How To Make Tough Decisions: The Ultimate Guide

Do you ever think about parallel universes?

Are there other worlds where you made different life decisions and ended up somewhere completely different? 

Though we make little decisions every day—what to eat, where to go, whom to see—every once in a while, everyone comes across choices that have a big impact on the course of their lives: taking a new job, accepting entry into a college or program, or starting/ending a relationship. 

It’s never easy to make big decisions, but it’s an unavoidable part of life. And sometimes, when faced with a tough choice, you can feel paralyzed out of fear of making the wrong choice. 

But life cannot be lived without making decisions. To help make it easier to choose when you reach a fork in the road, I’ve put together this guide on how to confidently make big decisions.


What makes tough decisions so tough? 

There are plenty of reasons you may find it difficult to make a certain choice in life. Knowing why a decision is so difficult is the first step toward making up your mind. 

Here are some of the main reasons it can be so challenging to make a choice:


There are big implications 

“We all make choices, but in the end, our choices make us.

Decisions that are likely to affect our lives in big ways are inherently harder to make. Choosing what to have for dinner isn’t going to affect your life for very long—even if you don’t enjoy what you end up eating, you’ll probably get over it by the time your next meal comes around. 

But choosing whether to go to college or do something else entirely is a choice that’s going to affect the trajectory of your life. And that can be very intimidating! Your fear of making the wrong choice can hold you hostage, making it virtually impossible to decide.


You’re under pressure

“Time plays a role in almost every decision. And some decisions define your attitude about time.” —John Cale

There’s nothing like a time crunch to make a relatively hard decision a million times more difficult. Perhaps someone has put you on the spot—your boss asks you a hard question during a one-on-one meeting. 

Or maybe the decision itself has a time limit. For example, your friends are all booking tickets for a group vacation, and you need to decide if you want to go or not. That doesn’t seem like such a hard decision—until you find out they’re all booking the flights and hotels in two hours, meaning you have to decide now.


There are no good outcomes 

“You’ve got to make tough decisions, sometimes unpopular decisions… Whatever it is, if it’s the right move at the time, you’ve got to be also willing to make mistakes.” —Sean McDermott

Sometimes, decisions are tough because we don’t like any of the options we have. 

Here’s an example that will resonate with anyone who has had a beloved pet. Years ago, my childhood dog, Autumn, was reaching the end of her life. She could still get around somewhat, but I could tell she was in a lot of pain even walking around the block. 

I desperately didn’t want to let her go—Autumn had been my loyal companion for so many years. But I also didn’t want to go another day watching her suffer to simply get up and down from the couch. There was no other option; no way to end her suffering and save her life at the same time. After agonizing over it for a while, I had to make the painful decision to put her down. It was the right decision, but it was one of the hardest I’d ever made at that point in my life.


There are lots of unknowns 

“Daring to plunge into the unknown may very well land you in paradise.” —Bronnie Ware

Ah, if only we all had a crystal ball that would show us the outcomes of the choices we make in life. Unfortunately, some decisions are challenging because we simply cannot know what the consequences will be. 

The more unknowns there are with a decision, the harder it will be to make. You cannot know, for example, whether you will be happier if you move to a new town or stay put. You will only find out the results of your decision once it’s been made, and often, there’s no way to reverse the choice. This can be paralyzing. 


It will affect other people 

“It’s impossible to live without hurting others.” —Jun Mochizuki

In life, the decisions we make inevitably affect the people in our orbit. And if we’re worried that a particular choice in life will impact the people we care about negatively, it can make it hard to choose.

This is one reason people stay in relationships longer than they should. It never feels good to break someone’s heart, even if it’s ultimately for the best. Sometimes, it feels easier to avoid such a decision altogether if it means you won’t be hurting anyone in the immediate future.


How to make tough decisions 

Faced with a tough choice in life? Try these methods to make the right decision.


Figure out how much time you have to make this choice 

Whenever you’re faced with a big decision, the first step is figuring out how long you have before you absolutely have to decide. 

In some cases, this might be easy—if a decision has a specific deadline, you know right off the bat how long you’ve got. 

Other times, it may feel like you don’t have much time at all. If someone is demanding a quick decision, it can be tempting to rush in order to give them a quick answer. 

But big decisions should never be rushed if it can be avoided, which is why it’s good practice to buy yourself more time when possible. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I need some time before I can give you an answer.” 

If you really don’t have time to come up with an answer, then you may need to make a gut decision. Here’s a guide on how to do that, too:


Push away the desire to procrastinate 

Once you’ve figured out how much time you have to make this choice, it’s natural to feel the strong desire to put off making the decision until the last minute. 

Taking time to be thoughtful about your choice is a good thing. But putting off a decision just because it’s challenging will only increase the amount of time you spend feeling anxious about the choice. 

