When offered a new opportunity, or when we simply want to move away from a current situation, we all desire to make the best decision for ourselves and those who are dependent on us.
But often that desire to make the best decision only adds pressure to an already stressful, scary, or frustrating situation – sometimes to the point of paralyzing us. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom can seem to offer no real help with useless phrases like “Just do what feels right” or “The right decision will give you peace.” Even making pros and cons list isn’t always the best method because it doesn’t guide us on how to weigh the items against each other. So how do we mitigate the risk of making the wrong decision? Read on for some practical questions you can ask yourself to make a better decision.
1. Do I have enough information?
Firstly, we need to make sure we understand the situation and all the variables. We need to seek out information about our decision, the factors, the possible outcomes, and the consequences. Information is the substance of the decision, and a lack of information will lead to a poor decision.
Information is the substance of the decision, and a lack of information will lead to a poor decision.
2. What personal bias might be affecting my decision?
We also need to be aware of our own perspective on information. Do I tend to view things negatively or positively? Am I being naïve or skeptical? We need to be honest with ourselves and treat information objectively. Don’t overvalue some information because we secretly want to arrive at a certain decision.
3. How does this decision fit in with my needs, wants, and likes?
Necessities like food, shelter, clothing, self-respect, and healthy relationships should be baseline results of any decision. Additionally, we need to be aware of the difference between like and want. Liking is the joy or enjoyment of having or doing something. Wanting is the assumption that we will like something when we get it. For example, I may want to become proficient in Brazilian Ju Jitsu, but when I actually take a class, I may discover that I don’t like it. We need to be clear with ourselves if we are pursuing a specific decision because we know we like it, or if we just want it (and hope we will like it). If you’re not sure you will like the result of your decision, try to have a trial period or test run before fully committing.
We need to be clear with ourselves if we are pursuing a specific decision because we know we like it, or if we just want it (and hope we will like it).
4. Do I understand the consequences of my decision for myself and others, as far as I can reasonably predict them?
Like falling dominoes or ripples in a pond, decisions have consequences. We need to consider what those consequences might be and if they will be good – short term and long term. The better decisions tend to be those with negative immediate consequences but positive long-term consequences, like choosing to save for retirement. It might be painful to have a smaller budget now, but it will be a huge benefit later.
5. Does this decision fulfill my essential principles or priorities?
We all have values and principles that we believe in and strive to live out. Some of those beliefs are already active, such as “I work to provide for my family in money, time, and emotion,” and others are aspirations, things we're striving to achieve in the future, such as “I want to become a parent.” When we make choices aligned with our values, we stay true to our selfhood in a healthy way, and we give moral structure and purpose to our lives.
When we make choices aligned with our values, we stay true to our selfhood in a healthy way, and we give moral structure and purpose to our lives.
6. Am I choosing direction over speed?
This question is particularly good when working towards goals. If we can continually move in the direction of our goals, the speed at which we are traveling is less significant, because all movement is progress, no matter how slow or how small. For example, taking classes one weekend a month to earn a higher education certificate might feel painfully slow, but it's moving us in the right direction.
7. What is the opportunity cost of this decision?
Whenever we make a decision, we are refusing other options. If I chose to accept this job position, I am rejecting the other job opportunity and everything that could come with it: location, colleagues, experiences, new information, and skills, etc. Don’t forget to consider the other options you're giving up by making this decision, and ask yourself if they're worth passing over.
8. Does this decision allow me to use, or continue to use, my talents for good?
Using our talents, and specifically using them for the good of ourselves and others, not only brings us joy and a sense of fulfillment, but also adds purpose and meaning to our lives. If you're not sure what your talents are, take some time to consider what you're good at and what you enjoy. Ask your friends and family what they consider to be your strengths. And don’t discount anything – being an organized person or being an excellent baker is just as valuable as being good at math or being musically gifted.
Using our talents, and specifically using them for the good of ourselves and others, not only brings us joy and a sense of fulfillment, but also adds purpose and meaning to our lives.
Closely related to the topic of talents is the topic of personal growth. Make sure this decision will help you to become, or at least provide opportunities to become, a better person as a whole. Refuse to be mired by fear or complacency.
9. Is this decision respectful of the people in my life?
Big decisions will impact those we are close to, so we must give them appropriate consideration and respect in making our decision. If we have a spouse, or kids, or parents, or even colleagues, who are dependent on us in some form, we can’t just wake up one morning and decide to drop everything and move to Hawaii. We need to bring them into the conversation where appropriate (like your spouse) and get their thoughts and feelings about this decision.
Additionally, quality relationships have been proven to improve our quality of life and to increase our happiness. When we seek healthy and deep relationships with family and friends, we will add meaning and joy to our lives. So if we can make decisions that will promote healthy relationships, that will be a better decision.
10. Am I making this decision from an emotional state?
Emotions can indicate our thoughts and our values, but we shouldn’t make a decision solely motivated by emotion. Recognize the emotion. Think about why we have that emotion. Detach and use that information objectively. For example, if you are consistently frustrated by your job, use that feeling of frustration to pinpoint what it is specifically you don’t like about your job. Then set aside your frustration and rationally consider what can be done to solve the problem, whether that's working to improve the current situation or moving on to another job.
When we are in the midst of discerning a decision, we often feel doubt. Make sure you treat your doubt appropriately. Doubt is good as a voice of caution to make us tread carefully and examine all our options, however, we shouldn’t let it control or impede us.
Doubt is good as a voice of caution to make us tread carefully and examine all our options, however, we shouldn’t let it control or impede us.
Once you’ve made your decision, act! Even if you aren’t feeling confident, don’t let anxiety hold you back. You’ve done the best you can to make a prudent and beneficial change in your life. But that change will only be realized if you act.
If you would like more practical information on making decisions, check out the Farnam Street blog by decision specialist Shane Parrish or read The Life God Wants You to Have: Discovering the Divine Plan when Human Plans Fail by family counselor and radio host Dr. Gregory Popcak.