How to Make a Difficult or Important Decision

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I mentor or collaborate with several different founders and small business owners, and even the occasional freakishly smart inventor.  Sometimes I get asked for advice on what to do or how to handle a particular business situation. Beyond whatever situation-specific guidance I can offer, my stock guidance is to simply listen to your gut and follow your heart.

But is it really that simple?  If you are faced with a vitally important or difficult decision, whether in business or in life, it is not always simple or easy to make the right decision.  Even if you know exactly what you should do, which you easily may not, taking action can pose a whole other set of challenges.  Time is a luxury that you may not even have; you may be in a position in which you are forced to act.

Making a momentous decision, while not something you do every day, can be excruciating.  What’s more, humans are naturally averse to change. The best you can do is to make the right decision, which – unfortunately – is not usually the easy decision.

Here I want to unpack the process by which you can most effectively and efficiently arrive at a decision that is right – for you.  Of course you can, and probably should, consider outside perspectives, but ultimately the decision is yours to make.  The courage to take action comes from you. For better or worse, you own the consequences too.

Ready to get a little bit irrational and silly, but also methodical and serious?  Yes? Excellent; let’s begin.

Step #1: Gather the information that you need.

More than likely, you have some questions.  Before you even attempt to consider which decision(s) you need to make, take the time necessary to gather the information that you need.  Don’t hesitate to ask the questions for which you really want to know the answers. Ask follow-up questions if need be. Get that information!  (Investors would call this “conducting due diligence.”) Your goal here is to gain a crystal-clear understanding of both the situation at hand and the courses of action available to you.  Remember, you can and should take the time that you need.

Step #2: Determine the decision to be made.

Now that you have informed yourself of the facts to the best of your ability, you are ready to define exactly what the decision is that you are making.  Maybe it’s obvious, but then again, maybe not. Either way, make sure that the decision at hand is clear to you. Write it down if you like. You can even list your available options, too.

Step #3: Consider what is most important to you.

This is the fun part.  Are you ready to think whimsically, irrationally even?  Are you open to brainstorming, even meditating? Here are a few choice word associations to help get your contemplative juices flowing:

Two Sides, Same Coin


It all boils down to love and fear.  Ask yourself these questions, and really listen to how your body answers:

  • What do I really need?  What do I want the most?
  • What am I most afraid of?  What am I hoping for the most?
  • What is my gut telling me?  What is my heart telling me?

Your answers don’t even have to be rational!  Or logical or practical or any of that. They just need to be honest, rigorously honest.  (“Rigorous honesty” is one my favorite Buddhist philosophies.) Feel your feelings without judgment or resistance.  Listen to your gut but follow your heart. Keep listening to that tiny internal voice and accept its truth. Remember that the more you listen, the louder it gets!

Step #4: Seek outside guidance and support.

After you think you know what you want, solicit the support and advice of those around you.  (Or don’t – this step is completely optional!) Confide in loved ones and seek advice from experts.  Give credence to those whose judgment you respect. But keep checking in with yourself, and revert back to step three if necessary.

Step #5: Listen for the answer to arise.

This is the scary part.  Plato says that a good decision “is based on knowledge and not on numbers.”  You’ve gathered all the information that you can, asked plenty of questions, listened to yourself, listened to others.  Now step back and simply listen for the answer; let it arise naturally. Wait if necessary. Go back to steps three and four if you like.  Allow a bit of time to pass, if at all possible. Most importantly, find courage to accept the answer that you receive – even (or perhaps especially) if it is inconvenient.  Trust your heart and gut, for your body holds the wisdom of the earth.

Step #6: Plan your next move.

Decision made!  Congratulations.  The time is now to plan your next move.  As the motivational speaker Tony Robbins says, “A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action.  If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” Depending on its nature, your decision may be simple (although perhaps intimidating!) to execute, or may require more substantial planning and preparation.  Either way, more courage is required to propel you to begin to act. And just like with step one, take the time that you need to fully prepare for your course of action.

“Fear is a reaction.  Courage is a decision.” ~ Winston Churchill

The last step, of course, is to decisively put your plan into action.  You got this!