How to Make Hard Decisions

Spoiler: You already know the decision

You already know what your decision is.  You just don’t know it consciously. Because decisions aren’t made in the part of the brain that helps explain WHY you made the decision.

Few things are more paralyzing than being faced with a decision you don’t want to make, or don’t know how to make.  It’s a situation where you really don’t know which direction to turn. 

Say, for example, you realize that after 10 years, you have come to hate your career, but you’re very good at your job and make really good money doing it.  You desperately want to quit your job and do something else, but don’t know how you would do that without disrupting your family’s life.

Or, as a manager, you know that you have one or two employees who just aren’t making the grade.  They’re problem employees and you seem to be spending a majority of your time in coaching, mentoring, and improving their work output.  They create the bulk of your daily stress related to work.  But you’ve never fired an employee and you feel like firing them would both wreck their personal lives and force you to admit that you were a failure in managing them.

Another example: You know you need some time away from your daily life.  Both you and your spouse have been working non-stop for months now, and you feel guilty for wanting to take a week away from it all by yourself.  It would be unfair to your spouse to just disappear for a while, but you know that by doing so you’d be a far better parent, spouse, employee, manager, etc.

Or on a personal level, maybe you’ve come to realize that you are in a relationship that has run its course.  Maybe you have 10-15 years invested in the relationship, and even children.  You can’t imagine a situation where you don’t live with your kids, but the pain and emptiness that comes from a loveless relationship with your partner greets you every morning and makes you find ways to avoid spending time with your family – including your children.  Work is usually a great excuse to disappear both physically and mentally.

The truth is, when you’re faced with a decision you don’t want to make, you’ve already made it.  You just haven’t admitted it to yourself yet.

**You can’t see past a decision you don’t understand.**

Decisions are made in your mind at a level that doesn’t verbalize decisions well.  Deep down you know you’ve already made the decision, but you can’t apply logic to why you’ve made it.  There’s a lot of research about how our brains really work that shows that decisions are made in the lateral habenula area of the brain, which is one of the oldest regions of the brain, evolution-wise.   

Research shows that humans, because we do a lot of cognitive processing at both a conscious and unconscious level, are slow to understand why they’ve made a decision, and even slower at rationalizing it.  You may become consciously aware of a decision 10 seconds after you’ve already made it.

But once you’re aware of your decision, the cognitive, logical part of your mind goes to work on that decision.  You start rationalizing why that is a bad decision, and how the impact of your decision will forever alter your course in life – sometimes in a direction that is illogical, scary, or not the most beneficial for you.

Think about why you’ve delayed difficult decisions in your life.  If you didn’t really care about the social implications of your decision – if we were living in the age before society – you would follow your ‘instinct’ every time, because your instinct is this decision-making capability that focuses on maximizing reward and minimizing pain.  This has evolved in mammals over hundreds of millions of years, and has kept us – and our ancestors – alive.

But because we are an evolved species living in a complex societal web of people, processes, beliefs, and systems, our ‘best judgment’ instinct is often overruled by our sense of obligation to family, friends, and society itself. 

But how many people do you know that are highly successful in life – in matters of business, lifestyle and love – that haven’t had to make very hard, very difficult decisions in their life?  Every story I’ve ever read about people who are successful over the course of a lifetime have made hard decisions to give up something, do something outside of their comfort zone, take a risk, or hurt the feelings of others with a greater purpose in mind.

Again, the truth is you’ve already made your decision.  You may or may not understand it.  But remember our brain is a complex thing that works on many levels.  This is why people say ‘trust your gut instinct’.  That ‘gut instinct’ is actually this tiny part of the oldest part of your brain telling you which way to go.

**You have to learn how to listen to the part of your mind that can’t speak, but can decide.**

I’ve made some really ‘interesting’ decisions in my life – especially in the past year.  About 9 months ago I was faced with a decision where every logical, rational, and sane part of my being told me to stand up and fight for my position.  I knew that it would lead to months of infighting, arguing, and probably lost relationships.  But I KNEW it was the right thing to do – logically. 

But something came over me when it was time to fight.  I had ignored my ‘gut instinct’ for more than a year by this point.  At that very moment when it was time to fight, I let go and stopped arguing.  I knew at a subconscious level that I was right and they were wrong, but I also knew that my instincts were telling me to take the high road and walk away. 

After that incident, I walked away stunned at myself for rolling over.  I spent months trying to understand why I did it.  It wasn’t until 8 months afterwards when I realized that I had actually made the best decision possible at the time, and my life was now far better than it had been in years. 

I didn’t know why I made the decision to let go and not fight.  Worse, I couldn’t understand any decision that came after that one either.  I was truly running on my gut instincts for 8 months – not understanding why I was doing what I was doing, but also knowing that I was being guided by my instinct. 

I have a theory that this instinctual understanding of how to make decisions that our conscious mind can’t comprehend is why many of us believe in a higher power that guides us when we let go.  But that’s for another blog entry.

**Here are three exercises you can do to try to finally make your decision.**

1.  Assume you’ve made the decision in one direction or another

Pretend you’ve made the decision to do X or Y.  Pick one – either one for now.  Take a few moments to really immerse yourself in understanding and reviewing the consequences of your decision.  You’ve made up your mind, now you have to live with the consequences.  How do you feel?  Relief?  Excitement?  Or do you realize all of a sudden you’ve lost something important or have a sense of stress, guilt, sadness…  You have to focus on your emotions here. 

Then step back and reset yourself.  Pretend to make the other decision, and explore how you feel about the consequences. 

This is similar to the concept of making a “Yes or No” sheet of paper, but it has to be done at a deeply emotional level.  This helps your conscious mind recognize the signals coming from your unconscious – but decision-making – mind.

2.  A friend of mine recently told me that I was holding on too tight and that I needed to just ‘let go’.  This is actually sound scientific advice.  Disconnect from the electronic noise in your life for a few hours and really focus on being in the moment.  Don’t think about your past or your future – just focus on now.  See the world around you for what it is – the beauty, the mess, the chaos and the order.  Just be present for a little while. 

Come back to your choice and take stock of how you feel right now.  Then go away from it again trying to be present in the moment.  Come back to it.  After two or three of these cycles, you’ll start to feel a sway in one direction or another.  Letting go of the sense of control over the past and the future sometimes helps to uncloud your decision-making process by removing the conscious, analytical part of your decision-making process that usually doesn’t make the right decisions.

3.  Make the decision and begin to move in the direction you choose.  Some decisions, like firing an employee, deciding to change careers, or even radically altering your home life, can be made in small steps from which you can recover quickly.  What I’ve learned in life is that I make the best decisions by moving in one direction or another.  You will quickly realize if you are moving in the right direction – or in the wrong one.  Motion helps provide perspective, and action of any kind sometimes helps to get past the paralysis you are feeling.

In the end, not making a decision at all is the worst thing you can do when faced with making a difficult decision, yet it sometimes feels like the safest thing to do because we are all afraid of change.  Trust the part of your brain that can’t quite verbalize why it’s decided for you what’s best, but know that it’s weighed all of the factors – both logical and emotional – and already knows what you should do. 

You just have to ‘follow your heart’, ‘trust your gut’, ‘let go’ or ‘believe a higher power is guiding you’ to hear that part of your mind.

Leave a Reply