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How Do You Make the Most Important Decisions in Your Life?

10 questions, and 3 crucial takeaways, on the turning points of your life.

Source: DarkBird/Shutterstock

We face decisions throughout life. Most of them are relatively insignificant, while some affect others in ways we may not realize, in what I’ve called our “life footprint.” Some of those seemingly small decisions may snowball over time, carrying more and more importance as their consequences emerge. The majority of decisions we make impact our life course.

If you could choose the single most important decision that you’ve made in life, what would it be? Getting married? Starting a family? Accepting a job offer? Moving to a new city? You might argue that it is impossible to choose; all of these are important.

We consider a variety of factors when we make ordinary, everyday decisions. According to two psychologists, Yale University’s Samuel G.B. Johnson and Northwestern’s Lance J. Rips (2015), we constantly examine the quality of decisions—our own and those of others—in terms of who is responsible for the outcome. If someone makes a decision that works out favorably, do you assign greater responsibility for the person’s success than if that person makes a decision that turns out badly?

Johnson and Rips conducted a series of experiments that took the following form:

“Angie” (a fictitious woman) wants a shrub’s flower to turn red. One fertilizer has a 10% chance of succeeding, a second has a 50% of turning the flowers red, and the third (manipulated by condition) has either a 30% or 70% chance of producing the desired outcome. In one experiment, Angie chooses the 50% formula and the flowers turn red."

The only condition in which this was the optimal choice was in the 30% condition for that third formula because she'll get that shrub red at least half of the time. Participants rated Angie as “more responsible” in this optimal choice condition.

The degree to which you see other people as responsible for their choices depends on how good that choice appears to be, compared to the alternatives. When it comes to judging yourself, though, Johnson and Rips note that you will tend to make the fundamental attribution error: You judge yourself as more responsible, in general, for the outcomes of your decisions because you see yourself as more rational than other people.

The Johnson and Rips study suggests that you attribute more intentionality to your significant life choices than you actually had. You see yourself as “choosing” subjects to study in school, when in fact those choices may have been dictated by guidance counselors or your parents.

What Kind of Decider Are You?

In weighing your choices below, ask yourself not only how important they were but how much of a role you played in making them.

Now, what would happen if you could assign a weight to those key life decisions? For example, you might multiply family decisions by X, work decisions by Y, and school choices (high school subjects, college major and location, grad school or not) by a factor of Z. Just by assigning weights to those choices, you can gain insight not only into your past choices, but into the ways in which your identity influences your life decisions.

To make this tougher, rank the choices below from the heaviest (with a score of 10) to the least (with a score of 1). When you add up the ratings, the total should be 55.

  1. Where you live now.
  2. Who you formed your longest and closest intimate relationship with.
  3. When you had your first child.
  4. When you had your second (or later) child(ren).
  5. In which school subject you majored or took the most courses.
  6. Which hobbies or personal interests you are most involved in.
  7. Where you prefer to go on vacation.
  8. Your first job.
  9. The job you have now.
  10. The friends who are closest to you.

Now, take your calculators out and do the math: There were 4 questions concerning relationships (#s 2, 3, 4, and 10), 3 on work/school choices (#s 5, 8, and 9), and 3 on general personal/social development (#s 1, 6, and 7). Adding up your weights within each of these areas will give you three key insights into which areas of your life have the greatest relevance to your personal identity.

What We Can Learn

  1. We tend to distinguish our sense of identity according to we see ourselves involved in work vs. family. As you total your scores, you’ll see how you’ve weighed these areas over the course of your life. Your two scores in these areas may be surprisingly similar, or totally opposite. Perhaps you perceived that your career choices drove your life, when in fact your heart has really driven your head.
  2. Consider how much control you've had over the direction of your life. When you stop and examine what your first job was, perhaps it was the only one available to you. Although you regarded yourself as in control of your career destiny, maybe there were more external factors at play than you realize. If you didn't make the best choice, maybe it wasn’t really due to something you did wrong.
  3. Finally, as you look at each of these choices, ask yourself what impact they had. It may seem frivolous to ask about where you go on vacation, but our vacation choices can have many unintended consequences. Perhaps it was on a camping trip that you met your life partner, forged new friendships, or had the accident that forced you to hobble around on crutches for six weeks.

It can be daunting to think about the meaning and impact of your life’s decisions, but by breaking them down to this level, you can gain important insight to guide your fulfillment in the decisions that still lie ahead.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.


Johnson, S. B., & Rips, L. J. (2015). Do the right thing: The assumption of optimality in lay decision theory and causal judgment. Cognitive Psychology, 7742-76. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsy

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

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