Difficult Decisions

Difficult Decisions

Why decisions can be difficult and different ways to think about them.
(690 words)
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Some decisions are easy to make; often these are guided by our feelings. For others, we might need to think more carefully or even seek advice. But some decisions are really difficult. There are good reasons for this, but there are also different ways to think about decisions that might be helpful.

B  Some decisions are difficult because there isn’t a clear best option. These are what philosopher Ruth Chang calls hard choices – when one option is better in some ways but worse in other ways, and neither choice seems better overall. She explains that in these situations, decision-making techniques like weighing up the pros and cons don’t work because the more complicated things in life that we care about can’t easily be thought of as better or worse.

C  Choosing anything also means killing off the other options. As journalist Oliver Burkeman explains, the origin of the word decide is the Latin word decidere, which means ‘to cut off’, and the suffix cide is connected to killing (as in the word homicide). Before you decide anything, there are many future paths available to you, Burkeman says, which means many possible future lives. But as you make your choices, you kill off the other options and close down the other paths. This means that you have to acknowledge that you’re missing out on all those other possible lives, he says.

D  Fear can also make decisions difficult. We might be scared of making a mistake, says psychologist Susan Jeffers. She explains that this is because we’ve been taught to believe that it’s possible to make a wrong decision, meaning that we won’t get something that the right decision would have given us. Also, the fear that we might later regret the decision is a powerful one. As psychologist Dan Gilbert puts it, how we imagine possible future regrets often shapes many of our biggest decisions.

E  It might then be tempting to avoid making difficult decisions. As Burkeman explains, we might tell ourselves that we don’t actually have a choice or avoid the decision by distracting ourselves with other things. However, this is rarely the best choice, he says. When you avoid deciding, you’re actually making the decision to do nothing, something he describes as staying ‘at the fork in the road’ using energy thinking about your options. Chang goes further, arguing that by not deciding, you’re allowing the world to write the story of your life.

F  Burkeman believes that people tend to feel happier once they have made a decision and closed the other options down. He explains that making a decision which you’ve been avoiding can be surprisingly calming and freeing – it’s done, and there’s only one direction to travel. He also proposes a different way to think about decisions: the fact that we can’t do everything in our short time on this earth is what makes our choices meaningful. Out of all of the options available, you get to decide what is important to you, he says. 

G  Jeffers suggests the no lose model as a different way to think about our hard choices: whichever path you choose is right. She explains that whatever decision you make, there will be good things, including interesting opportunities for you to learn and grow. And some of Gilbert’s research seems to support this idea. He found that once we have made a decision (especially one which can’t be reversed), we tend to ‘look for ways to change our view of the experience’ and create a more positive view of whatever we chose.

H  Seeing hard choices as meaningful and understanding that there will be good things whatever you decide might be helpful with decision making. But if you’re facing a difficult decision and struggling to find reasons for either option, Chang suggests creating your own reasons based on the person you want to be. And one of my favourite decision-making ideas in Burkeman’s book is a suggestion from psychoanalyst James Hollis: if you’re finding it hard to choose between the options, ask yourself the question, ‘Does this choice diminish me or enlarge me?’ and choose the option that helps you to grow.

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Sources and links from Difficult Decisions

Ruth Chang’s TED Talk about hard choices. 
Oliver Burkeman’s website. The information in this article came from his book, Four Thousand Weeks and his talk on Sam Harris’ Waking Up app. 
– Dan Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness (Goodreads link).
– The website for Susan Jeffers. The information in the article came from her book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.
– Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay 

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