3 Timeless Rules for Making Tough Decisions

I perused the restaurant menu for several minutes, struggling with indecision, each item tempting me in a different way.

Maybe I should order them all . . .

Is this a silly decision not deserving deliberation? Maybe. But I bet you’ve been there. If not about food, then about something else.

We spend an inordinate amount of time, and a tremendous amount of energy, making choices between equally attractive options in everyday situations. The problem is, that while they may be equally attractive, they are also differently attractive, with tradeoffs that require compromise. Even when deciding between kale salad (healthy and light), salmon (a heavier protein), and ravioli (tasty, but high carbs).

If these mundane decisions drag on our time and energy, think about the bigger ones we need to make, in organizations, all the time. Which products should we pursue and which should we kill? Who should I hire or fire? Should I initiate that difficult conversation?

These questions are followed by an infinite number of other questions. If I am going to have that difficult conversation, when should I do it? And how should I start? Should I call them or see them in person or email them? Should I do it publicly or in private? How much information should I share? And on and on . . .

So how can we handle decisions of all kinds more efficiently? I have three methods that I use, two of which I talk about in my book, Four Seconds, the third which I discovered last week.

The first method is to use habits as a way to reduce routine decision fatigue. The idea is that if you build a habit—for example: always eat salad for lunch — then you avoid the decision entirely and you can save your decision-making energy for other things.

That works for predictable and routine decisions. But what about unpredictable ones?

The second method is to use if/then thinking to routinize unpredictable choices. For example, let’s say someone constantly interrupts me and I’m not sure how to respond. My if/then rule might be: if the person interrupts me two times in a conversation, then I will say something.

These two techniques — habits and if/then — can help streamline many typical, routine choices we face in our lives.

What we haven’t solved for are the larger more strategic decisions that aren’t habitual and can’t be predicted.

I discovered simple solution to making challenging choices more efficiently at an offsite last week with the CEO and senior leadership team of a high tech company. They were facing a number of unique, one-off decisions, the outcomes of which couldn’t be accurately predicted.

These were decisions like how to respond to a competitive threat, which products to invest more deeply in, how to better integrate an acquisition, where to reduce a budget, how to organize reporting relationships, and so on.

These are precisely the kinds of decisions which can linger for weeks, months, or even years, stalling the progress of entire organizations. These decisions are impossible to habitualize and can’t be resolved with if/then rules. Most importantly, they are decisions for which there is no clear, right answer.

Leadership teams tend to perseverate over this sort of decision for a long time, collecting more data, excessively weighing pros and cons, soliciting additional opinions, delaying while they wait — hope — for a clear answer to emerge.

But what if we could use the fact that there is no clear answer to make a faster decision?

I was thinking about this in the offsite meeting while we were discussing, yet again, the same decision we had debated in the past about what to do with a certain business, when the CEO spoke up.

“It’s 3:15pm,” He said. “We need to make a decision in the next 15 minutes.”

“Hold on,” the CFO responded, “this is a complex decision. Maybe we should continue the conversation at dinner, or at the next offsite.”

“No,” The CEO was resolute, “We will make a decision within the next 15 minutes.”

And you know what? We did.

Which is how I came to my third decision-making method: use a timer.

If the issues on the table have been reasonably vetted, the choices are equally attractive, and there is still no clear answer, then admit that there is no clearly identifiable right way to go and just decide.

It helps if you can make the decision smaller, with minimal investment, to test it. But if you can’t, then just make the decision. The time you save by not deliberating pointlessly will pay massive dividends in productivity.

Hold on, you may protest. If I do spend more time on it, an answer will emerge. Sure, maybe. But, 1) you’ve wasted precious time waiting for that clarity and, 2) the clarity of that one decision seduces you to linger, counter-productively and in fruitless hope for clarity, on too many other decisions.

Just make a decision and move forward.

Try it now. Pick a decision you have been postponing, give yourself three minutes, and just make it. If you are overwhelmed with too many decisions, take a piece of paper and write a list of the decisions. Give yourself a set amount of time and then, one by one, make the best decision you can make in the moment. Making the decision — any decision — will reduce your anxiety and let you move forward. The best antidote to feeling overwhelmed is forward momentum.

As for my lunch, I ordered the kale salad. Was it the best choice? I don’t know. But at least I’m not still sitting around trying to order.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. Saewon Lee says:

    Many of us tend to forget what our heart says is probably right. Again, as you mentioned, it’s not always right, but there must be reasons, often unable for us to articulate, but some reasons stuck in our head that shapes what our heart says. I’ve learned this and am trying to go with what my gut, or hunch, or heart, however you name it, says. It works. Sometimes not, but as you said in your article, at least I move on.

  2. Brian says:

    Great ideas for decisions. Another key thing I keep in mind is to remember that once the decision is made, don’t think about the options you didn’t choose. If you do, you’ll keep debating the decision in your mind and you’ll never truly move forward.

  3. Diva says:

    This is helpful info on decision making. Up until now… I was fraught with indecision over small things and reflected on how I could expand to a fuller, richer life if I would spin on something as a menu choice. Thanks, Peter, for your straight approach to processing what you need and then to decide. Done deal.

  4. Karen Natzel says:

    Great message. Love the idea that forward momentum kills the sense of being overwhelmed. I also liked your idea of writing a list of decisions as options with the timer driving he sense of urgency. I’ve witnessed clients host meetings were discussions occur but no clear decisions are made – on simple things.

    My sense is people lack confidence and clarity; and we have a prevailing culture that cherishes being “right”. Perhaps the more we exercise our decision-making muscle, the more habitualized it will become.

    Another tool: the “coin toss of life”. Flip a coin. Heads or tails. You don’t have to follow the answer the coin gives you, but you’ll often find your gut has a strong reaction to which way the coin landed. That’s your decision!

  5. Lakshmi says:

    Nice One. I had read some of your articles and was slowly getting influenced. Just Listened to the interview with Ron Friedman and listened to all ur video in your website and I can relate to your thoughts and hopefully will help me to lead a better personal and professional Life. I am a big foodie and am quite familiar with meditation and have a daughter! I guess the references you make to the above aspects must have resonated with me!

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