What To Do About
A Difficult Decision

We all have times when we have to make a difficult decision. Or a decision we are making turns out to be more difficult than we anticipated. But what does it mean? What's going on that makes it a difficult decision? And more importantly, what can we do about it? The answer to this, of course, is that it depends on what is causing the obstruction or difficulty, and there can be many reasons!


At what stage is the difficulty?

In order to examine these reasons in a structured way, let's do it stage by stage.

The basic stages in decision-making are:

  • Define the objective
  • Create options
  • Gathering information
  • Choice
  • Taking Action


What do you want to achieve?

Even the very first stage of decision making can cause problems. Defining the situation includes deciding what you want to achieve, because any problem here will be compounded as you continue.

How many people have you heard complaining about the situation they are in, and repeatedly moaning that they have to make a change, they hate what they are doing and they need to do something different, they need to get out of the rut, they need to get away.

You will notice that all these things are framed in terms of what they do not want, what they want to get away from. And when you think about it, the range of possibilities available where they are not doing this particular thing is enormous. To have to choose from such a range obviously makes it a difficult decision!

What they have been doing up to this point is simply stating the problem. They are talking about the difficulty they are currently experiencing and haven't even got to the decision making process yet. Problem solving is not the same as decision making.

For example, the sentence "I don't like the job I'm doing, there is no hope of promotion, I'm totally bored and I have to leave" is not the same as "I don't like the job I'm doing and I want a job where I work in a team with the possibility of promotion". The first is a description of the problem, the second indicates the first step in a decision making process.


What are your options?

The number of alternatives that you have to choose from can create a difficult decision. Too few as well as too many can be problematic. For example, if somebody has to choose between two alternatives neither of which are very satisfactory (for whatever reason) it can be a difficult decision. If there is a bewildering array of available choices this does not make for an easy decision either!

Obviously, if it is a difficult decision because of too few choices, you need to generate more, and vice versa.


More info...

Okay, when you have a reasonable number of choices, you will gather information. There are several potential reasons here to make it a difficult decision.

Firstly, when do you have enough information? For some people or in some contexts, the answer is never. They never feel they have enough information to actually go ahead. This can seriously slow or stop the decision making process and lead to missed opportunities.

The flip side is when somebody tries to make a decision without enough information. Obviously, this can also make for a difficult decision.

Secondly, you may learn something that means you need to change the original objective. Sometimes people get stuck here because they don't want to change it. (Ask why?) Sometimes they get caught in a loop because they are continually changing it. (Maybe the objective is not very clear...?)

Thirdly, you may need to gather information about the consequences of the decision. Consequences are a frequent reason people hold back from making what they think is a difficult decision. For example, they know that option a will achieve their goal put it may upset a friend or a family member. The consequence of upsetting somebody may be enough to stop them from taking action.

Sometimes it happens that people are only vaguely aware of the potential consequences, or even that they haven't even considered them. But this is the cause of their decision being a difficult decision. So if you're having trouble, check the potential consequences.

But beware! Being afraid of unknown consequences, or wanting to know what all the possible consequences are, is guaranteed to cause difficulties. Because it's not possible to know the future. Unexpected consequences are just that, unexpected!


Choosing between the alternatives

How are you going to do this? Do you have a method? Some people don't, which will adds to the factors in making it a difficult decision!

There are a lot of decision making models and tools available to help choose between alternatives. Yes, it's another decision you have to make!


Taking action

No action, no evidence of a decision having been made. Doing something new or different, doing something unpleasant, or doing something you don't want to do can be a reason for it being a difficult decision.

Sometimes you just have to do it…

More thoughts

You will have noticed that for some of the difficulties I have made suggestions about what to do, and sometimes not. Sometimes simply recognising and understanding where the problem or difficulty is, is sufficient for people to overcome it, or to know what to do about it.

If you want some more ideas here are a few more suggestions in no particular order

  • Ask advice from an expert or somebody who has experience with the situation. And be careful of taking advice from people who have no experience with the decision you are making.
  • Some decisions cannot be undone. Once you take it, there is no going back. Sometimes people act as if the decision is forever, when in reality it can be changed later. Which one is yours?
  • Whatever choices you make, you have to live with them. Make sure you can live with your choices!
  • For a different perspective, think of yourself at the end of your life, looking back on this difficult decision. From this perspective, how important was it? Did you choose the right thing over the long-term or were you looking for instant gratification.
  • What are your values and principles and is the choice you're considering aligned with them?

"Make the small decisions with your head and the big ones with your heart."

- Emily Keith

"If you find that you have to talk yourself into something, it is usually a bad decision. Good decisions usually feel right without much second-guessing."

- Triana Avis

Read more hard decision quotes and about how we naturally make 95% of our decisions...

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