I was twenty-two years old, newly married, a full-time student and a homeowner when my then-husband was laid off from his job. My part-time front desk job and four-year plan to secure a masters degree in physical therapy were suddenly no longer viable options. I needed to act and I needed to do it quickly.
And that’s often how life operates – we are faced with difficult choices under pressure with no clear-cut answers. Here are five steps you can take when you find yourself at a challenging crossroads with more questions than answers:
1 – Distinguish your needs from your wants.
This may be harder than it appears at first glance. Our wants often scream louder than our needs and try to convince us that they must be attended to. Conversely, our true needs often wear disguises, afraid to make their presence known.
Wants will often arrive with a more emotional response, picture the tantruming toddler denied their desired treat. Needs are often more practical, less enticing and harder to identify. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and decide where you need to begin. You may be surprised how often that’s at the first step of having basic physical needs met.
2 – Establish your priorities.
This is often the stage where we are subject to undo external influence, where we fall sway to pressure to do things a certain way. Slough off the “shoulds.” Don’t worry about what “looks” right to the outside world. Don’t think about how many Facebook likes your decision will receive. What are your priorities?
What is most important to you may change throughout your life and in different circumstances. Strive to be curious here rather than judgmental. There are no wrong conclusions. By taking the time to identify your priorities, you are more likely to make a decision that honors your core values and beliefs.
3 – Identify the options that are off the table.
This step is key. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of wanting things to be different. To feel as though we’ve made a decision yet that decision requires someone or something about the situation to change.
Be honest with yourself. If you can’t directly alter the situation, eliminate that option. Disregard any “solution” that relies on someone else to change in the way you believe would be beneficial. Similarly, exclude any possibility that is anchored in magical thinking. Limit your options to the ones that are really and truly available to you.
And be aware – the ones you have to eliminate are often the ones that seem “easy” and the ones left behind often feel scary and even impossible. That’s often a sign you’re moving in the right direction.
4 – Generate a ranked list of the pros and cons of the available options.
Once you’ve whittled down your choices to the ones that are available and have a good chance of meeting your needs, write out the known pros and cons to each decision. Then, rank each potential benefit in the pro columns and each potential consequence in the con lists.
You may find that one choice carries the biggest risks yet also the greatest potential gain. Or, you may find a clear winner where the most impactful benefits are clustered without many significant detractors. We often become so emotionally invested in a decision that we fail to take all of the possible cons into account. This step can provide some needed clarity.
5 – Choose one possibility and act.
You’re not looking for the perfect choice here (it may not even exist). You’re seeking the good enough option. Make a choice, shelve the others and make the leap. Make a commitment to invest 100% in your decision for a set period of time. If you give it your all, it has a chance of success. If you only partially dedicate your energy, it will likely fail.
And then at some predetermined juncture, re-evaluate. Is this choice still working? Does it need to be retired or merely tweaked?
Here’s how this played out in my life almost twenty years ago:
1 – I need a degree. Stat. One that directly leads to a career with stability and a decent paycheck. I need to find a way to earn more money while I’m completing this degree.
2 – I want to be able to help people and need to know I’m making a difference. I enjoy working with math and science.
3 – My desire to go into physical therapy is no longer on the table. My wish for my (then) husband to have a career in a steady field is out of my control.
4 – Once my lists were made, I could see that some options were riskier than others. And risk was not what I was seeking at that time.
5 – I made the choice to enter into teaching. And apart from a few breakdowns when I’m overwhelmed, it has been a rewarding and stable career that capitalizes on my skills.
Big decisions are never easy. Choosing one door often means nailing the others shut. There’s a balance between rushing into action without much forethought and spending so much time debating that you avoid action.
Assess your situation. Make your choice. And then take that step with the trust that your decision will lead you the right direction.