There will come a time in your life when you need to make a life-changing decision. The kind where you’ve got two options to choose from, and both carry their own fair share of risks and rewards. Perhaps you’re even facing one right now.

In those situations, the question is: how do you make the right choice?

Last week in the comments area of my blog post on The Dangers of Being a Do-er, I was asked about the best way to make a big life decision. In particular, when you’ve been laid off from your job, is it best to focus all your energies on finding a new job or pursue something else that is a higher life priority than finding a job?

That question stuck with me, precisely because it’s hard to make the right choice when there’s no way to know in advance what will work out best. It’s that feeling of being stuck at a big fork in the road where both paths have pluses and minuses. The stakes are high and you don’t want to get it wrong.

But those decisions must be made, because doing nothing – pursuing neither option – is the worst decision.

It’s the personal analog to decisions that healthcare providers like Britain’s NHS (National Health Service) have to make regularly. For example, with limited funding available, do we give out the most comprehensive but expensive vaccine to the most vulnerable subset of the population, or provide the narrower but less costly vaccine to everyone?

How to make the big decisions

These kinds of choices are by nature difficult, and there are many situation-specific considerations. Plus, it’s compounded by not having a control group to measure against, so you’ll never know whether you chose the best path.

That said, here are five things I find helpful in evaluating and making such decisions:

1. Look at the upside and downside of choosing each option

What outcomes would be “okay” with me? Which would be a disaster? Which would be optimal? What’s the likely outcome, and what assumptions am I making to come that conclusion?

When I faced the decision of whether to stay on in my corporate career (having been there 24 years already) versus become an entrepreneur, the upside of staying seemed hugely sensible: having a big platform, great colleagues and a steady paycheck. But the downside was it likely would be more of the same. Opportunities to advance would be fewer and farther between; an assumption I was pretty sure was true.

The entrepreneurial route had the upside of the freedom to pursue my interest in writing, speaking and helping others. It would certainly provide opportunities for me to learn, grow and develop in a new direction. On the other hand, I might end up as a “starving artist”, working on my own in a company that nobody has ever heard of. But I was less certain of those assumptions.

2. Look at what would need to be true for each option to turn out well

What assumptions would I be making and how likely are those to be true? How could I stack the deck in my favor? Who could I bring in to improve my odds?

For the “stay where I am” option to turn out well, I would need to find a fresh new way to do what I had been doing for most of my career, which felt like a high bar to reach.

For the entrepreneurial path to work out well, I would have to figure out how to earn a living on my own. Perhaps I could stack the deck in my favor by using my business development skills, leveraging my network, and getting training in my new field?

In the end, I did all those things plus teamed up with a friend who wanted to do something similar.

3. Look at the regret factor

What would be the path to take if I want to live a “no regrets” life? This one is really a “gut check” and probably the most important aspect of deciding well. In the end, I’m a big fan of trusting your instincts.

In my case, I had been having this conversation with myself every two years for the last six. In the past, a new internal opportunity came up each time – ones that I couldn’t pass up. But this time was different.

4. Find the “third way”

In general, I'm a fan of creating a third option beyond what appears to be two binary options. As they say, “one option is an option, two options is a dilemma, and three options is a choice”.

For example, in an ideal world you could spend the majority of time on one main goal, say 80%, and then start laying the groundwork for the next goal so you’re not starting from zero when it’s time to switch priorities.

Personally, I like the 80/20 approach because variety makes life more interesting, and often helps us be more effective in everything we do. It’s similar to the concept behind cross-training rather than training just in your core sport.

In my case, the “third way” ended up being to find one big client with ongoing needs that would give me a core income, a platform, and a built-in network. That gave me the means for supporting myself while I built up the rest of my business.

5. Set some interim review points and milestones

If you’re going down one path, but the other one was a close second, it’s useful to set some interim review points to revisit your strategy. Setting milestones as indicators also helps check whether you’re on the right path.

I like setting a plan for the year and having quarterly checkpoints (which I realize is suspiciously similar to what I’m used to from my years in a public company!).

My milestones include checking in to see whether I’m still enjoying the work, plus some measures of how well I’m building my franchise and how my work is resonating with clients.

Taken together, the milestones you choose provide a mechanism for you to make midcourse adjustments, whether that's shifting your approach, or changing to another priority altogether.

How to create more flexibility

Coming back to the original question of whether to choose higher life priorities over job hunting, there are also things you can do right now to give yourself more flexibility. Ideally, start working on some of these before you need the flexibility.

Develop independent means

The first priority is to make sure your basic needs are met, including having sufficient financial resources to support you and your family, at least for a while.

Along those lines, I have come to the view that we are all better off if we can identify an independent way to generate cash flow that doesn't rely purely on having a job. It could be some kind of freelance work, having a network to turn to as a consultant using the skills you've developed, having a rental property, being a paid speaker, etc.

Basically, it’s good to have something you can dial up or fall back on if you need to.

Create a robust network

These days, most people find career opportunities through their networks. But if yours is insular and primarily revolves around getting your current job done, you will not find much in the way of new opportunities beyond the kind of work you are doing now.

Make it part of your job to build relationships externally and internally beyond your current group. This will help you deliver more value in your current job as well as make it easier to find the next great step forward, which just as well could be internally.

Stay current

The world is changing at an increasing pace, and if you’re not keeping current then you’re falling behind. See how you can make investments in your skills and capabilities whether it’s getting on top of the latest industry developments or branching out into a brand new ability.

Along these same lines, see if you can find at least one conference or event you’d like to attend each quarter to enrich your set of experiences. And give yourself the gift of learning something new that feels fresh and fun. For me, this would be improv or dance.

Learning new skills beyond the ones required for your “day job” can add to your confidence, boost your creativity, and enhance your ability to collaborate. Plus, you’ll have fun at the same time.

Work on your personal brand and visibility

Along with the points above, it’s important that others know who you are, what you stand for, and the value you bring to the table. That’s your personal brand, and you need to make that visible beyond the four walls of your job.

This isn’t about “politicking” or “self-promotion”, but rather making it easy for others to recognize how to utilize you, and to see what you are capable of.

This could involve doing some public speaking. For example, my former colleague, Carla Harris, became a sought after speaker and singer while working full time in banking. This, in combination with her commercial contributions, has paid great dividends both personally and professionally. She was appointed by the Obama Administration to Chair the National Women’s Business Council, and sits on Morgan Stanley’s Management Committee.

When you are more visible to clients and other industry players, it makes you more effective in your work and beyond. That, in turn, helps your team and your organization.

It’s all about how you do it. When you come from an abundance mindset of promoting the great work that your company and your team deliver, then it’s a positive all around.

Make a conscious choice

So, when you’re faced with those big life decisions, remember to:

  • Look at the upside and downside of each option
  • Look at what would need to be true for each option to turn out well
  • Look at the regret factor
  • Find the “third way”
  • Set interim review points and milestones

Then, make a conscious choice and act on it.

In the meantime, spend some time figuring out how you can create flexibility for yourself so that you have better options when the time comes.

As the saying goes, the best time to fix your roof is when the sun is shining.

What decisions are coming up for you, and how can you create flexibility in the meantime?

Leave a comment and let me know.