Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

How to Make Stress-Free Decisions


You look blankly at the options in front of you.

It feels like there’s no end to the choices.

Tension sits between your shoulder blades, and you read through the possibilities again, to see which you should choose.

Intellectually, you know it’s not a life and death decision, but emotionally, you don’t want to make the wrong one. What if it doesn’t work out? You imagine the disappointment, the let down. The failure.

After minutes that seem like hours, with everyone looking at you, you’re ready to make your decision.

“I’ll have the pasta.”

How Being Decisive Makes You Stand Out From the Crowd

It’s stressful, isn’t it, when you need to make a quick decision?

Even small decisions can seem like a big deal.

And humans find it a challenge when there’s too much choice. The ‘Jam Experiment‘ shows us that when there are too many options, we’re less likely to choose something.

But one of the distinguishing traits in leaders is their readiness to make decisions.

It’s not even about the quality of those decisions (although I’m not discounting the importance of this!) – many people will shy away from being the person who steps up and is accountable for making a decision. Even the small ones.

These tips will help you stand out from the crowd by being the one to make the decision and move things forward.

1. Understand there is no perfect decision.

Stop searching for the ideal solution.

There isn’t one.

Huge energies (and amounts of time) can be invested in attempting to make the ‘perfect decision’. This is fruitless, as no such thing exists.

Every possible decision will have pros and cons, and accepting this will help speed up your decision making and also, critically, help you relax about making the decision itself.

2. Reduce your choices to a manageable number.

The paradox of choice is that more options aren’t necessarily helpful to making decisions.

In the study mentioned above, where shoppers in a supermarket were given a choice of either 6 or 24 jams, only 3% of those offered 24 jams bought a jar, whereas 30% of those offered just 6 choices purchased one – even though more shoppers were drawn to the larger selection.

The hypothesis from this is that whilst we find a large number of choices appealing, we actually find too many choices to be paralysing. Reduce the number of possibilities, and decision-making will be easier.

3. Understand what the critical criteria are.

Comparing decisions in every possible way can also lead to paralysis, as we can get lost in the detail.

Does it really matter if your new car has two cup holders or one? Whereas the number of people it seats might be critical if you have a large family.

Decide what the deal breakers are for you, and make your decision with these in mind.

4. Consult when appropriate.

Are there other people involved who the decision affects? If you are the only stakeholder, keep consultation to a smaller number – great to get different opinions, but if you consult everyone you meet, you are likely to get lost in the weeds again.

Conversely, don’t forget to consult people on whom the decision will impact – don’t be too proud or controlling to involve them, whilst being prepared to be accountable for the final decision.

5. Practise with smaller, less critical decisions.

Choose the next restaurant you eat at, or the meal you’re going to have, within a set time limit (e.g. one minute).

Start understanding the world won’t end if you have the pasta and not the pizza – in many decision-making scenarios, the options are as good as each other. If you have the pizza this time, decide to have the pasta next time.

6. Ensure effort expended is commensurate with the consequences of the decision.

We can spend inordinate amounts of time considering decisions which just aren’t that important.

If you’re buying a house, or choosing the new site for your company’s offices, then these are worth a bit more time.

If you’re deciding between the blue or the purple dress/tie, or whether to sign off an email, with ‘Best Wishes’ or ‘Kind Regards’, use a time limit. Or be like President Obama Barrack and always wear the same suit.

7. Accept sometimes you’ll get it wrong.

This is a tough one, and is one of the key causes of decision-making caution, the need to ‘get it right’ or ‘be perfect’.

Accepting that sometimes it won’t be the right decision, that there might be a better choice, or that you will make mistakes is tough to swallow, but being comfortable with errors will speed you up.

Do the best you can and then…

8. …When you’ve made the decision, move on.

Don’t spend the next month wishing things had been different.

Understand why you made the decision you did, learn from mistakes where you can, and put these learnings into play for the next decision.

Wasting energy beating yourself up isn’t going to make the next decision any better – plus, you probably have another 20 decisions to make!

Your Decision-Making Mission

So the next time you’re considering a menu, which person to hire, which car to buy, which way to go with your project, or any of the thousands of every day decisions in your life, use these tips to make the process stress-free (ish!).

Use your decision-making energy on the things that really matter.


12 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • El D April 22, 2015, 10:53 am

    I think we are now, in some instances, so overwhelmed by choices that we freeze. I remember once being in a sweet shop and the range of chocolate bars was so great that I left the shop without buying anything. Since then, my answer has been, “Imagine that you’ve bought the (e.g.) Bounty instead of the Whole Nut. Now how do you feel?” If the answer is, “Oh, I wish I’d bought the Whole Nut” then I buy the Whole Nut. Works for me most of the time and can be transferred to many other times where a decision is needed. Just imagine how you will feel when you’ve decided one way then act on that feeling.

    • Ellen April 23, 2015, 10:33 am

      Thanks El, I totally agree – we have an abundance but also an oppressive amount of choice.

      I think that’s a great tip, and one I use too. Thanks for sharing!

  • Christina April 23, 2015, 10:02 am

    Wow!! What a fantastic piece!! Thank you so much for this entry.

    • Ellen April 23, 2015, 10:32 am

      Thanks so much Christina, glad you enjoyed it :-)

  • Elle April 27, 2015, 2:35 pm

    Love this Ellen. It’s amazing how much of a relief it is when you simply choose to do, or not to do. It’s the dithering that creates tension in my world.

    Part of the challenge I see is that some seem totally oblivious to the fact that not every decision is set in stone and yes, they do get to change their minds should it be necessary! :-)
    Elle recently posted…A Quick Fix For a Hectic Life: Simple Ways to Be Successful And Stay HappyMy Profile

    • Ellen April 29, 2015, 9:29 am

      Thanks so much Ellen! And I completely agree – a lot of the energy is expended worrying about the making of the decision, once it’s made, you can move on to the next thing. :-)

  • lynne May 7, 2015, 1:51 am

    Hi, Thanks for the tips, it is very timely and helpful. Making decision is sometimes really very hard specially if it will affect others but always keep in mind that we are not perfect,that goes with our decisions too,so don’t be afraid to make one. Thanks a lot. Great read.
    lynne recently posted…Speaking at Hay House I Can Do It Denver Conference – A Dream Come TrueMy Profile

    • Ellen May 9, 2015, 8:38 am

      Thanks for your comment Lynne. Yes, it can be really tough, especially if you’re trying to please others as well as yourself. But not making a decision can bring lots of other problems! Good luck with your decision making this week :-)

  • Alan Marsden May 25, 2015, 2:17 pm

    This post can ignite decision making confidence. I work in a corporate public sector organisation and we really are guilty of seeking out the perfect decision, suffering paralysis by analysis, consulting everyone and being fearful of mistakes. That’s way we are sooo slow at decision making. You’re list would help organisations at all levels.
    Alan Marsden recently posted…Can We Really Trust Glucosamine For Healthier Joints?My Profile

    • Ellen May 25, 2015, 8:12 pm

      Thanks Alan – definitely feel free to share it, perhaps we can help a few people relax about their decision-making and get things done!

  • Karla October 10, 2015, 4:04 pm

    I love the design of your website. It is super cute! This article is a real thinker. I liked it, and it’s very true. I think a ton of us can relate to it. I have a lot of life decisions coming up soon and it can be daunting. Anyways thanks for writing it.
    Karla recently posted…Why I Started this BlogMy Profile

    • Ellen October 20, 2015, 7:34 am

      Thanks so much Karla, so glad you liked the article and the website. Decision making can be daunting, especially if we have more than one coming up at a time. Just take it step by step – good luck!

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