Figuring out what to eat for dinner. Finding a new show to watch. Choosing the right mechanic to repair your car. Deciding whether you should confront a co-worker who took credit for your idea.
On any given day, you might make more decisions than you can count. Some minor or small-scale decisions might come more easily — but then again, not necessarily, as anyone who’s spent more time scrolling through Netflix than actually watching a show can confirm.
When it comes to major or potentially life-altering decisions, however, you may find yourself agonizing over your choices, and their potential consequences, for hours or days.
Difficulty making decisions often stems from the flawed idea that you only have a “right” and a “wrong” choice, explains Alison Gomez, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist. But giving yourself permission to explore, make mistakes, and learn from your experiences can ease some of this pressure, according to Gomez.
Gomez also says learning certain decision-making skills can eliminate a lot of stress when making decisions and help you:
- make choices more efficiently
- better meet your goals
- make decisions you’re less likely to regret later
Building solid decision-making skills can also help increase your confidence, says Rachel Larrain Montoni, a licensed psychologist offering therapy in Washington D.C. and New York City. This boost in confidence can then help you feel more empowered and self-assured when you face challenging decisions in the future.
Below, you’ll find eight strategies that can help you get some clarity during the decision-making process.
When making big, life changing decisions, Liz White, a clinical psychologist and founder of Harley Clinical Psychology, recommends first defining your goals and values and then asking yourself which choice better aligns with them.
Knowing what matters most to you can help light your way to the decision that best meets your needs.
Say you’re trying to decide whether you should move across the country for a promising career opportunity. If one of your core values is family relationships, and moving will bring you closer to your loved ones, you may decide it’s worth making the change. Alternatively, if you identify freedom and flexibility as some of your core values, and this job comes with a rigid schedule, you may decide against it.
This approach can also have a lot of benefits if you have people-pleasing tendencies. Pinpointing your unique values and life goals can help you learn to make decisions based on what’s best for you, instead of what’s best for other people.
It often proves harder to make decisions when you have too many options to consider.
In one older study, customers at a grocery store encountered one of two different displays offering free jam samples. One display offered 6 flavors, while the other one offered 24 flavors. Although more customers stopped at the display with more flavors, they were far less likely to buy a jar of jam than customers who stopped at the display with only 6 flavors. Researchers attributed this finding to “choice overload.”
In short, a wealth of options can leave you feeling so overwhelmed, you might end up making no decision at all.
Setting some limits around your decisions, then, might make them a little easier. For example:
- Trying to choose a contractor to fix your windows? Schedule estimates with three professionals.
- Searching for a new outfit to wear to a friend’s wedding? Stick to browsing two stores.
- Ready to try a new hobby? Write down your top three choices and draw one out of a hat.
Catch yourself starting to overthink a particular decision? Taking a break for mindfulness — whether that means a 10-minute meditation, breathing exercises, or restorative yoga — could help, according to marriage and family therapist Lindsey Ferris.
- increasing your awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of the present
- boosting empathy
- helping you to regulate your emotions
- promoting reflective thinking
- reducing impulsivity
Maybe you’re trying to decide whether to move in with your partner or continue living on your own.
“Think about all your options and listen to how your body reacts,” Ferris suggests.
You might sit quietly with the thought of moving in together, mentally scanning your body for signs of a reaction. If you feel some tightness in your chest, tension in your jaw, or discomfort in your stomach, that might suggest you’re not quite ready to take the leap yet — some part of you still resists the idea.
Sometimes, it can help to get a close friend or family member’s perspective — particularly when making big decisions that could affect your life as a whole. Just make sure to talk with someone you feel emotionally safe with, Ferris says.
Of course, asking everyone you know for their thoughts might only overwhelm you further if they have conflicting opinions. Montoni suggests choosing one person who either has prior experience with the topic at hand or whose judgment you really trust.
When trying to decide if you should send your kid to preschool, for instance, you might consider asking a sibling or friend who has kids around the same age.
Listing pros and cons is one practical technique you can use when deciding whether to make a change or not, Montoni says.
In your chart, include two columns: one for pros and one for cons. Your chart will also have two rows: one representing the change, and one for keeping things the same.
Say you’ve felt for some time your relationship isn’t fulfilling your needs. Your partner is kind and thoughtful, but something just doesn’t feel right. You’ve considered breaking things off but still haven’t made up your mind, so you decide to try a chart to get some more clarity.
