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Tools and Strategies for Making Hard Decisions

Should you marry your partner? Finish your academic program or drop out? Move to the city you’re thinking of moving to?

Life is full of hard decisions, and they often can lead to long periods of unpleasant states like fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion. Fortunately, there are strategies you can apply to not only help make the decision process shorter but also increase the chance that you are making the right decision!

If you have a tough decision that you want help working through, we have 15 great, evidence-based tools designed to help you work through whatever is troubling you:

We also have seven strategies for you. These are things you can do when facing a hard or complex decision.

Seven Strategies for Making Hard Decisions

Let’s start with a couple of the more obvious ones: 1️⃣ Think about the advice you would give a friend. This helps you to separate personal emotions that may cloud judgment and allows you to conduct a more objective evaluation of the situation. Example: Imagine you're struggling with the decision to break up with a partner who isn't suitable for you in the long term. Despite the fear of hurting the person, if seen from an outside perspective, you would likely advise your friend to end the relationship for their long-term happiness. This demonstrates that fear and emotional attachment should not deter us from making the right life choices. 2️⃣ List the pros and cons. Consider all the advantages and disadvantages of each potential choice, ideally with the help of a friend who can offer additional insights. Once you’ve compiled a list, you should review it multiple times, to fully absorb the implications of each option. It can be useful to find a baseline when comparing different choices. You can use that baseline as a reference point, to discern what constitutes a pro or a con. For instance, if the baseline scenario involves an hour of free time a day, an option offering the same amount of free time would be neutral. However, an option providing an extra half hour of free time per day would be considered a pro as it surpasses the baseline scenario. Now let's move on to some less obvious strategies: 3️⃣ Do a full cost-benefit analysis. Develop a list of pros and cons for each potential course of action, then assign three numerical values to each:

  • a probability score to estimate the likelihood of that pro or con occurring,

  • an impact score to represent the estimated benefit or harm towards your happiness or goals every week if the pro or con does occur. It’s useful to use positive numbers to indicate benefits and negative numbers to signify harm,

  • and a duration score estimating the number of weeks you expect the benefit or harm to last if the pro or con does indeed occur.

Once you’ve estimated these three numbers for a pro or con, multiply them together to get your total score for that pro or con. Now add together all the scores for all the pros and cons of an option. That will give you a total score of how good that option is, on net. Do this for each of the options, and compare the scores. If one of the options has a much higher total score than the other options, then that is evidence that you should go with that option. 4️⃣ Persuade yourself with an essay. In important cases where there are only two options, try writing a 400 word essay as to why you should pick the first option rather than the second. Once that is done, write a 400 word essay about why you should choose the second option rather than the first. Read both of these over. You will probably find that the process of trying to carefully construct written arguments can help you flesh out your thoughts, analyze the situation more completely, and discover more about how you feel about the various options. 5️⃣ Visualize the options. Imagine as vividly as possible the outcomes of each option, focusing both on the positive and negative aspects and spending more time on those aspects that are likely to occur frequently, as they will have a greater overall impact. For example, if considering a potentially boring job, you should not just briefly acknowledge this aspect but rather deeply visualize the experience of being bored at work since it will likely dominate the experience. If there is an option that feels best or has the highest score, then that is evidence it is the best choice. 6️⃣ Gather data about others who have made the same choices. Start by trying to find historical data as a reference point, then adjusting your estimations based on the unique circumstances of your situation. For instance, in the case of considering leaving a stable job to pursue a career in Broadway, you should factor in the typically low success rate of such a move. However, if personal factors like exceptional singing talent or strong industry connections are present, the chance of success could be revised upwards. 7️⃣ Poll good decision-makers. Think of three or four people who are unusually good decision-makers and unusually careful at thinking through challenging problems. Now, explain to each of them the details of your situation, and ask what they think you should do in the circumstance. If they all agree with each other, that may be a compelling justification for going with their preferred option. While there isn’t a single right answer as to how to approach making important, complex decisions, these strategies can help you formalize the process and avoid pitfalls. Lastly, we leave you with a helpful quote to remember when facing a hard decision:

"In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity."

- Albert Einstein


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