How I handle difficult decisions

Making difficult decisions is, as the wording implies, difficult. In today’s society, faced with innumerable alternatives and choices, the ability to know what one wants and being able to apply this knowledge to practical situations is not only useful, it is essential. I do think that there are ways of making a tricky decision clearer and thus also making the choice easier, leading to a more favourable outcome. This post will be mostly about what I do when faced with complex decisions, but I also write it to invite others to share their own points of view.

I have chosen not to refer to specific decisions throughout this post, because what I write here can be seen very easily in any of my posts about major decisions. The most recent one was about moving back to the south of Taiwan and then onwards to Sweden (read it here), but there are others.

My own method isn’t as formal as it looks here, this is only an attempt to write down what I do naturally. The procedure is divided into a number steps, but in reality, these are of course not so clearly separated; they merge and intertwine depending on the situation. The steps are the following:

Research –
This should be obvious. To make a good decision, one needs to know what the various choices are, and not only superficially, but the deeper the knowledge, the better the chance of a good decision later on. Input from other people is helpful not only in providing information, but also in suggesting alternatives and new ways of approaching the issue.

Analysis – This step consists of breaking down whatever information was gained in the previous step into smaller parts, and then labelling them as either positive or negative. It might also be useful to give them some sort of priority, let’s say a number between one and three. Items that are neither positive nor negative won’t influence your choice very much, so leave them for now. Input from others is extremely important here, because there might be advantages and disadvantages that only outsiders can see.

Some of these factors might be certain to be valid if a decision is made, but that’s not true in all cases. Sometimes, it’s necessary to assess how likely a certain factor is to come into play. If you really want to do it the rational way, you can multiply the negative/positive points with the likelihood that they will occur, but I’ve never done that myself, just keeping in mind what’s likely to happen is usually good enough.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself that at least helps me to see things more clearly:

– What’s the worst possible outcome for each choice?
– What’s the best possible outcome for each choice?
– What are the odds that any of these might occur?
– What is the most likely scenario?
– Which decision are you most likely to regret?

Preliminary choice – By now, at least I usually have a quite strong feeling of what I want to do. Add up the numbers for the items in the analysis step and you should see that what you intuitively think is right also earned the highest score. This is the preliminary choice, a working hypothesis of what the future will be like. If it’s something different from the intuitive answer, that’s all right, we aren’t done yet.

Get used to the idea – Now that we have a decision, although it might not be the final one, it’s time to get used to the idea. Go swimming, go out with friends, do something completely different for a while. Let your mind digest the information it’s been fed. Wait. It’s easy to reject an idea simply because there hasn’t been enough time to get used to it.

Final decision – If, after a reasonable amount of time, you think about the question again, and you feel that there’s nothing wrong with any of the steps, you’ve already made up your mind and the decision is made. If, however, you are still not sure it’s the right thing to do, then you need to go back a few steps and re-examine what you’ve already done. Repeating this process might lead to a new preliminary decision, which is hopefully better than the first one.

This is the way I do it. What about you?

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