Your chart might read something like this:
|Break up with my partner||1. I’ll have more time to spend with friends, and on hobbies, self-care, and self-improvement. |
2. I’ll be free to potentially meet other people.
3. I can travel more and live wherever I want without worrying how they feel.
|1. I might feel lonely once I’m single.|
2. The breakup conversation might feel awkward or uncomfortable.
|Stay in the relationship||1. I won’t have to feel guilty for breaking up with them.|
2. I’ll have someone for support and companionship.
|1. I might feel resentful that I’m staying just to avoid hurting them.|
2. I might miss out on meeting someone who’s a better fit for me.
3. I still might have to break up with them eventually, and it could be even more painful later down the road.
When considering your thoughts set out clearly in the chart, you might notice ending the relationship has more pros, while staying has more cons.
Even more importantly, you might notice your reasons for staying have a lot to do with not wanting to hurt or upset your partner, while your reasons for ending things have more to do with your own personal needs.
Charts and lists can’t make your decision for you, of course. But they help you sort your thoughts in a readable format, which may make the process easier, in the end.
Could change itself have benefits?
Some evidence suggests people who make a change generally feel more satisfied with their decisions than those who don’t change anything.
In a 2020 study, researchers asked people to make major life decisions based on the outcome of a coin toss. Participants made decisions about things like quitting their job, breaking up with or proposing to a partner, starting their own business, and quitting drinking alcohol.
People who made a change due to their coin toss results reported feeling happier 6 months later compared to those who didn’t make a change. They were also more likely to say they’d make the same decision if they faced the same dilemma all over again.
That said, the study did have a number of limitations, including the fact that it relied on self-reports. Researchers also couldn’t verify that the change actually increased participants’ happiness.
In short, a coin toss may not be the ideal way to make all of your decisions — but if you’ve considered making a change, it could be worth giving it a try.
To put things into perspective, Montoni suggests considering the best and worst possible outcomes for each choice.
If you tend to think pessimistically, this technique can remind you of the potential positives that might come out of your decision. It can also reinforce the fact that even the worst-case scenario may not affect your overall life that much.
Say you applied for a job with a company you admire. Even though you’re a little underqualified for the role, you think you can easily pick up the skills you don’t have, and you have the passion to do the job well.
But when the hiring department calls to offer you an interview, you start to feel a little anxious and wonder if you should even accept. After all, you don’t have every single one of the skills they wanted in a candidate.
In trying this exercise, you might identify “embarrassing myself in the interview” and “not getting the job” as your worst-case scenarios.
But then you consider the best possible outcome: They admire your motivation and enthusiasm, and you get the job. This possibility helps you make up your mind to accept the interview.
Putting your thoughts and feelings about a particular decision down on paper may help you to work through some of your doubts and fears, and ultimately provide some additional insight on what you hope to accomplish with that decision, Ferris says.
A few journaling prompts to get you started:
- Does the thought of one particular choice leave you feeling energized, or drained? Why?
- What additional information do you need before you can move forward with a decision?
- Visualize yourself 5 years from now, after you’ve made your choice. Describe your everyday life.
- Pretend a loved one is facing the same decision and write them a letter offering your thoughts and advice.
Making certain decisions can feel daunting, especially when you get caught up in what could possibly go wrong. That’s why Gomez says it’s important to remind yourself that no matter what happens, you’ll survive and adapt.
“Life is always in motion, and you can continue to make decisions to either correct the mistake or learn from it,” adds Gomez.
Take a moment to think back on some decisions you wish you could change. Even if you didn’t feel very pleased with the outcome, you may have gained something positive, anyway: new knowledge about yourself, or clarity on your needs, for instance.
When you remember you can still thrive after making a decision that doesn’t work out, you may feel less afraid of making the so-called “wrong” choice.
Any number of techniques can help you make difficult choices, from meditating and journaling to consulting with a trusted loved one. Just keep in mind there’s no single right way to make a decision, just as there’s no single correct decision, and not all of these methods will work for everyone.
“Developing effective and efficient decision-making skills is an evolving process, so give yourself grace as you work on this,” Montoni says.
A therapist can offer more support if you often doubt your abilities and knowledge of yourself, or consistently find it tough to make any decisions at all.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.