How to Make a Difficult Decision

24May12

Everybody knows how to make a decision.  You line up the choices, compare pros and cons, and decide.  Simple.

Unfortunately, some decisions are not like that.  You make your decision, and then later you change your mind.  And then you change your mind again.  This happens more for some people than for others.  Maybe they are more open to new information; maybe they’re just indecisive.  Regardless, most people are going to have this experience at one time or another.

How do you get past this kind of situation?  One possibility involves time and patience.  The longer you let the difficult problem sit, the more likely it is that circumstances will change, something definitive will happen in your thinking, or for some other reason it will eventually become clear what you must do.  Another possibility involves time and hard work.  While those gradual, natural processes are unfolding, you may be able to contribute to the process.  You may be able to investigate, rethink, and otherwise refine the issue.  There may be two somewhat opposed strategies for that purpose:  refine and fine-tune the question, if you seem to be closing in on answer, or step back and triangulate — get big-picture impressions from two or three different decision tools or perspectives — if you’re still trying to get your arms around the problem.

Those remarks raise the question of how much time to allow for the decision process.  It is possible for a difficult decision to become a part-time, full-time, or constant preoccupation for hours, months, or even years.  In fact, most lives probably contain a number of things that people never do decide.  They think “I probably should exercise more” or “I ought to learn more about my religion,” but they never quite get around to it.  Such situations are full of implicit questions:  how important is religion to me, really?  Are there some kinds of exercise that I would enjoy?  And these remain undecided, for lack of time, interest, and focus.

When deciding how much time to allocate to the decision process, there are potential errors on both extremes.  On one hand, you can just flip a coin and make a decision, for better or worse, one way or the other.  Sometimes you have to.  Other times, you try that, and then later you find that you’re back at the difficult decision again.  What you decided to do didn’t work, or didn’t feel right.  If it was an actual mistake, then maybe it did damage that you could have avoided if you’d been more cautious.

On the other hand, you can allow a problem to just fester, on and on.  It can become crippling.  You can’t say yes, because that would cause problem X; but you also can’t say no, because that would cause problem Y.  A person experiencing clinical depression can be in this kind of situation, or this kind of situation can lead to a depressed inaction.  There doesn’t seem to be anything you can do, so eventually you give up on trying to do anything.

A good tactic, when trying to untie the Gordian knot of an impossible decision, is to gather information.  Learning about the situation can reveal unexpected solutions.  It can also refine the problem.  What looked like one big, super-complicated issue can turn out to be several smaller problems.  The solutions to some of those may be easy, and deciding them can simplify the decision.

In some cases, though, gathering information can be counterproductive.  This is especially likely with a huge problem based on ancient history.  There are just too many facts to learn, and there’s another layer of complexity because people disagree on how those facts should be interpreted, or on what really happened.  The more you dig into the thing, the more you discover that there is an enormous aggregation of knowledge — a branch of science, perhaps, or an important part of an entire culture — built on one way of viewing the thing.  You can become an expert in that area, assuming you have the time, interest, and ability, but then you may ultimately find yourself at odds with other experts who became absorbed in a different perspective on the situation.  You haven’t really decided the issue itself; you’ve just positioned yourself on one side of it, or in one part of the bigger picture.

These remarks suggest that one approach to a difficult decision would be to start by deciding how much time to give it.  People often choose to wait just one more day, or one more week, and see what happens.  This approach may work best if you have a plan in mind:  “By Monday, I’ll know whether I should do A or B.”  In another variation, you can set a time limit on your information gathering efforts:  “I have to submit the form by the end of the month, so whatever the options are, I’ll have to know them by then.”  These kinds of deadlines may help prevent getting stuck — getting buried in information or lost in indecisiveness — and not being able to move on.  They may work best if there’s something behind them, some penalty or opportunity that will motivate you to do what you need to do before the deadline.

Sometimes an indirect approach can be helpful.  As suggested in the remarks about depression (above), even a simple decision can be made difficult by various emotions and mental states (e.g., anger, shock, fear).  These can prevent people from doing what they know they have to do.  They can also be confusing, as what seems obvious one day suddenly appears absurd on another day.  It may even seem that nothing has actually changed, and yet the sun has risen and everything looks completely different.  Indirect attacks on the difficult decision, in this sort of situation, may involve talking to friends or a therapist, praying or meditating or getting a massage, or taking a long, thoughtful walk.  Getting away from the thing — going to a party, or going on vacation — can sometimes provide the necessary perspective.  These sorts of measures may work on the first try, or may need to be repeated.  If they don’t seem to be achieving anything after several tries, it’s probably time to switch to a different approach.

While taking these various measures to work through the decision, it may be worth remembering that the decision process can lead somewhere important.  Hard decisions are often hard for good reason.  They can teach us things.  They can require significant learning, valuable experiences, and major changes that would not have happened without them.  Going through the process, struggling with the thing for long periods of time, long past the point of patience, is sometimes an indication of just how far off-track we may have been, or of how much a new phase in life is going to require of us.

Sometimes a deadline, whether self-imposed or otherwise, may force learning that wouldn’t have happened without it; sometimes a deadline may prevent learning that simply required more time than was available.  Maybe both of those possibilities are present in every difficult decision situation, and our treatment of the deadline (or its treatment of us) may determine which kind of learning will emerge from that situation.  For instance, it does sometimes seem that decisions made under stress tend to lead to more decisions made under stress.

These thoughts provide a small start toward the problem of making a difficult decision.  A Google search indicates that the problem of the difficult decision has been approached with many different suggestions and tips.  Another search suggests that people often construe the problem of the difficult decision as a matter of having the right problem-solving skills, techniques, or strategies.

There does not appear to be a magical solution, but rather a bag of tricks that people must resort to, trying one after another until something works.  Some people may have learned a variety of such tricks in childhood, or in previous experience in the particular type of situation; others may need to make a deliberate effort to discover (or rediscover) such skills.  Possibly a good approach, in a truly exceptional situation, would be to read about these various sorts of suggestions and skills with a goal of identifying more specifically what kind of problem it is, and then doing a revised Google search (building on one of the two noted in the previous paragraph) to home in on suggestions and stories (to name two search terms) arising from others’ efforts to address that sort of problem.

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One Response to “How to Make a Difficult Decision”

  1. “There does not appear to be a magical solution…”

    No; there never is. Life isn’t neat or simple or easy, but messy, complex and hard.

    From a scientific point of view, it’s an infinite-dimensional phase space.


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