Decisions, decisions, decisions. Every day we make hundreds of them. What outfit to wear, what to have for lunch, how to word that important email. We make so many decisions so frequently that for the most part we’re not even aware of the decision-making process. It’s intuitive, quick and pain-free.

But as we move through life, inevitably some decisions arise that feel neither quick nor easy. They dig in and take root in our brains and our hearts and force us into a state of turmoil, often for weeks, months or even years at a time. The more we think about them, the less clear the path forward can seem. Easy answers elude us. Trade-offs and trip-ups lurk everywhere.

‘Should I hire this individual?’ ‘Is this relationship right for me?’ ‘Where should I take my career next?’ ‘Will this opportunity be a good fit?’

In coaching, sessions with clients often revolve around these types of decisions. Whether it’s a big or small topic, whether it’s something they have been thinking about for years or has just sprung up, decisions can be a struggle to make.

One of the interesting things about hearing so many different types of people talk about the same challenge is that you start to see threads of commonality emerge. One thread, of course, is the obsession with making ‘the right decision’ and the fear of making ‘the wrong decision.’ However, what I have found to be true is that it’s not about right or wrong but about finding the best path forward with what you know.

This is something I’m sure we can all relate to, so it’s important to be able to navigate the choppy waters of decision making and access the information you have to guide you towards clarity, or, at least, taking action.

1. Use Greyscale Thinking

So often when we face our biggest decisions, we fall into ‘this or that’ thinking. One option is right, the other is wrong, now if only I could figure out which is which. This is overwhelming and problematic because if you choose this and then that ends up being right, you clearly made the wrong decision and are free to punish yourself forever after.

The truth is, the world is rarely in the black or white, right or wrong. Life is in the grey. It’s complicated and messy and our decisions are too. Before we make a decision we inherently don’t know if our choice will be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. At that moment in time, there’s only the best decision you can make with the information you have.

When you find yourself in this binary mindset, consciously move to what we call ‘Grayscale Thinking’. Instead of thinking in extremes, try to imagine a scale or continuum of possibilities between the extremes. This can help you recognize the various degrees and possibilities that exist. First identify thoughts that are overly simplistic, polarized, or absolute and then create a list of intermediate options, perspectives, or outcomes. Use conditional language like ‘it’s possible that’ and ‘it’s likely that’ to manage absolute thinking.

2. Pinpoint The Core Issue

When we get hung up on a decision, usually there’s a deeper cause for our stress. Taking the time to dig into what is at the core of the struggle can help to shed light on which direction to take. Often talking to a trusted person in your life can help to bring you clarity on what’s really going on beneath the surface.

One of my clients pinpointed a core issue recently – She had protected herself from her emotions for so long that she had lost connection to how she felt about things and became paralyzed in making any big decisions. Because our emotions hold a lot of wisdom and are there to give us information in the decision-making process, her inability to access her feelings meant she became stuck and couldn’t make a decision at all. Rationally she could see a path forward but she couldn’t go through with it. She had to first spend the time relearning how to access her feelings (and reducing her fear around being in touch with her emotions) in order to move forward on a big career decision.

Pinpointing the core problem doesn’t guarantee a decision, but it helps advance you toward one.

3. Know Your Value System

In coaching, values exercises are important to help you understand and live from your value system. Knowing our values is essential for making good decisions, yet we usually don’t think about them on a daily basis. We think, ‘I have to make a decision right now and I don’t know what the answer is!.’ But if we take a moment to think about what’s really important it can prove illuminating.

Maybe you value kindness or efficiency. Maybe you value sustainability or creativity. Maybe you value accomplishment and hard-work or fun and humour or – more likely – all of the above.

In all likelihood, you value more than one thing, and having a list of five to ten of the values you most deeply resonate with proves to be a strong guiding light for making hard choices.

4. Use The Head-Heart-Gut Framework

An old mentor coach of mine used to talk a lot about our three centres and how crucial they are in helping us make tough decisions. The head is our rational centre, the heart our emotional centre and the gut our intuitive centre.

Oftentimes we lean towards one centre over the others. You may be ‘head-heavy’ and overly rationalise everything, you may be ‘heart-heavy’ and have strong emotional reactions to situations, or you may be ‘gut-heavy’ and intuitively respond to something without taking a step back and reflecting on other options. Notice where you may be out of balance and see what you can do to help yourself make decisions evenly from your head, heart and gut. Listening to all three centres equally will allow you to make the best decision possible.

Getting analog here and picking up a pen and paper to list out what your head, heart and gut are telling you can be useful in providing a visual breakdown of a mental mess. It often doesn’t look quite so messy or intimidating once it’s all on paper and this allows you to gain a broader perspective.

5. Take A Step Back

Making big decisions is hard. So give yourself a break and exercise a healthy dose of self-compassion. At the end of the day there’s only so much you can control. That’s where a lot of the fear comes from: the fear of the uncontrollables.

Another part of exercising self-compassion is giving yourself space. Space to breathe. Space to listen to yourself and ask what you need in this process. If you give yourself what you need to work through the decision-making process authentically, odds are strong that you’ll get to the place where you can see what the best path forward is for you in that moment.