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Into the Unknown! Making Big Choices and Life Changes
Part 1: Basic Decision-Making Strategies

October 2, 2020
By Maryann Joseph, PhD, Psychologist 

Will 2020 be a catalyst for change? The COVID-19 pandemic forced a collective pause of sorts, shining a light on the things we may be too busy or unwilling to see as a society: disparities in health, and wealth, domestic and sexual violence, environmental catastrophe, racial injustice, loneliness, mental health issues and more. Are we satisfied with the current state of affairs? How can we help bring about change to foster the society we want?

The 2020 shift away from business as usual may also jolt us awake at a personal level, enabling us to see our own individual status quo with a little distance. Introspection from this new perspective can stir up some pretty big reflections about our work, residence, behavioural habits, and relationships. If we’re not satisfied with our current state of affairs, we have a choice to make. Eckhart Tolle suggests that endless complaining alone won’t get us anywhere so our only viable options are to leave the situation, change the situation, or accept it.

This can leave us with some pretty big questions to consider, for instance:
          Should I change direction professionally?
          Should I move to the suburbs?
          Is it finally time to get serious about a regular exercise routine?
          Should I stay in this relationship?

Notice that these aren’t your garden variety daily decisions about which socks to wear or what show to watch. Rather, these reflections can ultimately become life-impacting, conscious decisions to stay/continue-on-as-is OR go/change…all unfolding on the current backdrop of heightened global uncertainty. Oh joy.

I mean, even simple decision-making was never my strong suit in the best of times. I’ve noticed unless I have a clear intuitive feeling, I tend to want to avoid choosing altogether. And now we’re talking about decision making that implies a potential life change?! To oversimplify decades of psychological research: change generally tends to be a bit freaky and challenging for humans (Rahe & Arthur, 1978; Berkman, 2018). You might begin by simply acknowledging that with a little self-compassion.

So yeah—these can be tough decisions. I sense that we are going to need some magical inspiration and a few power ballads to get us through this! But perhaps we can start with some basic decision-making strategies today in Part 1 of this post before we get to the higher level business of change and choice next time in Part 2.

Sync Your Priorities and Your Schedule

To begin, you can practice noticing and differentiating between BIG decisions and smaller decisions. It’s easy to get caught up in all the ongoing daily stuff we need to do and relegate the bigger fuzzier questions to the back-burner. The problem is that there’s always daily stuff to do so those bigger questions can linger there without resolution for days/weeks/decades (totally in it with you—zero judgment here!).

If you’ve taken stock and discovered a big important choice to consider, then you may need to explicitly schedule time in your calendar to work on it. The more the decision is flagged as being important to you, the more you can prioritize it in your schedule. Ideally you want to block off a time to work on it when you won’t be hungry or tired (Shaikh & Coulthard, 2019; Skrynka & Vincent, 2019).

Because decision-making for all sorts of little things over the course of your day may drain valuable mental resources and lead to decision-fatigue (Vohs et al., 2008) choose a time near the start of your day.  You can even defer, delegate, or eliminate other less important decisions when possible (e.g., pick out your clothes and breakfast the day before) to maximize the decision-making resources you’ll have available for the scheduled time. 

Observe Yourself and Allocate Your Resources Wisely

Some people have a tendency to make snap decisions and run the risk of acting impulsively. Others tend to get stuck in an endless loop of deliberating over the options and run the risk of missing out by not taking action. You can recognize and work to productively counterbalance your decision making style (Scott & Bruce, 1995; Parker et al., 2007) and engage either a more deliberative (analytic) or a more implemental (action-oriented) mindset (Gollwitzer, 2012).

With practice you can learn to shift between mindsets based on whatever is most useful in a given moment, rather than getting stuck in one mode or the other. If you tend to be super speedy with your decisions, you can train yourself to purposely slow down, examine options rationally, and look at the big picture when you are faced with an important life decision.

If you tend to be super slow with your decisions, purposefully turn up the time pressure by giving yourself a decision deadline and setting a reasonable cut-off for information gathering. Remember that you can learn some more about each option and make a relatively informed choice without knowing absolutely everything in great depth. You can also counter the downside of your idealist or perfectionist nature by accepting that every choice (including putting off choosing!) will have drawbacks. As Harold Geneen puts it, “Better a good decision quickly than the best decision too late.”

To switch gears after your reflection and kickstart action mode, challenge yourself to make some concrete if-then implementation plans. “If I decide to do this, then I’ll need to…” You can begin to plan when, where, and how to move forward even if you’re currently feeling stuck in indecision.

Decision Balance Sheet (Janis & Mann, 1977): Weighing the Pros and Cons

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) we often suggest drawing up lists of Pros (Advantages/Benefits) and Cons (Disadvantages/Costs) for your options. Consider practical/utilitarian and mental/emotional pros and cons for both yourself and significant others. You might think of yourself as de-cluttering the mind by putting all these elements into words. Just physically writing it all out somewhere and then looking at an organized overview can be useful. If you enjoy numbers you could also assign a weighted score to each item in your list, rating how important it is to you on a scale of 0-10 and then tallying your totals for each quadrant.

You can also write out your answers to the following questions for each option:

  • What information do I lack to make an informed decision?
  • What skills do I need to learn?
  • What resources do I need to develop?
  • What supports will I need for success?

If you do all that and find greater clarity in your decision-making, then fabulous! However, if you do that and still feel stuck then stay tuned for Part 2 of this post. I’ll be back next time with the promised power ballads and some additional tools for making big choices, including insights gleaned from Harvard Business School. Will you integrate and implement any of the suggestions from Part 1 in the meantime? Well that’s your choice now, isn’t it! Take care out there and I’ll see you next time 🙂


Berkman, E. T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 28–44.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (2012). Mindset theory of action phases. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (p. 526–545). Sage Publications Ltd.

Janis, I. L. & Mann, L. (1977). Decision making: a psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment. New York: Free Press.

Parker, A. M., Bruine de Bruin, W., & Fischhoff, B. (2007). Maximizers versus satisficers: decision-making styles, competence, and outcomes. Judgment and Decision Making, 2(6), 342–350.

Rahe, R. H. & Arthur, R. J. (1978). Life change and illness studies: past history and future directions. Journal of Human Stress, 4(1), 3–15.

Scott, S. G. & Bruce, R. A. (1995). Decision-making style: the development and assessment of a new measure. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 55(5), 818–831.

Shaikh, N. & Coulthard, E. (2019) Nap‐mediated benefit to implicit information processing across age using an affective priming paradigm. Journal of Sleep Research, 28(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/jsr.12728

Skrynka, J. & Vincent, B. T. (2019). Hunger increases delay discounting of food and non-food rewards. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 26, 1729–1737.

Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(5), 883-898.                                                                                          Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative






Simple Decision Balance Pros and Cons Form: http://www.oxfordclinicalpsych.com/view/10.1093/med:psych/9780199772674.001.0001/med-9780199772674-interactive-pdf-004.pdf


About the author

Dr. Maryann Joseph received her PhD in Clinical Psychology at McGill University in Montreal and is a Connecte collaborator living in Ottawa, Ontario. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.