During my insomnia phase of several years, lying awake for hours with all kinds of thoughts running through my head, one was the most lingering: the decision of whether to quit my stressful, unfulfilling job and leave the place I didn’t like or should I still hang in there?
It was a dilemma because there seemed to be no right answer. My thoughts ran at full speed, making sleep a distant prospect. This intensified my daily fear of not being able to sleep before going to bed, kicking off the typical vicious circle of insomnia!
Even if that one thought wasn’t the main reason for my sleeplessness, it contributed to it. And to this day, making tough decisions is one of the most distressing factors in my life, which is why I keep postponing the decision, causing even more stress (and sometimes more anxiety).
However, recently I started to map out a process to better deal with decision-making, which I outline below. It’s still a work in progress – and I’m far from always following every step – but it is a helpful tool to accompany me.
Maybe it can also support you when making tough decisions, so let me share it with you.
What’s the main issue when we’re facing a tough decision?
To answer that question, let’s look at what actually happens inside us when we’re facing a tough decision like
- ‘Do I quit the job or stay?’
- ‘Do I stay in the relationship or leave it?’
- ‘Should we have children or not?’
- ‘Do I reveal my secret or hide it?’
In these situations, our minds quickly go into overdrive; we desperately try to figure out one option or another.
The problem is that this endless thinking about whether or not to do something can take days, weeks, months, or even years, meaning we spend a lot of our time stressing ourselves out and, even more importantly, missing out on life here and now.
Yes, the constant stress we face, and as a result, the risk of not living the life we want, is the real problem of difficult decision-making (or rather of procrastinating the decision-making).
7 Steps how to better approach tough decision making
In the following are my seven steps to better deal with a dilemma. Fair enough if some of the steps don’t really relate to your situation.
However, your mind often tries to talk you out of something uncomfortable, like going step by step through a process. So be aware of this and really take some time to evaluate each step.
- Be kind to yourself and accept your situation. Making tough decisions is never easy! If you are faced with a dilemma, it’s unlikely that you will be able to solve it in the next few hours. Therefore, the first step is to acknowledge this reality. If you fight it, it will only get worse.
- Make a costs-benefits-analysis. Sometimes a dilemma can be solved by going old-school and doing a traditional cost-benefit analysis. Write a list of all the benefits and all the costs for each option. Writing it down in black and white is a different experience than thinking it through in your head, and it might help you make your decision or resolve your dilemma.
- Recognize that there is no perfect solution. No matter your decision, you will probably feel anxious, and your mind will likely tell you that it’s the wrong decision while giving you all the reasons why you shouldn’t do it (more about how to tackle these thoughts further below). However, if you wait until there are no feelings of anxiety and no thoughts of making the wrong decision, you will probably wait forever.
- Realize that there is no way not to choose. So no matter what your dilemma is, you have already made a decision. Every day you don’t quit your job, you decide to stay. Every day you don’t leave your marriage, you choose to stay. Every day you keep the secret you are guarding, you choose not to reveal it.
- Acknowledge today’s decision and start each day by becoming aware of what decision you are making for today. For example, say to yourself, ‘Okay, for the next 24 hours, I choose to stay in this relationship’, or: ‘For the next 4 weeks, I choose to keep my job.’ Choose whatever period is feasible for you (depending on the problem, it can also be only 6 hours or even the next 60 minutes). At the end of that time, re-evaluate and then make another decision for the next 24 hours (or whatever time frame you choose).
- Now it’s time to take a stand. So given your choice in the previous step, what do you want to advocate for in the next 24 hours (or whatever time period you chose)? What values do you want to live by in this area of life? If you stay in your marriage one more day, what kind of partner do you want to be on that one day? If you stay in your job for 4 more weeks, what type of employee do you want to be during that time? Remember, no matter your situation, you can always find ways to act according to your values.
- Regularly take time to reflect on the situation. You can do this as you did in Step 2: write down all the costs and benefits of each option, and see if anything has changed since the last time you did this. Usually, 10 to 15 minutes three or four times a week is enough time to reflect, but you can take as little or as much time as you like. The most important thing is that you focus on it. So don’t try to do it at the same time as watching TV, doing housework, driving, going to the gym, or cooking dinner; sit quietly with a pen and paper or a computer and do nothing but think in the allotted time as described above.
Go through these steps every day, several times a day, if necessary. And over time, one of three things will happen:
- One option becomes more attractive than the other.
- One option will disappear and no longer be available.
- Your problem remains unresolved.
If either one or two happens, the decision is made, and the dilemma is solved. If three happens, you can at least live each day mindfully according to your values and treat yourself kindly instead of losing yourself in a fog of fearful indecision.
How to deal with sabotaging thoughts and feelings?
Throughout the day, your mind will try to bring you back to the problem again and again. But if this were helpful, you would have solved your problem, wouldn’t you?
So what can you do if these sabotaging thoughts show up? The key is to let these thoughts be and respond to them in a helpful, kind way instead of trying to get rid of them.
One way is to ‘name the story.’ For example, say to yourself, ‘Aha, there it is again. The “stay or go” story. Thank you, mind, I know you’re trying to help, and it’s okay, but I’ve got this covered.’ Then focus your attention on a meaningful, value-driven activity.
Also, feelings of anxiety will almost certainly come up again and again, no matter which option you choose. Instead of trying to push these feelings away, open up and make space for the uncomfortable feeling. Admit to yourself, ‘Here’s fear’, and remind yourself that this is normal. Everyone feels like this in a difficult situation with an uncertain outcome.
Be compassionate with yourself
Lastly, be gentle with yourself and speak kindly to yourself. Do kind, caring, nurturing, and considerate things to yourself that support you during this difficult time. This could include anything like spending time with close friends, taking care of your body, making time for a sport or favorite leisure activity, or cooking a healthy dinner.
Detach from all the unhelpful self-judgments by using the above techniques. Remind yourself that you are a human being with feelings. You are not a high-tech device that can coldly analyze probabilities and spit out an answer.
Remember that this is a bloody heart decision. If it were easy, you wouldn’t have this dilemma in the first place!