it easier to eliminate options and select the right option. The next step will show exactly how to do that.
Strategy #2: Predict the future (yes, really)
Wouldn’t it be nice to predict the future?
By combining probability with the coin-flip technique, you can get frighteningly close.
Using the above example of a career change, we’ll start with the first coin-flip choice—should we work shorter hours, or work fewer days?
Brainstorm factors involved. I can think of two—the possibility of unexpected overtime and the stress of the job. If your ultimate goal is to transition into working from home, be sure to include the difficulty of that change as well.
Put into a table, it might look like this:
Now it’s time to populate the calculations with data. Use estimates in 5% increments. Don’t use 100% for any data point—nothing is certain!
It’s unlikely I’ll be called into work an extra day (10%), but staying late is a real possibility (65%). Missing a few days a week and catching up will add a bit of stress (45% vs. 35%). And finally, there will be fewer barriers to start working from home if I’m taking days off (45%) than reducing hours (75%).
The final result is this:
Yikes! This is an easy answer now. Since I know the better of those options, I can eliminate it from the decision tree:
Using the same strategies for the other options, we’ll get simpler and simpler choices, like this:
Probabilities allows you to predict the future with uncanny accuracy. With that kind of power, making decisions becomes easy.
Strategy #3: Taste each outcome, and see which you prefer
In a perfect world, life would borrow a method from ice cream parlors: nobody would have to make a final decision without tasting a few outcomes first.
This strategy is the next best thing: create the perfect day for each choice, then use it to decide. This exercise helped me quit my job as an elementary school teacher and follow my passion for personal development writing.
For each choice facing you, make a list of activities throughout the day.
Here’s an example comparing a lateral move in a company versus a promotion. Notice the types of work you do as a boss are very different than what you do as an employee:
(Note that a new house will be better reflected in a perfect week, and a car will be noticeable over the course of a month or year. Just rename the hour markers to days, weeks, or months.)
Create two new PowerPoint presentations, one for each scenario. Include a photo and description for each section of the day (for bonus points, include a relevant audio track—perhaps it’s music, coffeeshop chatter, or ambient nature sounds).
Make it as realistic as possible (no teleporting to work), but also remember this is a perfect day. If everything went exactly as you’d like, what would happen?
For inspiration, here are slides from the transfer vs. promotion scenario I mentioned above:
Once you’re finished, set aside 5-10 minutes and “live through” each day. It doesn’t have to be a hokey, woo-woo exercise. Just think about what you’d do during that time. Imagine yourself in the photo, listen to the audio you’ve chosen, and estimate how you’d feel.
Once you’ve “lived” through each day, take a minute and reflect. Which day did you enjoy the most? Which was closer to how you’d like to live your life?
Strategy #4: Don’t ask for advice, start an argument
Asking for advice before a major decision is like asking about a baby’s name before he or she is born—no matter the original opinion, everyone politely agrees once the decision is made.
“Reginald Picklesworth Smith? What a beautiful name!”
If you want to get someone’s perspective on an issue, don’t seek advice. Start an argument.
Don’t argue in a frustrated way that leaves everyone angry and bitter. Not at all.
But stop trying to ask for advice with an open mind, and instead present and defend a position. Your mentor’s constructive criticism will be specific, targeted, and invaluable.
To do this, prepare a pitch before the meeting. Create an argument for the choice you’ve made. Write every reason for and against the decision, and prepare a response for each. In other words, prove to yourself that you’re correct.
When you meet with your advisor, be persuasive when you give your pitch. Convince your mentor that this is truly the right choice.
But don’t forget the critical next step: ask what concerns he or she has. These can help if you’re stuck:
- What factors do you think I’m missing?
- What questions do you have about my decision?
- What else have I not considered?
The goal is to hear some form of argument against what you’ve already said. If it’s an argument you’ve already prepared for, use your response and see if it holds up to scrutiny. If it’s new, consider the feedback and decide if the reasoning changes your perspective.
Ask at least five people to listen to your pitch. Include individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets to get an accurate picture. Record notes from the discussion as soon as possible after the meeting.
If you notice a pattern emerging, don’t be afraid to change your original stance. After all, that’s why you asked.
The solution to solving difficult decisions
Perhaps more than any other factor, tough decisions steal your control. When forced with a complex issue, it seems like the choice has power over you, not the other way around.
But that isn’t fair. You deserve to feel in control.
You deserve to have a clear mind during the process.
You deserve to wake up tomorrow, next week, or ten years from now and be content with your decision.
If you use these strategies, tough choices won’t drain your energy. They should energize you. They allow you to work hard, think carefully, and choose wisely.
And after all the confusion and chaos settles down, you’ll be at peace. Because you’ll know you’ve made the right decision.
Stephen Roe actually enjoys making decisions, but spends more time writing about data-driven personal development. Download the templates and scripts from this article (plus two bonus strategies) for more decision-making help.