Tough Decisions, Railroad Tracks, Joe GirardWhat do you do when faced with tough decisions?  Do you ask others for help?  Do you read blogs like this?  Do you rely on your past experience?  Or do you throw caution to the wind and just take the risk? In life we are faced with decisions every day.  And some are tougher than others.

  • Stay in my current job or leave?
  • Make dinner or go out to eat?
  • Remain in a relationship or end it?
  • Make the purchase or don’t make the purchase?
  • Buy it or build it?
  • Finish reading this blog post or do something else?

Decisions can be tough to make, and often we end up waffling in a state of uncertainty for some time on the most difficult situations.  The reason for this is that we have not identified a solid decision making strategy to work our way through the options.  That is what this post is about – understanding the psychology behind decision making and a strategy on making choices.  If you want to apply it in a business context, understanding how your customers make decisions or how you can glean insights into your own process will give you a massive edge.  This is another long post, but I wanted to make sure I explored this concept completely for you with solid supporting research.

Why is it hard to make tough decisions?

Before we dive into what to do, let’s first explore why we become conflicted when faced with decisions.

Conscious vs Unconscious Decisions

As humans, we are programmed to take the path of least resistance as part of our fight or flight mechanism.  That is why we find it so difficult to make changes in our lives.  Because of the seemingly unlimited amount of stimulus that comes at us every day, our brains are hard-wired to create shortcuts in our thinking.  We rely on past experiences, relationships, and our own personal frame of reference to quickly decide what to do.

In Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the concept of two thinking systems is explained.  System one is where we make our snap decisions based on our “gut” or intuition, like what we think of when we see someone’s face.  Do we like them?  Are they friendly?  Do they pose a threat?  System two is all about the slower decisions we make that make us pause and have to think, like if we were to multiply 28 by 42.  We would need to turn our attention to the problem and actually put some work into it.  We switch from the unconscious decision making to conscious.

Just understanding that this is going on in your brain can give you an advantage because we actually need both system one and two to work together.

For example, if you are in a sales situation, working through the process, and trying to make sure you have a good flow, you may miss some subtle cues or signals from your buyer if you rely on your system one alone.  Granted, selling has to be somewhat free-flowing and natural to be effective, but when you miss those signs, you lose. Incorporating the system two thinking into the equation, you must consciously switch into a focused observation mode, where you actively train yourself to be looking for cues.  The more you practice it, the more effective you will be.

This applies to the making tough decisions because we must learn how to remove ourselves from simply thinking responsively and dig a bit deeper into our thoughts.

Too much data can disable your decision making

How often do you look for all the answers before trying to make a decision?  We go to our smartphones, we Google, and we try and gather as much data as possible.  Then what happens?  Information overload leads to non-decisions or poor decisions.  Analysis paralysis.

A recent study explained that when faced with decisions, sometimes too much information does more damage than good.

There’s a psychological reason cliffhangers are so effective. The human mind hates uncertainty. Uncertainty implies volatility, randomness, and danger. When we notice information is missing, our brain raises a metaphorical red flag and says, “Pay attention. This could be important.”

So think about this in two ways. First, when you are trying to make a tough decision, don’t try and have all the information as possible as you may cause yourself to overthink and choose poorly.  Second, when you are trying to assist others make decisions, don’t try and “help” them by giving them as much information as possible.  This especially rings true in sales, when we overload our customers with all of our product knowledge.  Less is more and there is science to prove it!

The Comfort Zone

Let’s talk for a second about getting out of our comfort zone.  We are going to dive in pretty deep for a minute, so get suited up.  We hear quotes about getting out of our comfort zone all the time, and to be successful, you constantly have to push yourself to grow.  But there is a science behind the comfort zone and why it’s hard to break out of it.

Your comfort zone is a behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It is a type of mental conditioning that causes a person to build boundaries and it provides a state of mental security. You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.

To get out of your comfort zone means that first you have to experiment with new behaviors, experience life with those behaviors, and understand the responses in your environment.  Doing so raises our anxiety levels and makes us feel uncomfortable.  So when faced with tough decisions, often we choose the path of least resistance.  It is scary to put ourselves at risk.

Perhaps we should look at a different zone – the “Optimal Performance Zone.”  This is where we get into a state of flow that requires automatic processing as opposed to controlled or conscious attention.  Or simply, “The Zone.”  I know we are getting a bit off track from tough decision making, but bear with me for a minute – it will make sense.

The comfort zone actually goes back to 1908, during a classic psychology experiment by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson where they explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance.   In order to maximize performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety—a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called “Optimal Anxiety,” and it’s just outside our comfort zone.

As I mentioned, pushing out of our comfort zone is nothing new and when you understand that you should seek out your optimal anxiety level for performance, you are miles ahead!  Anyone who has ever pushed themselves just a bit harder to accomplish a goal understands that real success actually does come from challenging ourselves.

There are countless studies that support this point as well.  But keep in mind that on the flip side, when we have too much anxiety, we become too stressed to be productive and our performance drops dramatically.  Pushing too hard can lead to a negative result and in turn reinforce the notion that challenging yourself is not a good idea.  This is when doubt creeps in and we remember what it feels like to step out of our comfort zone.

