Facing a Tough Career Decision? Here’s How to Make the Right Choice

Businesswoman uncertain as to her next move
There’s an easier way to decide

If you’re struggling with a big career decision, your underlying challenge likely involves either: a) properly evaluating the risk associated with a specific action, b) identifying and narrowing down a long list of options, or c) choosing between two or three good options.

While each of these challenges requires a different approach to get to the best decision, they all share the same first step: offloading the decision-making criteria in your brain onto a spreadsheet or sheet of paper, to ensure you’ve captured and accurately weighed them all.

The following techniques will help you to choose the best option when facing any of the scenarios described above.

How to properly evaluate risk

Perhaps you’re thinking of making a risky career move, such as quitting a job before finding another one, going for a new job or promotion that could lead to dissatisfaction, going back to school, retiring early or addressing a difficult situation with a colleague. To properly assess the risk, ask yourself these questions:

  • How likely is it that the thing I fear will happen?
  • If the fear materialized, how damaging would it be?
  • Can I do anything to mitigate the risk?
  • What’s the risk in NOT taking action and how likely is it to materialize?
  • If I do take action, how likely am I to receive the benefit?
  • If I do take action, how big will the benefit be?

In his Ted Talk, Tim Ferris describes an exercise he calls Fear Setting which enables you to score the answers to each of these questions. You can also download a template that facilitates this Fear Setting analysis.

One client was contemplating leaving her job without having another one lined up. She was very unhappy in her current role, had no time to find something else, and severance wasn’t an option. Yet she was reluctant to leave because of concern about both income loss and finding another job quickly. Doing this exercise led to her decision to quit, and she’s happily employed now. She realized:

  • The negative impact that staying in this role would have on her family was too great.
  • She could mitigate the possibility of her not finding another job by growing and leveraging her network and joining a professional association.
  • Her worst-case loss-of-income scenario wasn’t that bad; she might have to postpone retirement for two years, which she could live with.
  • The likely benefit of landing the right role was huge and potentially life transforming.

How to narrow down a long list of career options

In this situation, you’re unclear about the solutions to your career dissatisfaction because you don’t know all the options or which ones to pursue. Here’s what to do:

  1. Develop your decision-making criteria. You can use this post as a guide. Include the things you enjoy doing that you do well, your work-related values on which you don’t want to compromise, and your vision for your life.
  2. Brainstorm many career options. Keep in mind that the key to effective brainstorming is being open – you can always cross out items later. List these options in rows on a spreadsheet, or down the margin of a sheet of paper. If you need help coming up with ideas, ask people in your network, scan job postings, and check out these online resources.
  3. Add some very simple weighting to each of the decision-making criteria. Don’t make this overly complicated as the point is to quickly narrow down options. For example, start off by giving all your criteria an equal weight, say “1.” If a criterion is truly a deal-breaker if not met, then give it a large weight, say 10. For example, if you can’t take a job you would love because it pays below a certain level, then earning at least this amount would get a 10.
  4. Narrow down the list of options by scoring each of the job targets in the rows against your decision-making criteria in the columns; add up all the 1’s and the 10’s in that row.
  5. Focus on the highest-scoring items. To confirm their priority, do additional research or apply additional weighting as described below.

How to decide between two or three good career options

Once you’ve narrowed down a list of many options to just two or three, you can now more precisely weight your decision-making criteria to make your final decision. Add two types of weights:

  • How important the criterion is to you (scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the most important)
  • How much of the criterion is present (scale of 0 to 3, where 0 is not present and 3 is fully present).

Score each option you’re evaluating by multiplying the importance of each criterion by the presence of that criterion. Then add up the scores across all the criteria to get a total. The table below shows how a client evaluated two job offers.

decisionmaking table

Table that shows how to decide between two good options

Job Offer 2 got the higher score of 86, vs. 67 for Offer 1, because the opportunity to work virtually, higher salary, flexible schedule and opportunity to advance outweighed the drawbacks of a longer commute, less enjoyable colleagues, and less autonomy.

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