Difficult decisions come in two flavors:

1) Truly Difficult Decisions

2) Normal Decisions made under Stress

Type 1: Truly Difficult Decisions

Truly difficult decisions meet two basic qualifications.

First, there are trade-offs involved. All of the potential choices in a truly difficult decision present costs and benefits. For example – staying at a job might provide financial security, a sense of identity and a regular schedule while leaving a job might provide novelty, independence, and flexibility. Or put another way (cue The Clash), “If you stay there will be trouble. If you go there will be double.”

Second, truly difficult decisions are high stakes. They embody important values – such as caring for others, loyalty, fairness or responsibility. Their outcome will impact your daily life or your future – such as finances, important relationships or your professional reputation.

Truly difficult decisions require careful attention, but making them is crucial for moving forward with a sense of purpose, clarity and control. When you have one to make, here are a few tips:

  • Take your time but don’t stall out
  • Align your options with your needs, values and goals
  • Visualize the positive and negatives of the choices
  • Invite feedback from trusted advisors or mentors
  • Gather the support you will need to walk out your decision
  • Be prepared to communicate your decision and the reasons behind your choice

Type 2: Normal Decisions made under Stress
(including overwhelm, anger, fear and self-doubt)

There are times in life where all decisions begin to feel difficult.

  • What should we eat for dinner tonight?
  • How should I be spending my time right now?
  • What’s the next step I should take on this project?

When normal decisions trigger BIG FEELINGS it might be a sign that you are experiencing a lot of stress or even on the cusp of becoming burned out.

Uncertainty and hardship over time – plus the need to keep deciding – can lead to decision fatigue: a situation where your ability to make basic decisions is negatively impacted by stress. Here are some ways to support yourself in the moment:

  • Get off your screens – phone, computer, television & tablet
  • Recognize what’s happening and take a moment to check-in with yourself
  • Acknowledge the feelings you are having – whatever they are (“Oh hello, overwhelm!”)
  • Take care of your immediate needs (eg. hydrate, feed yourself, go to the bathroom)
  • Move your body and/or go outside
  • When you feel a shift in the mental fog, make the decision
  • Lastly (and importantly) move on

It’s Not Just You

If making decisions (truly difficult or actually kinda basic) has become challenging for you recently, you aren’t alone. We are living in a time where many people are feeling incredible stress, volatility and insecurity in their personal and professional lives. These feelings are heightened by the ubiquity of social media (and actual media) that is supported by advertising which presents an unending list of daily choices to improve and optimize life.

Maybe difficult decisions will never be simple. But we can find ways to reduce the number of decisions that feel difficult and give more of our attention to the ones that matter most. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Reduce the number of decisions you make each day by establishing routines, planning ahead, delegating decisions to others and avoiding social media
  • Make regular time to check in on what’s essential (eg. your purpose, values and goals) and what you can let go of
  • Build decision-free time into your schedule (eg. exercise, playing with kids or animals, reading for pleasure)
  • Work with a trusted mentor, therapist or coach on big decisions and if you need it on stress-reduction, burnout recovery and work/life balance


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About the Author: Kate Cockrill

A little about me... I am a social scientist, facilitator, and professional coach. Through my business: Kate Cockrill Coaching, I support mission driven managers and directors with 1:1 career coaching, leadership coaching, team workshops, and retreat design. My clients include leaders in healthcare, education, research and social innovation.

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