How to make an impossible decision: a basis for complex decision making

how to make a decision - thinking

Exactly how to make an impossible decision has troubled me enormously as I’ve wrestled with some really tough choices in the last few years.

Here are just a few of them:

  • I had to decide whether to leave behind all my friends and family in the UK and move across the world to Australia, where my wife comes from.
  • I had to decide if I should try to stay in legal practice when I arrived in Australia, even though, ridiculously, it meant virtually re-qualifying.
  • I had to decide whether to invest huge amounts of time and money in becoming a professional coach, and
  • I had to decide whether to stay in the corporate world or start my own business and
  • After 10 years in Australia, I had to decide whether to uproot my family and move back to the UK.

All of these decisions were complex and stressful. All of them had multiple factors for and against the various options. And, in all but the most recent cases, I found it practically impossible to decide.

How to make an impossible decision: the role of reason

One of the problems with these kinds of difficult decisions is that we think we need to engage our powers of reason to find the answer.

We are instinctively drawn into thinking that complex decisions demand that we apply the highest levels of our intellect. We assume there is a right answer and we that just need to find it.

Research does indeed show that applying a reasoning process is the best way to make relatively simple decisions.

Thus, when we’re faced with a choice between three or four different non-complex items (such as kitchen utensils), we can consider common characteristics such as size, colour or price and make comparisons between the items that help us to make our choice.

The problem is that when decisions become more complex there are many more different factors to consider, each with varying levels of importance for us. It is therefore very hard for us to make good decisions by weighing the relative merits of the different factors and reaching a final choice that we can feel comfortable with.

So what do we do when we need to make a decision that involves difficult choices?

The simple answer is that we look beyond our powers of reasoning and engage our emotions.

Emotions and decision making

In fact, for Harvard University’s Jennifer Lerner, a leading decision researcher, emotions are always at the centre of the decision making process. She says that decisions are the means by which our emotions guide us to avoid negative feelings and maximise positive feelings.

And, if you think about it, you will no doubt have experienced times when you’ve made tough decisions based upon an emotional response or a gut instinct. And I’ll bet that in most cases those decisions turned out no worse than decisions you made following a detailed rational analysis.

Sometimes just trusting your gut is all you need to do.

But if you want to at least feel that you have some control over the process, you can provide some guidance for your emotions by having in mind your goals and values when you are trying to make hard decisions.

how to make a decision - emotion - Venus de Milo

The emotional content of goals and values

Given the role that emotions play in complex decision making, using goals and values for guidance seems to be appropriate considering that they each undoubtedly have an emotional component.

Goals are essentially internal representations of what we want to achieve in life and values are representations of how we want to live.

Both of those ideas centre on how we want to feel. Thus, achieving certain desired outcomes can lead to feelings of satisfaction and relief rather than frustration or disappointment, whilst behaving in a way that is aligned with our values allows us to feel balanced and comfortable rather than anxious and fretful.

Goals and values in decision making

Let me give you an example of how this can work.

A coaching client of mine was struggling to decide whether to take up a job offer that will mean moving to new city. There’s little doubt in his mind that the job he has been offered would be better than his current one. It is also likely to offer more long-term security, which in his particular situation is an important factor.

The situation is not straightforward, however, because he has children at various stages of their school careers, a spouse who has ties and commitments of her own, and other family members in his current location who would not want him to leave.

So as you can see, the decision is finally balanced, complicated and difficult to make.

It is hard for him to rationally analyse the various factors because all of the competing interests are highly important to him*.

So, to help him to resolve the dilemma, we discussed how the choice he makes will fit in with his medium to long term goals. In other words, to what extent would staying or going serve the longer term aims and objectives that he has for his career and his family.

For example, one of his long term goals is to ensure that his children have the best education possible. He therefore needs to consider whether the schools in the new location might be better for his children in the long run, even though there may be considerable upheaval in moving them from their schools right now.

