"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Like the poet Robert Frost, we face decisions every day that determine our future. Depending on circumstance, some choices may seem impossible. If you are stuck at a crossroads, new research on decision-making can help. Read on for 10 tips to help take you from confusion to clarity: 

Blend Images/Shutterstock
Source: Blend Images/Shutterstock

1. Do your homework. 

Even if you're inclined to make a gut-driven decision, rather than a fact-based one, educating yourself is a vital first step. Gather as much information as possible about your options and lay it out in an organized way. Research shows that gut feelings tend to be more accurate when they’re made by experts, so becoming an expert on the topic at hand can make your intuition more reliable.

2. Talk to people who have made similar choices. 

Talk to a range of people who have taken the various paths you are considering—and who are willing to speak honestly about them. While no one person's experience will be exactly like yours, there should be much to learn from them. Research suggests that this approach can help you make more accurate predictions about your own reactions to potential future events. 

3. But take post-decision dissonance into account. 

People tend to view a chosen path more positively once they have embarked on it. This phenomenon is called post-decision dissonance, and it can keep people from consciously recognizing or admitting when they've made a mistake. When considering others' perspectives, be aware that post-decision dissonance may bias their attitudes in favor of the choice they made.

4. Ask yourself what you would choose if no one else cared.

For many decisions, the needs and desires of loved ones are central concerns and should carry weight. Often, however, we are unduly influenced by external factors such as what will give us the most prestige or what “people” will think. If you fall prey to these  thoughts, try imagining a scenario in which no one else knows or cares what decision you make. Identify which intrinsic goals are aligned with what you really want, not what others dictate. 

5. Don’t let fear drive you, but don’t ignore it either. 

To create the lives we want, we have to take risks, sometimes big ones. But to say that you should never make decisions based on fear is overly simplistic. Fear protects us from danger. But when it comes to major life decisions, we need to keep fear in check. Research shows that focusing on avoiding fear in lieu of pursuing what we want is associated with loneliness and insecurity

6. Look for alternatives. 

Often we focus only on the options already considered but neglect potential alternatives. Instead, ask yourself, Are there variations on my current options that could work? Are there totally different paths worth investigating? For example, when trying to decide between two potential romantic partners, consider choosing no one—if you are highly conflicted, it might be a sign that neither option is right and there is someone better out there for you.

7. Stop thinking about it for awhile. 

Ruminating over a decision can drive you a little crazy. Getting bogged down in the details can also interfere with your ability to gain clarity on what you really want. Research suggests that distracting yourself from a decision for a little while and coming back to it with a fresh eye can help you make the right move (provided you are already well-informed—simply avoiding a decision altogether because it’s too stressful is unlikely to help).

8. Give each option a test run. 

Research suggests that people tend to make decisions differently depending on whether they happen to be in a happy or sad mood. To bypass this problem, imagine that you've already made a decision and sit with that choice for a few days. This strategy allows you to observe how you feel about it when you are in a range of different situations and moods. 

9. Consider how your future self may feel about your decision.

In his TED talk, psychologist Daniel Gilbert argued, "All of us are walking around with the illusion that...we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.” In his research, he found that people tend to underestimate how much their values, personalities, preferences, and hobbies will change over the next 10 years. Our “end of history illusion” may motivate us to choose what’s best for our current rather than our future selves. Although it’s difficult to predict exactly what our future selves will want, consider the possibility that they may want something different than what we want right now.

10. Accept that there may be no perfect decision.

Making a tough decision can be especially stressful when you imagine that there is only one “right” choice and you just need to figure out what it is. But the truth is often that each option has good and bad sides. Whichever way you go, you may feel a degree of sadness, loss, and regret. That doesn’t mean you made the wrong call. 

About the Author

Juliana Breines

Juliana Breines, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

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