When the feeling to delay the decision comes on, do your best to resist. Carve out time when you will put away all distractions and focus on the choice. Keep carving out time every day until you know what’s right, and then do the hard thing and make your final choice. 

Choosing not to choose is itself a choice, and comes with consequences of its own. Usually, you’ll have less control over those consequences, so make time your friend, not your enemy.


Reflect on previous experiences 

Once you’ve carved out time to focus on the decision, a good starting place is thinking about your past. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • When have I been faced with a decision similar to this one?
  • How did I approach that choice? How did I eventually make the decision?
  • What were the outcomes, and how did they feel? 
  • What were the outcomes that I didn’t expect? 
  • Do I wish I had made a different choice? 

On that last question, don’t be too hard on yourself. You cannot move through life without making mistakes and wrong decisions. These missteps are what help us grow and become better people. And most importantly, they help us make the right choices the next time around. 

If you don’t have any experience making a choice like this, check out the section below on consulting your inner council. 👇


Imagine the possible outcomes 

After you’ve reflected on your past experiences, its time to cast your gaze in the opposite direction: the future. 

If you’ve already been anxious about the choice you have to make, you may have already been tossing the potential outcomes around in your head. But anxiety forces us to focus on the negatives, and often the voices we hear when we’re dreading something aren’t all that logical. 

Here is an exercise to help you think rationally and logically about all the potential outcomes. You only need a pen and paper or a Word document: 

Exercise: Making a Tough Decision by Examining Outcomes 🔮

1. At the top of the page, write out one possible choice you could make 

2. Repeat step one, creating a new page for every possible decision 

3. On each page, list out things that would or could happen if you made that choice 

4. Next to each outcome, assign a rating of some kind. (Ex. A scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being something you really don’t want, and 10 being an excellent outcome.)

5. Now, go back through and rate how likely each outcome is. (Ex. Give 1 star to things that probably won’t happen, and three stars to things that will definitely happen.) 

6. Look back over your notes. Which page has the highest ratings when you look at the two scores combined? Which page has the lowest?

This exercise isn’t guaranteed to get you to the absolute right decision, but laying everything out in such a way can bring that much-needed clarity you need.


Consult your inner council

I’m putting this tip toward the end of the guide because with tough decisions, it’s wise to consider your own feelings on an issue before asking for advice. But seeking counsel from people you trust can help give you the confidence you need to make a choice in life. 

Find folks whose opinions you trust. Consider if there’s anyone in your life who has had a similar decision to make. For example, if you’re trying to decide between two jobs, is there anyone in your network who has worked at one of the companies before, or in a similar role? Their input will be valuable. 

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend finding a mentor—the mentors in my life have been incredibly helpful when making tough decisions. Here are a few guides to help you with this: 


Come to these people with the insights you’ve already put together as you’ve reflected on past experiences and investigated the possible outcomes. Tell them where your heart is now in the decision and what your anxieties are. 

Then listen to what they have to say. 

Be open to hearing other people’s perspectives, but don’t let any single person influence the decision. This is why I refer to it as an “inner council” — while others can give you good insights and show you new perspectives, ultimately the choice is still yours and yours alone.


Make a contingency plan 

If you’ve done everything I’ve suggested above, then hopefully you’re a lot closer to making the right decision. 

It pays to be pragmatic when making a difficult choice. Though you won’t have control over every outcome, you can still prepare yourself if things don’t work out exactly how you expect. 

For example, let’s say you are in the process of moving and trying to decide between two apartments. One is a studio that you would have all to yourself, but you’d have to sell some of your belongings, and you’d be living in a very small space. The other would give you a bigger, spacious bedroom, but you’d be sharing your living space with four other people. 

Ultimately, you decide your desire to live on your own outweighs your need for space. 

But before you sign the lease, you go back to the list you made when examining potential outcomes and look at the negative possibilities you listed. You take notes on what you can do to start preparing yourself for these outcomes. It might look something like this: 

I will miss my belongings when I sell them 

  • I will see if my sister can hold on to some of my stuff
  • I could look into storage containers for my fave belongings 
  • I could donate the items to charity so they’d have a good home

I might feel cramped and uncomfortable

  • I’ll research ways to make a small apartment more comfortable 
  • I’ll explore local coffee shops, parks, and co-working spaces where I can go when feeling cramped

I might feel lonely living by myself 

  • I’ll introduce myself to my neighbors (bake cookies?)
  • I’ll invite a friend over for dinner and a movie every week

You get the idea. 

You’ve taken the time you have to weigh your options and plan ahead. Now, you can walk confidently into the decision you’ve made. 

Before you go, check out these other resources that can help you manage the tough choices in life: