How to Navigate Life-Changing Decisions, According to the Experts

Life has a funny way of throwing us huge decisions. Switching jobs. Starting a relationship. Moving to a new place. And sometimes that’s all in one week! While staying calm, cool and collected is the response you really expected your adult self to be able to handle by now, let’s face it: major freakouts are assembling in the brain. But, never fear! It’s a totally normal response–even for us mature adults.

Luckily, the world gave us life coaches–the most calm, cool and collected adults on the planet–who can help us navigate these big decisions that will (*gulp*) change our lives in a huge way. Whether it’s talking it out, writing it down or setting a deadline, these experts know just what to do when it comes to making and accomplishing a goal. Hear them out:

Consider these questions.

I ask people who want to transform their lives three things that tend to generate the greatest urgency and response:

  • You have one life. It’s yours. Are you living it? If not, why, and what are you waiting for?
  • Imagine you are on your deathbed. What are you regretting? What are you wishing you would have done?
  • What is your not changing costing you and your life?

Shelli J., CEO and coach at yourepiclife.com, Lander, Wyo.

Know your goal.

Make sure you have a clear answer for the question: What do I really, REALLY want? Often, trying to answer this foundational question can either prevent us from making an important change or we’ll answer with what we believe society, friends or family want. Take the time to reflect on the impact you want to have in the world and what brings you joy. Then ask: Will the choice before me help create the possibility for living in my purpose, or will it take me further from it? That’s the question.

Kathryn M., leadership coach and organizational transition strategist, San Diego, Calif.

Trust your gut.

Always listen to your inner guide or your intuition. It already knows the answer. That gut feeling you get when thinking about a new challenge or lifestyle change? That’s the truth. If you’re not someone who experiences ‘gut feelings’ very often, try a few meditation techniques to realign with the energetic frequencies of the universe. I’ve recovered from anorexia, depression, anxiety and an abusive relationship. My resilience depended on listening to my inner guide and connecting with the universe.

Marissa P., founder and life coach of spiesfittofight.com, Cliffwood, New Jersey

Evaluate your intentions.

Check in with your motivation and intentions for making the change. So often we make decisions out of fear rather than because it’s going to serve us in some way, and we end up running away from something rather than facing life head on. Before you decide to do anything, ask yourself, ‘Is this going to bring me closer to what I actually want, or is it going to move me further away?’ Don’t be afraid to get really honest with yourself. Sometimes we realize it’s actually an avoidance, and in turn, not the right decision for us in the long run. And sometimes it ends up causing us to repeat the same pattern over again rather than addressing it and making the right shift to move beyond it.  

For example, school. Say you think getting a masters degree is going to get you the credentials you need to finally make it in the real world, so you apply, get the loans, attend and spend another two years not doing what you actually want to do. And then you graduate and still haven’t dealt with the root of why you chose grad school in the first place: you were afraid you weren’t good enough. Now you are two years down the road, still afraid of putting yourself out there and in debt. Address what’s really bothering you and attack it head on.

Katie K., self love and mindfulness coach, New York, New York

Write it down.

Before making any life-changing decisions, write about the pros and cons of your actions. Writing is a journey of self-discovery, which entails reviewing your life with a child’s curiosity and awe. This can lead to significant revelations. Feel into your body as you write. How does your body, mind and spirit feel about the decision you’re thinking to make?

Diana R., Ph.D., author, blogger, poet, speaker and advocate of writing for healing and transformation, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Seek out a role model.

People probably cause themselves more stress and anxiety by being indecisive and ‘on the fence’ than actually taking action. Challenge what assumptions you might be having and talk to someone about it. Speaking to a relative or a friend can prove difficult, because they might not have the objectivity you need or they might have too much of a personal attachment to you. Emotions can blur clarity. Instead, look to someone that has done what you want to do and learn from them.  

Joe H.

Go beyond a pros-and-cons list.

