How To Make Difficult Decisions (And Live With The Consequences)
Whether it’s in the context of business, or life in general, we are all faced with having to make difficult decisions from time to time.
Many of us choose to punt when faced with having to make a tough choice, while others allow their emotions to get the best of them, leading to an irrational response.
Difficult decisions can be agonizing, but they don’t have to be.
I’ve learned that a simple mental algorithm can provide much-needed clarity to the decision-making process and equip you with the resources to live with the results, no matter what they are.
Step 1: Take an inventory of your resources
Decisions, at their core, are just another form of transaction. You’re choosing to spend a resource you have, be it your time, capital, or mental energy on a given outcome.
All resources are finite to some degree, including intangibles such as self-control, forgiveness, and grit. As such, it’s important to understand just what resources you have at your disposal before making a decision.
Whenever faced with a significant decision, I start out by taking an inventory of my resources, both material and intangible.
For example, when deciding on our software development roadmap, I must first have a firm grasp of how many developers I have at my disposal and their availability. More importantly, however, I have to possess an understanding of their enthusiasm, skill set, and intellectual curiosity as it relates to the task at hand.
The same thing goes for any negotiation. Before starting, you have to have a realistic understanding of the facts, any leverage that might exist, and a strong sense of realism before starting.
Only by knowing what you have at your disposal can you move forward with making a responsible decision.
Step 2: Weigh the upside against the downside
As humans, we tend to let our emotions, pride, and desires to cloud our ability to accurately weigh the pros and cons of any given situation.
We may take a hard line with a client because we feel we are “right,” despite having very little to gain from such a stance.
Alternatively, we may become so fearful of a minor failure that we neglect the tremendously positive opportunities in front of us.
That’s why it’s important to remember the adage, “don’t gamble with something you can’t afford to lose.”
While this may sound like folksy wisdom, it takes a lot of self-awareness to put it into practice.
We can often lose sight of the things we really can’t afford to lose, entering into risky situations for the chance to satisfy our ego or experience a momentary bliss.
Only through measured introspection can we accurately identify the significant things in life and weight the potential upside of any given decision against its corresponding risks.
Step 3: Do the work but know when to let go
In my recent article about the merits of Stoic philosophy, I made a point to discuss the importance of letting go of things that you cannot control.
While I stand by this belief, I realize that it is somewhat of an oversimplification. There are actually few situations in life where we have no control whatsoever. More often than not, we have some control over a given situation, but not complete control.
This is an important distinction when it comes to decision-making.
Taken literally, the Stoic mindset can seem to advocate taking a passive role in life, surrendering everything to the whims of the universe.
Conversely, for those who reject such thinking, there is a tendency to try to exert control over situations that have some degree of unpredictability, thus transforming into an exercise in futility.
The right path, I’ve found, is somewhere in the middle. It’s summed up best as “do the work but know when to let go.”
A great example of this can be found in our legal system. When preparing for litigation, you have to do everything in your power to prove your case. However, when it goes to a judge or jury, there’s nothing more you can do to exert control. You have to live with the verdict, one way or another.
The key is to do everything in your power to influence a scenario but also find the wisdom to recognize the point at which it is no longer in your control.
It’s the same for making difficult decisions. You have to put in the effort to find the facts, weigh the pros and cons, and pick a path. Then, once done, you have to recognize that the outcome of that decision is no longer in your control.
No amount of self-doubt or second-guessing with change the outcome. It merely is what it is.
Regret comes from making a rash move or committing to a path without all of the facts.
Accepting that fact and leaning on the structured algorithm used to make the decision is ultimately what enables you to live with the consequences, whether good or bad.
Decision making, especially in stressful situations, is rarely fun or easy. However, with practice and structure, it’s possible to transform it into something that is manageable.