Might the new location even offer better further education and employment opportunities for the children when they grow up?

Similarly, we discussed how he can relate the decision to his values. This involves considering the relative importance to him of things like stability and educational opportunity, career development and loyalty to birth family.

This approach obviously has an element of reasoning within it, but the link to goals and values helps to keep the focus on the factors with the most emotional significance, as well as averting the tendency to give preference to short term expediencies.

In a way, this reflects the model of hard choices put forward by philosopher Ruth Chang (see her Ted talk, below).

She suggests that we cannot recruit reason to help us make impossible decisions because, by their very nature, these decisions are finely balanced and not susceptible to any kind of rationally decisive analysis. I can’t weigh, count or measure why I should choose to live in London or Sydney, for example.

But, according to Chang, what we can do is make the hard choice and then provide ourself with the reasons why that choice is right for us. Typically, I suspect, those reasons will be based on our emotions, values and goals.

How to make an impossible decision: useful process

Another lens on making hard choices comes from complexity theory.

Taking this approach, it is useful to categorise hard decisions as to whether they are complex or simply complicated.

In a complicated situation, solutions are not easy to find but, with the application of some research and/or expertise, we can usually determine likely chains of cause and effect. As a result, we can foresee with reasonable certainty that if we follow a particular course of action, events will turn out in a predictable way.

An example of a complicated decision might be a choice between various established exercise routines. Research can probably tell you what your results are likely to be, over time, if you follow one or other prescribed formula.

In a complex situation, by contrast, like the example of my client’s dilemma about taking a job in a different city, cause and effect cannot be ascertained, except in hindsight. There are multiple variables operating and outcomes are inherently uncertain.

Complexity theory holds that in such circumstances, we need to be creative, ask different questions, think differently and try ‘safe to fail’ experiments to generate learning and new ideas about how to proceed. In complexity, solutions have to be teased out through probing and experimentation and by adjusting your approach based on the feedback you receive.

So, by taking this approach to a complex decision, you can move yourself along the decision making continuum, learning as much as you can, before you make the final commitment.

Wrapping Up

None of this necessarily makes a hard decision easy, but it does enable us to place some frameworks (even a kind of rationality) around our emotional decision-making. In that sense, perhaps we gain the best of both worlds.

Perhaps most importantly, if we are able to make difficult decisions by aligning our choices with our core values and goals, and try some experimentation to test the possibilities first, then we are much more likely to feel comfortable with the decision – whichever way goes.

Key take aways

These then are the key take aways:

  • Using pure reasoning works when we have to make relatively simple decisions
  • Decisions are typically simple when there is a limited range of choice and when the factors that are relevant to our decision are themselves uncomplicated
  • Emotions play a significant role in our decision making in any event, but when decisions are complex we tend to fall back on our emotions to help us (whether we realise it or not)
  • We can put some order into our emotional decision making by consciously factoring in the things that are of most importance to us – our values and our medium to long term goals
  • By doing this we can neutralise the attraction of short term thinking and give ourselves the best chance of making a decision that we are comfortable with.
  • Where decisions are complex, we can’t predict the outcomes. We need to recognise this and move towards an answer by probing and experimentation and by adjusting our approach based on the feedback we receive
  • We can also use our emotions, values and goals to provide us with the basis for consolidating our decisions once made.

How to make an impossible decision: further resources

Ruth Chang

Professor David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework


* In order to illustrate the point, I’ve simplified this somewhat by referring to the decision as if it my client’s alone. In reality, the decision will be taken jointly with his family. I’ve also changed some facts to preserve anonymity.

Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M. W., Nordgren, L. F., & Van Baaren, R. B. (2006). On making the right choice: The deliberation-without-attention effect. Science, 311(5763), 1005-1007.

Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., Valdesolo, P., & Kassam, K. S. (2015). Emotion and decision making. Psychology, 66.

See also, nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and, for sense-making in complex environments, Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework.

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