Making Tough Decisions in 3 Simple Steps

Break out of the haze of confusion and worry and make the best choice.

Where should I live? Should I go for that promotion? What’s the right career change for me? Should I quit my job? Should I start my own business? Which of these businesses should I invest in? Should I take six months off and travel the world? Should I ask her to marry me? Is it time to have kids?

Every single one of us faces tough decisions all the time. Sometimes it feels like a major life event, like getting married or starting a business. Sometimes it isn’t as major, but it feels just as hard to make a choice. When you have a decision like this hanging over you, it creates stress and worry. You feel overwhelmed, like you’re in a white-out blizzard and it’s impossible to see. You become paralyzed, because you can’t seem to make a decision and move forward.

Here’s the truth:

For every hard decision, there is always a solution just waiting to be discovered. Click To Tweet

The key is to start cutting through the chaos of options—to calm the blizzard—so you can start putting one foot in front of the other. Use the three steps below to stop spinning around and around, get some perspective, and discover your answer.

1. Start with You

Warren Buffett is famous for a lot of things, but one of his most well known pieces of advice is to know your circle of competence and stay within it. He quotes Tom Watson, the founder of IBM, who said, “I’m no genius but I’m smart in spots and I stay around those spots.”

Buffett himself sticks to investing in the types of industries and companies he understands and claims that that has made him a successful investor. If an opportunity to invest comes up and it seems great but it falls outside his circle, he passes. “My brain is not a general-purpose brain that works marvelously in all situations,” he said in an essay in the book Getting There. “There are all sorts of things I’m no good at and there are all kinds of investment opportunities I’m not able to comprehend.”

That doesn’t make Warren unique. It makes him just like all of us. None of us are good at everything. When we’re in a tight spot, when we’ve got a tough problem to solve, when we’ve got a tough decision to make, the first step should be to discard any options that are outside our circle of competence. Choosing a solution or option that relies on you doing something you aren’t good at or don’t like doing is a recipe for failure.

What is in your circle of competence?

  • Things you like to do
  • Things you’re good at doing
  • Things that mean a lot to you
  • Places you like to be
  • The kinds of people you like to work with or be around
  • The way you like doing things

By answering these questions you’re narrowing in on your areas of competence and that will help you get rid of options that aren’t right for you.

There’s a time for you to be challenging yourself and possibly stepping out of your comfort zone, but this isn’t it. Right now, you’re trying to make a decision that’s going to work.

If you start with yourself, you’ll narrow down your choices immediately, and that will make the ultimate decision easier to make and give you better results.

2. Look at What Successful People Have Done

Picasso once said that nothing starts without inspiration from something else. I can’t list all of the hugely successful people who have proudly declared their habit of stealing ideas. What they really mean is that they’re stealing inspiration.

Steve Jobs, the great innovator, said in the PBS series Triumph of the Nerds, “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing. … And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” —Isaac Newton

No matter what you’re struggling with, you can find great ideas from people who have successfully solved that problem, worked past that obstacle, or made a similar tough decision at a confusing crossroads. Look at the people who seem aligned with your style, your way of thinking, or how you approach problems. Steal freely from them. I promise, they won’t mind. And why not learn from what worked for people who got it right?

Look for those people and ask, What kinds of things did they do? What worked for them? What didn’t? Did they consistently choose from a few options that are already on your list? Did they choose options you haven’t even considered yet?

Never be afraid of learning how others have successfully solved a problem like yours. Don’t be intimidated or believe that because they’re at a different point in the journey to their goals, their ideas won’t work for you. Get inspired by what the most successful people in your area or in the area of your challenge did that actually worked and then use their ideas to help refine your choices.

3. Turn to Your Trusted Advisors

I have a friend who is in the middle of a house renovation. For the big, tough decisions, she sends her final set of two or three options to two of her closest friends who know her well—what she likes and doesn’t, how her family works, and so on. She asks them for the pros and cons of each choice she’s considering. They give her honest feedback, including things like “That seems like a high maintenance floor, and I know nobody in your family is going to follow the advice to sweep it every day.” She considers the feedback and then makes her choice.

We all have people who care about our success, who we trust and respect, and who have the ability to be great sounding boards or advisors in different areas of our lives.

When you’re stuck, you should turn to these people for help or guidance. Often, they’ll endorse one of the ideas or choices, or they might even offer one that takes advantage of the best parts of other ideas—a compromise you hadn’t considered. The best part about this step, though, is that often just talking through the decision and the choices gives you your answer. Sometimes, saying things out loud gives us a new perspective or forces us to be clear in a way we weren’t before.

Regardless, it’s almost impossible for you to leave a conversation with a trusted advisor, or group of advisors, without a pretty clear direction.

Use this three-step process whenever you feel confused, worried, or overwhelmed by a tough decision. It will help you quickly refine your options and identify the best decision for you and your circumstances. You’ll feel ready to move forward with confidence and enthusiasm—and that’s really the key to any great decision.


Click here for more on my series about systems:

3 Steps to Solve Your Daily Problems
How Winners Manage Priorities in Life
3 Things Nick Saban’s Process Can Show You That Will Simplify Your Life

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