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4 questions to ask yourself when you have to make a big decision

You can’t always predict the consequences of your decisions, but you can ask questions to gain a better understanding of what’s right for you.

4 questions to ask yourself when you have to make a big decision
[Photo: SARINYAPINNGAM/iStock]

For me, decision making is one of those things that I haven’t gotten better at with age. While I might know more than my younger self, I’ve also realized just how much more I don’t know. That realization is pretty scary when it comes to making big decisions. And the more of those I made, the more I realized just how much it changed the direction of my life, for better or worse.

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Sure, you should do your research and gather as much information as you can. But at the end of the day, you’ll usually have to make do with incomplete information.


Related: This simple chart can help your team make better decisions faster 


With that in mind, there are questions you can ask yourself to get a better understanding of the right next steps to take. Here are four things you should think about:

1. How significant is this decision in the bigger scheme of things?

Not all decisions are created equal. Some decisions only affect the situation you’re experiencing right at that moment, or that day. It’s not worth it to sweat those, Mike Whitaker, author of The Decision Makeover: an Intentional Approach to Living the Way You Want, told Fast Company in 2017. So before you obsess over making what you perceive is a tough choice, think about how much it would really affect your day-to-day life.

Whitaker went on to say that when you have identified a big decision (which successful people tend to make once or twice a year), you should follow the strategies below:

  1. Keep five prime goals and stay focused on them
  2. Identify top priority and give it favorable treatment when making decisions
  3. Look for a goal and decision overlap, and treat this decision with more care
  4. Appreciate the momentum and identify the benefits of continuing to move in the right direction.

2. Given the significance of the decision, how long will I give myself to decide?

There are two kinds of decision makers, productivity expert and author Laura Vanderkam wrote in 2016: “maximizers,” those who are committed to finding the absolute best option, and “satisficers” who have a set of criteria, and make their decision based on the first option that meets it. On its face, maximizers might seem like the best approach to take, but unfortunately, this can actually paralyze decision making. In the back of their minds, they know there’s always something better out there.

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If you fall into this camp, time coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggested budgeting a time for your decision. Yes, that includes big decisions. Once you’ve made it, make sure to reward yourself or celebrate.


Related: 5 steps to harness your brain’s unconscious decision-making powers


3. What would I advise someone else in my position?

Let’s face it, we’re all better at making decisions for other people. How many times have you watched a colleague or friend do something cringeworthy, and think, “I wouldn’t do that if I were them?”

As Stephanie Vozza previously reported for Fast Company, when you make the decision on behalf of someone else, “They feel less tired and rely less on decision shortcuts to make their choices.” In addition, they’re less likely to be clouded by emotions or ego, which often creeps into your decision-making process more than what you’d like to think.

So the next time you feel frazzled and uncertain, step back and consider, “How would I advise someone else in my position to act?” Ideally, you should think of someone who you’re not too close to, and whose circumstances you can assess in a completely dispassionate way. You might just find that the answer is much clearer than you think.

4. What does my gut say?

While your gut shouldn’t be the deciding factor (research shows that it often contains biases that override our rational thoughts), you shouldn’t ignore it altogether. At the very least, your “gut feeling” is an indication of your emotions toward a particular outcome. Once you processed that particular emotion and understand where it comes from, you’re in a much better space to make a rational decision, and less likely to be clouded by them.

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About the author

Anisa is the Assistant Editor for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work

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