Make a four-square grid with the vertical axis labeled with ‘fear’ at the top and ‘excitement’ at the bottom and the horizontal axis labeled with ‘yes’ to the left and ‘no’ to the right. Then, fill in all of the boxes with what about your decision is making you feel afraid or excited. This method helps reach objectivity about what is calling to you and what is triggering your apprehension. It goes beyond pros and cons, which tend to be one dimensional, and helps you get to the heart of the matter to see what’s really at stake. When you read over your reasons for saying yes or saying no, you’ll be able to better see where you’re telling yourself a story that’s not true and where you’re getting a glimpse of something that’s calling you to grow.

Kate H., personal development coach and author of Stress Less, Providence, Rhode Island

Envision your future grandma self.

Think about “future you.” Imagine the life you want to be living at 70 or 60 or 50 years old, and then figure out which option helps you get there most efficiently. People tend to focus on what they want now, but they tend to make better decisions when they instead think about what would make their future selves most happy.

Nell W., decision coach, Montevideo, Uruguay

Take baby steps.

Have clarity on what your big decision is and come up with small actionable steps to bring you closer to the big goal. People often become frustrated, scared or too paralyzed to make a big change because they are overwhelmed with what they think has to happen overnight or that it actually will happen overnight. Set your sights on what you would like to accomplish and start doing it gradually.  

Shula M., relationship and wellness coach, New York, New York

Just go for it.

The best decisions may make you uncomfortable, and that’s OK. These are the decisions that will help you expand and grow mentally, professionally, spiritually and personally. Consider the alternative of not making any decision at all. My clients who are in their late 50s often tell me about decisions they regret not making earlier in life. They say, ‘It might not have been the easiest thing to do at the time, but I wish I would have had the courage to see it through.’ Nothing changes in life if you do not start making the changes. Control what you can and have the tenacity and understanding to let go of the things you can not.

Vernon B., happiness and success coach, Richmond, Virginia

Set a deadline.

Uncertainty about the future can be stressful. Set aside at least 2-3 hours to think about your dilemma alone in an undisturbed place that makes you feel safe, calm and at peace. It may sound mundane, but this has to be a key part of your decision-making process. If you like to be out in nature, visit your favorite spot in the park. If you have a quiet, happy place that’s indoors, go there.

Then, make a deadline, if there isn’t one already, to ensure that you won’t be torturing yourself over the decision for too long. When we find ourselves at a crossroads in life, or we have a big decision to make, we often talk to someone else. This can certainly be helpful, but it is our own responsibility to make sure that the decisions we make in our lives are truly the right decisions for us as individuals. And sometimes, talking to too many people, or the wrong people, can throw us off and cause a stressful process to be even more painful. The only way to make sure a big decision is the right one for you at a particular time in your life is to look internally and think it over by yourself without the noise of the outside world.

Many times we create so much stress, anguish or angst around life decisions that we work ourselves into a state of feeling stuck. This is natural. But when it happens, the important thing is to know that for most decisions–even the ones that feel huge–we really just have to figure out our immediate next step. Once we do that, and take some action, things get easier.

And remember: most things are reversible. If you accept a particular job that requires you to move somewhere else and it doesn’t work out, you can either find another job that’s a better fit for you or move back to where you were happier living.

Cynthia P., coach and facilitator of Embrace Change Consulting, New York, New York

Follow through.

Once you make a decision, set the intention to make it right. Decide that you’re going to do what is required to make it work, and put the supports in place that you need to make sure your transition is successful.

Then, be very clear about your decision and the change you want to see, so that when you do make the decision you have confidence and clarity about your next steps. Once you do it, it’s essential to trust your instincts, to have patience with the process and to remember that change takes time.

Elaine T., parenting coach and co-founder of impactadhd.com, Atlanta

Emily is a recent graduate and proud Midwesterner who just moved to the big city to start her career in magazine journalism. When she isn't commuting between Brooklyn and Manhattan, she enjoys browsing bookstores for her next read, sipping chai tea lattes at local coffee shops, and playing tourist in the city she always dreamed of living in.