How to make a difficult decision

Many of us have to make difficult decisions. Perhaps it is to leave our current job. Perhaps it’s whether to move to another country. Perhaps it’s to end a relationship which is simply not working. We all have those moments in life where we’re standing on the edge of the cliff. Do we make the jump? Make that leap of faith? Or do we retreat and edge back from the cliff?

The thing about difficult decisions is whether you actively make a decision or not, you’re making a decision.

Whether you decide to stay in your current job even though it’s slowly killing you, or you stay in a relationship which is leaving you empty and isolated, you’ve made a decision and you’re already suffering from the consequences of that decision.

The decision is difficult because it involves a degree of risk and uncertainty. And perhaps you fear the fall-out. “I don’t want to let my company down”, “I don’t want to hurt that person”, “I don’t want to suffer” “I don’t know what to do next”.

Often, we already know what we truly want to do. The real decision we want to make. It’s just that we need to consciously process that decision and gain clarity to help us move forward.

Your brain hates open loops. A decision you know you need to make but keep putting off is an open-loop. It’s your job to close that loop.

If you want to continue staying stuck, feeling overwhelmed or stressed, then continue to put off making that decision. But if you want to step forward, to push through, then ask yourself these questions.

1. What is the decision or decisions I need to make?

Often a difficult decision is a series of half-formed questions or sub-decisions. Because you haven’t properly formulated the question or series of questions, you end up staying stuck.

For example, a question such as “Should I leave my current job?” has a number of related questions such as “What will I do if I leave my current job?”, “Omg, what will my family think?”, “What if I try this new thing and it fails?”.

Gain clarity on what you are making a decision about. It’s usually not one question but a series of questions which you need to formulate and answer.

2. For each of the questions, ask yourself what is the best-case scenario?

Very often, we are driven by fear and anxiety which keeps us stuck or feeling overwhelmed. We don’t consider what would happen if everything turned out well. Maybe you launch your business and it’s an astounding success? Maybe the people you feared would be really upset/angry/hurt turned out to be understanding and supportive?

When I look back at the difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my life, it usually turned out fine or much better than I anticipated.

3. For each of the questions, ask yourself what is the worst that could happen? If the worst happened, how would you cope?

The brain automatically goes to the place of fear, insecurity, doubt and anxiety. Sorry, that’s just how most of us are wired. It keeps us safe. It also stops us from taking on the challenges, risks and making those difficult decisions which helps us progress.

So let’s hack your brain - use it for what it is good at all already - catastrophising.

If I leave my job the worst that could happen is:

  • My mum is disappointed in me and doesn’t want to speak to me again
  • I let my boss down - I really care about what he thinks
  • The business will wither and die without me
  • I run out of money and end up on the street as a homeless beggar
  • I have to give my dog up for adoption because I’ve run out of money

Hit me with the worst that could happen. I bet in most instances the worst that could happen is unlikely to happen. Or if it did you would be able to handle it.

So how could you deal with these worst-case scenarios?

My mum is disappointed in me and doesn’t want to speak to me again

Is it realistic that your mother would never speak to you again? She probably loves you and wants you to be happy. Sure she might be disappointed for a bit but it will pass. Perhaps you just need to manage how you communicate your decision to her?

I let my boss down - I really care about what he thinks

The key here is to manage the relationship and leave on the best possible terms. You don’t want to burn any bridges, but you also can’t live your life on other people’s terms. Maybe you've been a people-pleaser most of your life and it didn’t serve you?

The business will wither and die without me

You need to think about succession and how to wrap things up responsibly. But if your heart is not in it, you staying will simply be a disservice to the business.

I run out of money and end up on the street as a homeless beggar

Have some contingency plans in place. Save some money to last you for a period of time while you get your project off the ground.

You probably have some friends, I’m sure they’d let you crash for a while. Reduce your needs - the less you need to live on, the more freedom you buy yourself.

Plus you can always get another job. Bear in mind that most situations are reversible. For example, you could probably get another job if you left and it didn’t work out with your new project. Perhaps you could get a job to tide you over and cover the bills while you pursue your project?

I have to give my dog up for adoption because I’ve run out of money

You’re probably going to be okay. Also, have you not watched A Streetcat Named Bob? - begging with a pet can be very lucrative! Joking aside. See above – you and your dog are probably going to be okay.

4. Can I create a win-win situation?

People and relationships are important, there’s no doubt about that. Often, it's the impact on people and relationships that holds you back from making the difficult decision. Ask yourself this question - Can I create a win-win situation?

For example, you’re worried about the impact of the decision on your family. Maybe you have dependents? Could you go part-time with your current job, so you don’t impact the family finances too much?

Perhaps you’re worried about leaving your colleagues in the lurch. What can you do to make the transition process as smooth as possible and leave on good terms? You never know when you might need those people’s help again so don’t burn bridges.

My challenge, should you choose to accept:

Take out a piece of paper and grab a pen. Answer the first question - What is the decision or decisions I need to make?