With the optimal performance zone, what we are trying to accomplish is a state where we feel comfortable, while at the same time have some manageable stress or anxiety because we are pushing ourselves a bit harder than normal.  In the training that I do for organizations as well as in my new ebook, I talk about this in terms of variation.  This is part of statistical process control where we evaluate how much fluctuation happens between our performance, activities, and actions.  When we know the level of variation, we can then work on two things:

  • Decreasing the amount of variation and develop repeatable, best practices (build an optimal performance zone)
  • Increasing the overall performance, while keeping the variation within the acceptable range (increase performance while maintaining the zone)

Now we can combine all of this knowledge about comfort zone as it pertains to decision making. When we are faced with tough decisions, one of the ways we can address the internal conflict is to increase our knowledge, abilities, or experience around making similar decisions.  Rather than waiting for each decision to happen, be proactive in your processes of making decisions.  The more practice you have, the higher performing your comfort zone will be, and the better equipped you will be for future decisions.  So use the tips below and start working on being a better decision maker overall, so that when tough decisions present themselves, you are not uncomfortable, and are prepared to work through to a solution. Perfect practice makes perfect.

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How to make Tough Decisions

Now that we understand our brains a bit better and why it’s so hard to actually make tough decisions, it’s time to use that to our advantage.  Follow the tips below and keep in mind the three concepts from above:

  1. Conscious vs unconscious decisions
  2. Too much data can disable your decision making
  3. Create a new comfort zone


Tough Decisions Tip #1 – Understand your assumptions

In every decision we make, we rely on our previous knowledge to support us.  So in order to clearly understand both sides of the decision, we must take a step back and evaluate the assumptions we are making for the two choices.  You must know that when you are faced with a tough choice and can’t make a decision, it means that you are actually satisfying two needs at once.  That is why it’s difficult – you want both.  And both actually lead you to your goals.  The only difference is which need they satisfy and how strong the perception of the need is.

Typically one choice satisfies fear, and one choice satisfies desire – the two fundamental human emotions.  Note: In another post, I will dive into fears and desires and how they play a role in our decision making as well.   In my training programs we dig deep into choice as well and actually work through conflicts step by step.

How to do it:  To look at your choices objectively, write out both decisions on a piece of paper.  Then beside each one, write down which need they are satisfying.  And beside both of them, write out what your overall objective is that both choices fulfill.  Then, write out what assumptions you are making as to why those choices satisfy the need.

For example, if you are deciding between eating out or staying in, it may look like this:

  • Eat out
    • Satisfies: desire, pleasure, fun, excitement of eating out
    • Overall common goal: enjoy a meal with good company
  • Stay home
    • Satisfies: Fear, saving money, eating healthy, control of the costs
    • Overall common goal: enjoy a meal with good company

Now look at the assumptions you make between the choice and the need.  Write down what assumptions you make that support your needs and work the logic backwards.

Same example:

  • Eat Out: If I want to enjoy a meal with good company, I assume that I can only do so in a place that is outside my home as that is where the fun is.  Eating out puts me in a place outside my home, therefore, I must eat out
  • Stay in: If I want to enjoy a meal with good company, I assume that I will enjoy it more if I feel that I am not overspending and am in control of the setting.  I save money and am in control at home, therefore I must stay home.

Now you can see that both arguments make logical sense and this is why choice becomes hard!   The next step is to explore the assumptions between the two choices, and then we come up with solutions, but the first step is to always explore your assumptions.

This process is only the beginning, but in order to make a smart decision, you must take the time to explore both sides properly.  Once you understand your assumptions, you will start to clearly see some ways you may be looking at your choice all wrong.  From understanding comes clarity.

Side note: This process is a foundational piece of the new project I am working on with Dr. Domenico Lepore from Intelligent Management on systemic thinking through the lens of marketing and sales.  We help businesses create breakthrough solutions by first starting from understanding choice.  It’s also extremely helpful in sales as we use it to explore conflicts that customers face and how you can invalidate their assumptions with your product or service.  If you would like to know more, email me at

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Tough Decisions Tip #2 – Be your own consultant

Do you ever find that when someone else tells you their problems, that in your mind the solution seems so simple?  Well that is what we’re talking about here – removing yourself from the choice.  Similar to tip #1, we want to take a step away from the tough decisions and look at them more objectively.  This tip will take some mental conditioning, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.

In a spiritual sense, as my coach Shigenori would say, one of our most powerful tools is detachment.  Detaching ourselves from a problem, gives us the ability to look at tough decisions in a complete sense without emotion.  Especially when you are faced with emotional choices, the first step is to remove yourself from the emotions.  That can be tough, because we don’t want to seem as though we don’t care.  But detachment can actually be the highest form of caring.

Look at your choices from the lens of an outsider with emotions removed and think them through rationally.  In my post about how Leaders Deal with Challenges, I discuss removing your emotions as a fundamental skill that you should learn to develop and apply.

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Tough Decisions Tip #3 – Embrace each conflict as an opportunity

I’m not talking about flowers and sunshine here, don’t get me wrong.  What I am saying is that you should look at adversity as a mechanism for growth – relationships, personal development, and creating balance in your life.  As discussed above, the more you expand your comfort zone, the higher you can perform.

With each conflict, regardless how small, take the time to think them through and understand what is really going on. In a relationship, make it a team priority to work through choices together and build a process you can both agree on.  That way, when larger conflicts arise, you are prepared to tackle them.  It then becomes:

“You and me against the problem” instead of “Me against you.”

The more you work through tough decisions using a process, the more you build your self-confidence, and the more you are prepared for bigger life decisions.  So embrace the conflicts and learn as much as you can in every situation.

Tough Decisions Tip #4 – When all else fails, just do the complete opposite

Take another page out of George Costanza’s book.  If everything you have been doing isn’t working, do the complete opposite. Watch the video:

How do YOU handle tough decisions?  Here’s an easy decision for you to make:  Like this post and share it with others!  And post your comments below to continue the conversation.  Easiest decision you will make all day.

Joe Girard
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