“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

There are only two kinds of people in this world who have never made a bad choice – those who are lying and those who have avoided ever making a decision at all (which of course is impossible). From deciding what to wear each day to what cereal to eat and what kind of car to buy, we make big and small choices every day of our lives. The small ones are meaningless. But when we get into the big choices, there are long-term consequences.

How We Approach Decision-Making

The test for identifying a big choice is this: If the decision you make today could or will matter 5 years from now, it is a big one. Think about that for a few moments. Let it sink in. How many decisions did you make 5 years ago that are still impacting your life or the life of another now? There are probably many. With such long-term consequences for some choices we make, it is pretty amazing that many make them without much thought and analysis.

When we make big choices, there has to be some system by which we can analyze them deeply before we finalize that choice and go with it. There are probably several “systems” for this process, but here is one that should serve you well.

1. Identify the Choice to be Made Honestly and Completely

A big choice will probably have several aspects that relate to goals or outcomes you want to achieve. You need to define those goals and refine them. For example, you decide to go back and get that college education that you always wanted. That’s a choice that has probably come from some goals you have for your career, and you know you need that degree to meet those goals. Now you have a new choice from that initial goal. How will you get that degree? To make that choice you have some sub-goals. Here are some possibilities:

  • You want to go back and get that degree as cheaply as you can.
  • You want to go back and get that degree without quitting your job.
  • You want to go back and get that degree as quickly as possible.

Your choice will involve how, where, and when you go back to school, and it is a big choice – it will matter 5 years from now.

2. Do Your Research/Homework.

This phase is often skipped, because people want to jump right into listing pros and cons and be done with it. Making such a list won’t work unless you have the information you need to decide what is a pro and what is a con of each option you have.

Doing your homework doesn’t always have to be printed. Sometimes the experiences of others who have made similar choices is just as valid and important as anything written. Going back to the scenario of returning to school, some information will obviously have to be exploring possible options for college programs in your area or for opportunities for online degree programs. But other information can be gleaned from those who have “walked this walk” before you.

3. Brainstorm for Your Options

Based on the information you have gathered, you can now list all of the choice options you have. Some choices will only involve two options, so this step may be unnecessary.

For example, if you have two job offers and you must choose between them, you skip this step. If, however, you are looking at options for returning to school, then you may have multiple options based upon your research.

Your brainstormed options may include such things as an online program, an evening program, or a weekend program, which many colleges and universities currently offer. Or, it could include combinations of these options. The goal is to get every possible option listed.

4. Weigh the Possible and the Probable Outcomes of Your Choice

You need to think in terms of best and worst case scenarios for each of your choices. In the case of selecting a college program, you might consider something like this:

If you choose the weekend program, the best case scenario is what? You will have your weekdays and evenings to work and complete course assignments. And these programs are usually pretty accelerated and you will finish faster. On the other hand you will be giving up weekends for a long period of time, and this could certainly have a negative effect on your spouse and children or, if single, your social life and your current relationship. You will not have a good balance of work and personal life for a while, and that can have consequences.

But let’s look at a moral issue here as well. Often, choices have to do with ethics and principles or values that you hold. Here is an example. You are the network administrator for your company. This means that you are responsible for monitoring the Internet activity of other people in the organization. You receive alerts when questionable sites have been accessed. Through a series of alerts and investigations on your part, you realize that a colleague is accessing pornography sites during work hours on his office computer. The company policies are clear. This is an offense worthy of termination. This colleague has a wife and a handicapped child that he supports with this job. You have a big choice to make, and it will impact this family over the long-term. You will need to weigh your own ethical principles against the best and worst scenarios of the two options you have – to report this misconduct or not. Whichever option you choose, can you live with the consequences?

5. Time to make that List

Now it’s time to make your list of pros and cons. You have the information, you have brainstormed all options and you have considered the best and worst case scenarios. And this list making is not as simple as you may think. Some pros and some cons bear more weight than others, so you have to take that into consideration too. While this may not be an exact science, one method often used is this:

If you have a pro that you consider twice as important as the others, you list it twice; the same goes for the cons. Because in the end you will be adding these up to get a final tally.

6. Make Your Decision Based Upon Your List of Pros and Cons

Once you have made your decision, do not go back and second-guess yourself. Go with it. If you have followed the process, the choice you have made is the most logical and rational one.

Additional Thoughts – Remember These Things

1.) There is never a guarantee that your choice is the right one.

2.) If it turns out that it was a bad choice, fix it if you can. If not, consider it a learning experience in making a bad choice and move on.

3.) Never allow yourself to get stuck and make no decision at all. That in itself is a choice but a bad one.

4.) Have a Plan B if the choice turns out to be a bad one.

In the end we are all responsible for the choices we make – no one else. But if you have followed these steps and made a choice based upon this process, you have absolutely done your best to make the best selection. And, as an aside, you might also listen to your “gut” instinct when choices are hard to make and moral values are at stake. What, for example, would your instinct tell you to do about the pornography-viewing colleague?

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