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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Here's How to Make Big Career Decisions You Won't Regret

What makes big decisions so hard? As a decision coach, I see many people struggle with tough choices, because they really, really want to have no regrets.

While I’ve never met anyone who felt they got it right 100% of the time, going back to the basics can help you get clear on what you want and feel better about moving forward.

Here are five simple strategies I’ve learned for lessening the odds that you’ll look back and wish you did it differently.

1. You’ve Got to Collect All the Information

The first step is research. If you make a decision without the proper information—like joining a company without learning what the culture is really like—you’re setting yourself up for disappointment later on when you learn something that would’ve made a difference.

Putting the time in on the front end means fewer chances for regret down the line. You don’t want to be thinking, “If only I’d checked out the website more closely!” or “I should’ve asked that in my interview!” You want to be thinking, “I did my research and made the best decision I could.”

2. You’ve Got to Chill Out

Making a choice is stressful by nature, but doing it from a place of calm consideration lowers your chance of making the wrong one. That’s because the calmer you are, the less likely you are to make a hasty, emotional decision.

Try to get into a relaxed state of mind, remove any stressors—including people—from the room, and think through your decision with a clear head and an open mind. Don’t rush, don’t freak out; instead, take deep breaths and think about the facts.

If you’re not in the right state, ask yourself if you have to weigh your options right then, or if you can wait until a better time (i.e., “sleeping on it” usually helps).

3. You’ve Got to Know All the Options

A client recently asked me to help her think through a big, cross-country move. Her husband had a job offer with a higher salary in the new location; and while they loved where they were, they were struggling financially in an expensive city.

I pointed out that her options weren’t simply to take the job or to stay and continue to barely make ends meet. There were other ways she could change her situation: her husband could ask for a raise, she could look for part-time work, or they could downsize their house. Don’t leave any option unexplored, no matter how unlikely it seems: You want to know the full range of choices and not limit yourself to two.

4. You’ve Got to Keep a List

Instead of just going through the pros and cons in your head, write them out in list form. It’s not just a matter of clarifying important points and picking a side. Keeping the list will help you minimize regret, because if you start to second-guess yourself later on, you’ll have evidence for why you made the decision you did.

Sometimes, a simple reminder that your choice was based on concrete factors and the best information you had at the time—and wasn’t just made on a whim—can help re-configure your thinking so you feel better about the path you took.

5. You’ve Got to Keep Things in Perspective

This is important both during decision-making and afterwards. We often get so caught up in finding the best option that it consumes us. Reminding yourself that things are going to be OK no matter which choice you make—which is true most of the time—puts you in the right mindset for a regret-free decision.

You’re not perfect—and that’s OK, no one is. Sometimes, we choose badly, or circumstances beyond our control mean that a decision we made wasn’t the right one. Regret is usually unproductive and pointless, and although that doesn’t help when you feel like you made a huge mistake, the less time you spend dwelling on what could have been, the better.

If all else fails, try to channel that regret into something useful. Making a poor decision prepares you for better decision making in the future. Analyze what went wrong, refine your process, and move forward.

Photo of person reflecting courtesy of alvarez/Getty Images.