4 Easy Steps to Help Parents Make Difficult Decisions

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Parenting is hard. You’re responsible for a little (or not so little) person and making all the right decisions. But what happens when you don’t know what the right decision is?

Decision-making, especially in an emotionally charged situation, is exhausting. What if an easy way to make decisions existed? Having made thousands of extraordinarily difficult decisions in my senior leadership career and as a father of four, I’ve figured out a relatively simple method to make decisions I can live with and be proud of that many successful leaders use. It’s perfect for parents, too, because parents are the leaders of their family.

1. Write the Problem Down
Focus on the issue, not your emotions. The brain tends to mix up logic processes when dealing with complex or emotionally charged decisions. Writing the problem down forces us to turn an abstract thought into a concrete statement, idea or question. In that process, we can more precisely frame the problem and, ultimately, downsize it from a larger-than-life issue to one we can work through.

For example, if you’re a parent with school-aged kids battling what to do about your child’s education due to the risks and restrictions of COVID-19, these thoughts might be going through your head:

  • In-person/online/homeschool
  • Will kids/adults wear masks?
  • Fear of getting sick
  • Uncertainty of the future
  • Sadness over lack of control
  • Will kids fall behind academically?
  • Guilt we just want things to be normal
  • Frustration with lack of work time

All the competing emotions make the decision-making process difficult.

However, when you write the problem you’re facing in one or two sentences, it may actually look like this:

We want our kids to safely get the best education possible while allowing us to work. What can we reasonably do to make that happen?

Writing the true essence of your problem down helps you focus on the most important part.

Which of those two “problems” looks more approachable? You can spend your time dealing with emotions, fears and unknowns or you can focus on the positive and productive opportunities.

Now that we have a more approachable problem, how do we decide what to do about getting our kids the best education possible? Do we make a pro-and-con list? What if they come out even?

2. Discuss the Problem with Others You Trust
The more people there are to talk about a problem, the more potential solutions there will be. Teams almost always come up with better solutions than individuals. Even though we can be sidetracked, if we don’t share our problems, we often miss other perspectives, relevant data and variables we may not have considered that can help us find solutions or flaws in our assumptions and general approach.

When it comes to our children, there’s nothing new. Someone out there has had a similar problem, so tap into the wisdom of extended family and friends.

Nearly every parent out there is processing what to do about school. Ask trusted friends what they’re thinking. Join a Facebook group, and search to see what other people are discussing. When evaluating education options and risks from COVID-19, share your concerns with your child’s teacher. See if their plans for the school year help guide your thought process.

3. Get Active to Reflect
It’s hard to focus and think about an issue logically when our conscious mind is easily overcome by emotions and daily distractions. When we do a physical task, our subconscious mind can work, which makes decision-making easier. Ask yourself a simple question about the problem when starting the activity.

In our example about school, the simple question is not, “How can I not worry about sending my kids to school?” or “How will I work if they’re home with me.” The right simple question is a positive one: “What can I do to make sure my kids get the best education right now?”

When you do this, physical movement is key. No scrolling social media! Relax by doing something that doesn’t require much thought but has you moving. Almost always, after the activity, your mind will deliver the right answer. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Shower
  • Walk or run
  • Long bicycle ride
  • Swim

Physical exercise helps quiet your brain. It allows you to focus on your movements, not your thoughts.

Another great approach to relaxing the conscious brain is sleeping. Just before putting your head on the pillow, ask yourself the simple positive question. In the morning, the solution is ready. I’ve found that having paper and pencil by the bed helps, particularly when you want to remember something as you wake up.

4. Take Action
Problems can appear larger than life, causing us to struggle with how to move forward. When you write it down, discuss it and reflect on it, solutions always become evident. They may not be what you expected, but solutions will appear. Then you can look at your options and see which one you are most comfortable with. Once your decision is made, the path forward will be clear, even if it’s not an easy one.

Solutions provide the path and the plan.

Though we may struggle with the murky future of public education, nothing is permanent. You can reassess in a few months and make a different decision if necessary. Do the best you can with the information you have. In this unprecedented set of circumstances, there is no one right answer.

Easy Decision-Making Strategy

  1. Write the problem down
  2. Discuss the problem with others
  3. Get active to reflect
  4. Take action

Every one of us has faced issues where it seemed impossible to make a decision. It’s absolutely exhausting to continually replay all the worries in your mind. But when you use these four steps, you’ll have the ability to make a decision even in the toughest of circumstances and enjoy the rewards or manage the fallout. That’s what made my career so successful and makes life as a father so rewarding. The state of being “undecided” is way worse than choosing to move forward one way or another.

Rick Stephens