Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Makes Big Life Decisions So Difficult?

5 tips to overcome inner inertia.

Key points

  • Breaking through inertia begins with contemplating where and how to focus one's energy, as well as one's mission and long-term purpose.
  • Mindful contemplation exercises help provide space and time for discovery.
  • Big life choices should be based on what is most desirable and impactful, and less on what is practical or immediately possible.
Nicole Hoizey/Unsplash
Source: Nicole Hoizey/Unsplash

Have you felt ready for a significant change in your life, but seem stuck when it comes to taking action or making a decision? You are not alone. It’s difficult to make choices when running from one errand or task to the next, or barely living paycheck to paycheck.

I estimate that about 80 percent of our daily habits run on autopilot, and these tend to dominate even our major actions and behaviors. As a result, we never spend time figuring out a strategic next move. By strategic, I mean those really big choices we have to make that have a lasting impact on our mental and physical health, wealth, or quality of life: Should I switch careers? How do I best stop some negative habits or addictions? How can I start a new business I’ve been dreaming about? What is my core passion? Where should I move to? These types of big questions often don’t get enough attention, so they either don’t happen, or they work by circumstance or haphazardness.

Overcoming Chaos

Chaos theory is interesting from a decision perspective because it suggests that the initial conditions shape future behaviors and trajectories. Think about it. What has guided most of our experiences in life was probably unplanned. We might have studied something specific in university, but we stumbled on a particular first job with a mix of bosses and co-workers. Those relationships or industries maybe led us to the next opportunity. Interconnections and relationships that are formed based on that starting point typically determine our path. Life is not a linear path. You might have noticed this already.

One behavioral decision theory suggests that some people do better without contemplation—this is called the deliberation-without-attention effect [1]. Similarly, other researchers have suggested that a simple coin toss might be better at making choices. Both suggest that better decisions are made when you give space to a problem and don’t consciously reflect on your options and objectives. I disagree.

Most quality research I’ve seen or conducted doesn’t support this notion either, but they are interesting thoughts. Even if luck or randomness plays a big role, we still are better off if we start with some notion of where we’d like to end up. Spending more time contemplating the big choices will help ensure that your unintentional starting points don’t control your destiny.

We often get caught up by inertia, which holds us back from doing anything or moving forward. In physics, the key to overcoming inertia is to apply force, or in some cases, lubrication to help reduce friction. Either way, you need some initial propulsion or momentum. That’s the same with our life. To overcome the inertia preventing you from the big changes, apply force by developing a plan and taking concrete steps forward to shape your future.

Mindful Contemplation

I recommend the use of mindful contemplation exercises to provide the space and time for self-discovery. You can use verbal cues, such as talking aloud to yourself or others about the choice and options, or go inside yourself and aim for reflection. Being reflective involves quietly considering your options. Both are useful.

A great way to focus on that big choice involves a mindful contemplation process where you sit quietly with your thoughts for 5-10 minutes. Reflect on what your purpose is and where you are heading. Allow the wandering of thoughts that come and go and the mundane tasks that will inevitably occur. There will be many. Try to nurture a space where you can focus on these thoughts without distraction or judgment. I also like to use a simple finger pulse oximeter to see how oxygen levels are doing, which reminds me to breathe deeply and regularly and to focus on those breaths. You might have your own strategy, such as going out for a walk or a jog or sitting in a sauna. Whatever you can commit to, and is the right environment for you, is best.

Motoki Tonn/Unsplash
Source: Motoki Tonn/Unsplash

One big choice we must make in life require us to consider the impact we wish to make on the world. Are we simply focused only on ourselves? No judgment, that is perfectly fine. Or, are you worried about your family’s future? Or that of your community? Or even something grander? There is no right or wrong. You likely haven’t even thought about this much. But your impact, your contributions, should be purposeful and meaningful—more big choices and opportunities for contemplation.

Tips to Overcome Inertia

If you are stuck in daily inertia and have trouble focusing on the big picture, try these simple techniques to shift your focus.

  1. Remember that an attitude of abundance should prevail. Generally, if you go into this expecting the best and realize that your choices are only limited in your head, you will become stronger.
  2. Adopt a mindful contemplation approach. Practice sitting with your thoughts for at least 10 minutes daily. Try to pay attention, be aware and present in those moments, and allow your mind to contemplate intentions without getting caught up in details. You might find it necessary to think about best and worst-case scenarios. You’d be surprised how many people sleepwalk through major life events and decisions at an unconscious level.
  3. Consider the ramifications if this didn’t happen the way you envisioned. Consider some alternatives and options. Spend time working on your hierarchy of impact—what order of big things would you like to see happen? There is no need to only have one big goal in life.
  4. Start broad, and then get specific. Write down two or three things you want to complete over the next year. Think beyond the tactical, routine tasks and errands, like going to the grocery store. What are the very few significant accomplishments you can do today to give yourself more encouragement and gain some force or momentum? Focus on those things. Write them down on sticky notes, your mirror, or the refrigerator. Spend time examining and acting on these daily. Spend proportionately more time on these high-impact goals.
  5. Be forgiving and accepting of yourself. I remember some of my big goals from much earlier in life, many of which never came true. That’s okay. Forgive yourself, allow this variation, and focus on the next choice. Randomness and relationships alter our path, but we still have an opportunity to shape the present and the future.

Finally, declare that “today is the day” you will start working on that big dream you’ve been thinking about. Make that big leap and start your business, find new friends, or pick up a new hobby. Start small and work on these things. You can do this.


Calvillo, D., & Penaloza, A. (2009). Are complex decisions better left to the unconscious? Further failed replications of the deliberation-without-attention effect. Judgment and Decision Making, 4(6), 509-517.

More from James R Langabeer Ph.D., Ed.D., FAHA
More from Psychology Today