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5 ways to make tough decisions faster (and not regret them later)

Spending too much time agonizing over choices that later prove ill-advised? This strategy can help.

5 ways to make tough decisions faster (and not regret them later)
[Illustration: Vijay Patel/iStock]

Decisions–or, more accurately, indecision–can cause a drag on your time for days, weeks, months, or even years. But choosing well doesn’t always have to mean choosing slowly. As an experienced time-management coach, I’ve developed a handful of strategies for cutting down the time it takes to make tough decisions. First you need to lay the groundwork, then you can pick and choose your tactic, depending on the type of tough call you’re trying to make, and how much time you’ve got to make it. Here’s how it works.

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The basics

To start, you need to set yourself up for decision-making success. This involves three fundamental elements:

  1. Book time to think. I know, the whole problem is that you don’t have time! But the time pressure you’re feeling should be a signal that you need to rethink your day-to-day task planning altogether. It’s counterintuitive, but making decisions faster requires consciously giving yourself time to make them. Decision making is a task, and it deserves more attention than what you can devote to it when you wake up late at night worrying about that urgent issue you still haven’t resolved. For smaller decisions, you may only need to set aside 30 minutes or an hour; for larger ones, you might schedule a few hours over the course of two to three weeks. But whatever you do, add these time blocks to your calendar and to-do lists on a regular basis.
  2. Define the decision. Before delving into deciding, get clear on the nature of the choice you’re making. For example, a job change affects not only your work responsibilities but also your commute, your salary, your coworkers, and so on. Defining the key factors that both go into and will be affected by your decision helps you quickly discern whether (and why) you’re excited about a particular option. Maybe that new job sounds great, but you just can’t stomach a two-hour commute every day.
  3. Think through your options. Instead of limiting yourself to a “yes” or “no” choice, brainstorm all the possible options before making a decision–you may find compromises and alternatives that weren’t easy to see initially. In fact, consider, too, whether you actually need to make a decision. In some cases it’s fine to simply let a choice pass by without committing either way.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of these decision-making basics in place, you can pick one or two tactics for deciding more quickly. Here are five great options, each suited to different situations and personality types.

1. Fall back on your values

Having clear values that you try to live by can make tough decisions easier. For example, maybe you know there’s a certain amount of time you want to spend with your family, or a baseline level of debt you’re willing to carry. When it comes time to a decision about work travel, or taking a new job with a long commute, or making a big purchase, you’ll immediately recognize whether choosing a certain course of action would violate one of those values or guide rules.

2. Talk it through

Some people are verbal processors; they organize their thoughts by talking them out. If that’s you, then having a discussion could be your fastest route to a decision. You don’t need to speak with someone who’s knowledgeable on the topic. You just need a good listener who’ll give you time and space to hear out your monologue and occasionally reflect back to you what you’ve shared. You’re likely come to a decision by the end of the conversation, even if the other person says very little.

3. Ask for perspective

Sometimes you need more than just a sounding board; you actually need advice. Asking someone else for their opinion typically works best when you’re considering doing something that you’ve never done before, and when you know someone who’s experienced in that domain. When you’re leaning in a given direction already, seeking out wise counsel can help you reach a smart decision faster. Just be careful not to blindly accept advice. A choice that may make sense for someone else might not be right for you. If you find yourself uncomfortable with what they’ve proposed, you don’t have to go through with it–but you may find the conversation nudged you toward a decision anyhow.

4. Test it out first

In some cases, you can test out a decision before actually making it. Consider visiting a new city to see how it feels to you, before taking that job that would require you to relocate. Or see if you can chat with any of your potential new coworkers ahead of time. In those moments when you’re exposing yourself to a new experience, your body tends to signal to you whether an unfamiliar situation “feels right” or just “feels off.”

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5. Listen to your hopes

When you’re really struggling with a decision, it’s often because your mind thinks one thing is practical while your heart wants something else. Pay attention to what you hope will happen. For example, when you ask a mentor for advice, what are you hoping she’ll tell you to do or not do? Or if you had to make a decision based on a coin toss, which side would you hope it lands on? We’re not purely rational creatures. It’s right (and good!) to listen to your hopes because they often give you deeper insight into the decisions you actually want to make.

Life is full of tough choices, but they don’t need to be massive drains on your time. Lay a strong foundation to make decisions generally, then pick and choose from these five tactics to make them faster. You’ll spend less time agonizing over your decisions without making slapdash choices you’ll later regret.

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