We make countless decisions every day. Most are simple and don’t require much (if any) conscious thinking. But how do we make the most important and most difficult decisions in life? You’ll find out in this blog post.
Let’s start with a visual graph. We can plot all our decisions based on two main variables: importance and complexity. Decisions are important when they can have a big impact on your life and can’t easily be reversed. Complexity increases with uncertainty of the outcome and the number of factors involved.
This post is not about decisions in categories 1 & 2. If your decision is not important, you shouldn’t spend much time on it. And if your decision is important, but not complex, it will be easy to make.
Now let’s take a quick look at decisions in category 3. The decision you are making is complex, but not that important. In this case, you don’t want to overthink it. You can base your decision on intuition and emotion rather than ratio. An example of such a decision is where to go for holiday. There are countless options which can be very different, but the decision is not important enough to spend a month exploring all possible destinations. Use your heart, at least for making a first selection.
Then on to decisions in category 4. These decisions are important and not too complex. Here you’re better off spending some more time and using logic. An example is deciding what car you want to buy. There are many options, but you can use relatively straightforward and structured analysis to figure out which car is right for you.
Even if you don’t know anything about cars, you can write down a list of things that you find important in a new car. Based on this list and your budget, you can either do your own research or have someone help you to come up with some good options. You can then rate each option against the variables that you listed as important or look at pros and cons of your options to make a final decision. In some situations, like business decisions, it can be better to look at benefits and risks of each option.
The more important you find the decision, the more time you should spend on these steps. Deciding which racing bike to buy should probably take less time than a car, while you want to spend more time when you buy a house.
Last but not least, there are the mind-boggling decisions in category 5. Decisions that are potentially life changing, but also so complex that a list of pros and cons won’t seal the deal. There are only few decisions each decade that qualify for this category. Here are some examples:
- What career do I want to pursue?
- Should I end my current relationship?
- Do I want to have kids?
How do we deal with those type of questions? They can be so overwhelming, that some of us make rash decisions, while others avoid making a decision at all. Neither of those tends to be a good method. That’s why we will look at a system that uses both logic and intuition to make a tough decision.
- Start with information
The goal of the first step is to gather all information in a neutral way. Without already thinking about your decision. You can start with doing research on the options. If you only have one option, it’s not a decision. Two options make a dilemma. Three or more options is a choice. Write down your options, important variables, pros and cons, risks and benefits, and any other information you feel is relevant.
You are making this decision, not someone else. However, talking to people with different opinions and points of view can help you to get more insight. Just make sure to maintain neutral at this stage as you’re not trying to make a decision yet.
- Ask yourself questions
Now that you have done the initial research, it’s time to ask yourself some hard questions to find out how you really feel about the options. Be honest to yourself. Try to let go of any ego, outside opinions, or expectations. This is about your life and your happiness. Here are some questions that can help you:
- What’s the best thing that can happen? What is the worst thing that can happen? And what are the chances of these outcomes?
- Is there a way to mitigate the risk of a negative outcome? This can be both in the chance of it happening and/or the impact it would have.
- What would I recommend to a friend, if he or she is in this same situation?
- When I’m old and looking back at this decision, what would I regret more if I didn’t do it?
- What option is most in line with how I look at life, who I am, and what I value most?
- Take time
The key to making a good decision is time. Take time to gather information on the options from Step 1 and think deeply about the questions from Step 2. Sleep on it. Don’t think about it for a couple of days and then look at it again. The right decision will eventually come. Don’t try to force it but trust the process. Even when you feel that you lean towards a decision, wait another week or so to see if this is still the case. If it is, you can talk about it with others, to see how it feels to say it out loud.
The more complex and important the decision, the more time you should allow yourself. And whatever decision you make, you will know that it was the right decision at that time, because you combined logic, intuition, and time.