How Do I Make A Decision?

Dear Mom:

I have the hardest time making decisions. I spend more time trying to figure things out than everyone I know. And most of the time I miss the chance to even make the decision for myself – either I’m too late and the offer is gone, or I just get what’s left. I get so stressed every time I have to even pick where my boyfriend and I are going out for dinner. Is there an easy way to figure things out?

Can’t Even Decide On A Name. 

Dear Undecided:

Short answer: We all figure it out, don’t sweat it.

Long answer: Wow. Big question.

Is choosing a school the same as deciding on a major? Is the process for deciding to buy a car the same as deciding which car to buy? Is the decision to break up with your BAE anything like deciding to marry him? What about choosing which event to attend on the same day? Or whether to accept a job offer? Or what to name the cat?

Virtually every moment of every day requires some kind of decision. The variables are endless. The choices almost unlimited. The pressure can be a bitch.

How can we move from the simple black/white, yes/no, I/O choices of childhood – easy rules placed on us by someone else – to the ever more grey choices of adulthood?

There are a few tricks you can use along the way.

Right vs. Wrong

Oh, it used to be so simple. Be nice. Share. Use your words. And your manners. Don’t hit your brother.

Now it’s more like, can I date my friend’s ex?, the boss thinks I’m the one who made that great play, if I were just a bit faster I could save my scholarship, she’ll never know. Ouch. Do you let it go or do you say something? Do you fix it for him, or let him suffer?

You were raised with certain rules – religion, family, society, peers all had a hand in guiding your development. As you reach adulthood, you start making your own rules. You keep the ones from your childhood that work, and create a few new ones that apply to you and who you want to be. By the time you’re about 25 – for some it’s 15, and others it’s 50 – you’re pretty clear on your version of right and wrong.

In the end, if you’re still at odds about what the right choice is, pick the harder one. The easy way out is usually just that, the easy way. The hard choice is the one that will pay off in the end. Sorry. But that’s the way of it.

A or B

Choosing between two or more things can be paralyzing. Which school? Which car? Which restaurant?

Bigger choices need to be written down and reviewed. Eventually, with practice, you get better at doing this in your head, and picking between McDonalds and Burger King with a bunch of friends doesn’t require coloured markers and a white board. But there are many choices you’ll run into that you’ll need to see with your own eyes.

Get a piece of paper. Line down the middle. One side Pros, other side Cons. For and against. Good v Bad. Yes v No. Blue v Red.

Then start listing – all the reasons you can think of one way, and all the reasons you can think of the other. Take as much time as you can – put it away and come back tomorrow, and the next day if you can – different days can bring new ideas. Talk it out – get ideas from others. Especially those involved.

Once the list is done – start ranking each point by importance – and cross of the points that really don’t matter. Weed it down to the few that are really bugging you and evaluate their importance. Does price outweigh convenience? Does experience trump starting pay? Narrow your focus to what you are most concerned about. Most of the time, the problem is not making a choice – it’s having too many.

Where to Start

Then there’s the ‘I have no idea where to start’ type problems. What do I want to take in school? What do I want to do after school? Do I want to go to school?

Self-evaluation is a skill that is more important now than ever in the history of the human race. Your grandparents and most of your parents were taught to pick a field and then find a job in that field, save their pennies, and retire after working one, maybe two jobs, for the rest of their lives. Not you guys. You will have several jobs, careers, even career paths throughout your lives; and that is bloody exciting if you approach it with a sense of adventure and confidence!

(Well, at least you’ll be better at teaching ‘change’ to your kids. Nobody over 35 can even think about change without pooping their pants.)

Anyway, back to you. You need to figure out what to do, where to go, which way, how long. No wonder you’re all running around on hyper drive these days.

But step back. Keep calm, and get to know yourself first.

Start with the fact that you don’t need to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life; you just need to decide what to do next. And while you want to narrow things down a bit, you’ll want to keep as many doors open for the future as you can.

Grab a big piece of paper and draw a 4-square chart. 2 columns, 2 rows. Across the top, label the columns ‘What I’m Good At’ and ‘What I’m Not Good At.’ Down the side, ‘What I Like’ and ‘What I Don’t Like.’

Fill it in. Be honest. Ask close friends and family for their thoughts. (Don’t show them the chart; chances are they won’t see you the way you do, and this is for you, about you. But you can ask.) “Hey Mom, what are three things you think I’m really good at?” And she’ll say, “Procrastinating, borrowing money, and making a mess.” You’ll thank her, and fill in your chart like this:

decision chart

Keep your chart handy. Check it over at least once a year – you’ll change over time, so should your chart. Then, whenever you’re contemplating a new path, match it up to your chart. How well does this opportunity suit you? Be open minded. Get some advice from academic and career counsellors. You’re bound to find a better fit if you know what you’re looking for in the first place.


The tried but true method of coming up with ideas, brainstorming also makes a great party game! Again with the pen and paper, sit down with a few friends or colleagues, or maybe just your boyfriend, and start throwing out ideas. Write them all down – even the stupid and funny ones. Ideas lead to ideas. And you’ll find you’re coming up with things none of you ever would have come up with on your own. This works for everything from naming the cat to choosing a project to pranking the prof. Have fun with it!

And Remember…

Ultimately, all of the pain, stress, and worry falls within the decision-making process. Once a choice is made, things become more clear, you relax, you get to work. Now there are things that need to be done. Now you have a path, a purpose. Do your best to make this the best decision ever.

Everyone does the best with what they have at the time. Your decision will be based on what you have to work with right now. The same options could look very different tomorrow. Don’t beat yourself up if you end up making the wrong decision. Unless you’ve got some magical crystal ball, you’re going to get more than a few of them wrong. Learn from mistakes; don’t ever regret doing your best. And if you do have that crystal ball, well, no pressure, but you’d better get it perfect.

Talk to people along the way: friends, family, advisors, professionals. Research all of your options. Gather as much info as you can. You owe it to yourself to make the best educated decision you can for yourself and the people you care about. Don’t just ask one person and do what he tells you. Even if you end up doing your first choice, you can do so knowing you explored all your options.

Hope that helps,

Love Mom.

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