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The Key to Making Big Decisions With More Confidence

If you don't really know your goals and values, you won't know where to start.

Thomas Barwick for Getty Images

Go with your gut. It’s the often-repeated advice we mutter to ourselves when making decisions. But when it comes to picking a daycare, buying a house, or deciding whether or not to have more kids, it’s not exactly that easy. Life has always been full of tough decisions, but the stakes feel so much higher when you’re responsible for more than just yourself — and you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, or even paralyzed, when faced with everyday choices. Big ones. Small ones.  If only making decisions about your future was as simple as a pros-and-cons spreadsheet. 

It isn’t. Well, some choices are black and white. But most of the time, there’s no such thing as the “right” decision.  

“We’re always looking for a magic formula, but the reality is, decision-making can be very different for people depending on their priorities and values,” says Akhila Satish, CEO of Meseekna, a company focused on the science of decision-making.

No matter what choice you’re facing, the most important thing is to make the best one for you and your unique circumstances. Here are eight simple-but-effective ways to feel more confident in your decision-making process, according to experts.

1. Pinpoint your goals

Unless you identify your personal goals, you’ll feel like you’re making decisions without a map. 

“When we don’t examine our goals closely, it leads to questionable decisions, unsatisfying achievements, and the uneasiness of not having a super firm grasp of who you are and where you’re going,” says Nick Bognar, a California-based therapist. 

A vague idea of where you want to end up is better than nothing, but goals are better road maps when they’re specific and measurable. For example, “I want to make more money” is not super helpful when you’re deciding whether to look for a new job. Instead, decide how much money you want to make. That way, Bognar says, you’ll have a specific number to plan around and a tangible way to measure whether you’re getting closer to your goal or not. 

If you’re facing a big decision, do your best to describe your goal scenario as specifically as you can. “When you can really imagine your goal, like you’re living in it, it inspires you and gives you the extra incentive and energy to push harder for it,” Bognar says.

2. Define your values, too

Similarly, your values — much like a compass — should guide your decisions, mostly because you won’t feel confident or rewarded if your choices don’t align with them. However, Bognar says it’s not enough to know your values in terms of one-word ideas like “honesty” or “kindness.” Instead, it’s better to think about what you care about most in life and why. Sure, it’s good to be honest, but plenty of people believe there are times when it’s a better choice not to be honest, or at least not candid. So if you believe in honesty, why, and to what end? Similarly, it’s all well and good to believe in “hard work,” but chances are you don’t want to work so hard you forget about your family and your mental health. “If you don’t understand the contours of your own values, you’re destined to make poor decisions,” Bognar says.

3. Take stock of previous decisions

Decisions are by nature about the future, but looking back at the past can empower you in the process, says Satish. Make a habit of reflecting on decisions you’ve made in the past, especially when you have another decision ahead of you. Ask yourself: In the last week, month, or year, what decisions worked out well, and why? What didn’t end up working out, and why? 

Just as importantly, evaluate your confidence levels in each decision to remind yourself you don’t have to feel amazing about every choice you make. “It’s important to look at the objective markers about how things have gone rather than just your own feelings,” Satish says.

4. Weed out irrelevant thoughts and feelings

Your feelings aren’t always reliable indicators of what’s right and what’s not. But you also shouldn’t totally ignore them — they just may not be super helpful in this specific decision. Cognitive neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, says it’s important to pay attention to what your brain is doing when you’re making a decision. That way, you can separate your feelings from facts about the current situation. 

Before you act, take a beat. Notice the thoughts and emotions that automatically rise to the surface. Which ones are actually relevant to your decision, and which ones are just getting in the way? For example, maybe in deciding whether to accept a new job, you feel nervous because last time, the new role ended up being worse than the last one. That anxiety is worth addressing at some point, but it doesn’t have anything to do with your current situation. Remind yourself that you dislike your current job, and you’ve identified a certain salary as a goal. Once you separate your anxiety from the decision ahead, you can make a choice more aligned with your values (and, of course, deal with your anxiety later).

5. Be choosy about sources of advice

The constant influx of information we all face daily can make decision-making extra complicated. It’s hard to know whose advice to take, especially if you’re already feeling ill-equipped to make your own choice. Satish recommends identifying ahead of time who you want to involve in decision-making processes so you don’t feel overwhelmed when a big decision comes. 

For example, if you’re struggling with whether to send your preschooler to daycare during a pandemic, it might not be a good idea to crowd-source on Facebook. Instead, look to the expert you’ve already identified for questions about your child’s health, like your pediatrician. “That way, your source of truth will align with your values and goals,” Satish says.

6. Lower the risk 

If you’re excited about the potential of a decision but you’re worried about a factor you can’t control, Satish says you can increase your confidence by lowering the risk. For example, imagine you’ve identified travel as a value, and you created a goal to take your family to Disney World this year — but you’re worried the trip won’t work out, or that it’ll be too risky to fly during a pandemic. In this case, you have a few choices: Buy refundable tickets, drive, or decide to go on a trip later when the pandemic reaches a specific benchmark. Identifying simple ways to lower the risk can increase your confidence — and the odds your decision will work out the way you want.

7. Trust your intuition 

Your feelings may not always be reliable sources of truth, but according to Bognar, learning how to trust your gut is an important part of decision making — especially when the decision is high-stakes. But what, exactly, does your gut entail in these scenarios? Your goals and values are a big part of it, and so are your conscience and your sense of safety and danger. 

Sometimes those gut feelings are emotions, like a sinking feeling, and sometimes they’re more physical, like a tightening stomach or a hot flash. “Trust these instruments, as they’ve developed over thousands of years,” says Bognar. “If you feel weird about something, I’m willing to bet it’s weird.”

8. Don’t be afraid of messing up

Lastly, remember you’re allowed to make mistakes. If you find yourself anxious about a decision, ask yourself, “What is the worst that could happen?” Answer yourself honestly. Then ask, “Then what?” over and over until you run out of answers. Says Bognar: “Most of the time, you will find that the level of worry you’re experiencing is unwarranted, and some of the time, you’ll realize that in fact you were considering a risk that was not worth taking.”