When you're afraid to make a decision because the stakes are high

Analyzing your decision as if it were someone else's can help you stay objective.

It's hard to make decisions when the stakes are high. When our choices have huge consequences, our brains go wonky. It’s human.

High stakes choices impact our thinking; they cause us to either be too afraid of risk or not afraid enough. On the one hand, we might fear losing the sure thing we have for the chance of having something else - even if the chances are decent and that something else is way better. On the other hand, the uncertainty may make us impulsive rather than thoughtful; we might assume that what feels good or exciting in the moment would have a good outcome.

But risky moves can often land us in bad places. Unfortunately, so can safe moves.

So, what can you do to make sure that those big, scary, high stakes decisions don’t lead to poor decision-making based in fear, anxiety, or stress?

One tip is to detach from the choice. Rather than ask, “What should I do?” try asking, “What options should someone random in this same situation consider? And which of those options would maximize the chances that this random person will get to where they want to be?”

In other words, think about the circumstances, conditions, and likely outcomes of your decision as if they didn’t have to do with you. Think about your choice as an intellectual problem instead of a life-altering, emotional one.

This kind of detachment increases the chances that you’ll be objective. By placing yourself outside of your decision, you’ll less likely feel the emotional consequences of it. You’ll relax a bit as you move from fear and anxiety to problem-solving. Given that stress can lead to impulsivity and bad decisions (according to research), being more relaxed will help you think more clearly.

You’ll also be less likely to fear the risk. With detachment, you can forecast the likelihood of a bad outcome more realistically. You’ll be less likely to suffer from loss aversion (the over-valuing of what you have and the under-valuing of what you could get). You’ll be much less likely to fear an option for the wrong reasons.

This doesn’t mean that your detached analysis will lead to the decision that’s right for you. Sometimes our decisions need to be somewhat emotional; we just need to get good at letting our emotions drive only when it serves us. Choosing options out of fear, worry, anxiety, or stress rarely serves us.

So, the next time you’re faced with a high-stakes decision, try pulling away emotionally and examine it as though it were someone else’s problem. The stress is going to be there, and that’s fine. You just don’t have to let it drive.