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In case you didn’t know it already, your brain hates to make decisions, and it really hates to make decisions where there is an option that might involve pain, discomfort, or uncertainty.

Unfortunately, that sums up most decisions we have to make.

Why We Do What We Do – Human Behavioral Neurobiology

We know that there are all sorts of neural systems in the brain that help us decide what to do when. The usual suspects: the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, anterior cingulate, the ventral tegmentum, insular cortex, nucleus accumbens and many more.

If you don’t know exactly what each of these do, that’s ok – the important part for you to get now is they are very central to helping you decide what to do when. (If you do want to know and like to geek out, check out the book, Behave, listed in the resources below).

This is probably not a surprise to you. Certain types of stress can negatively impact your decision-making. (Your brain can tell the difference between “bad” stress that impairs performance, and “good” stress that enhances it.) When you’re stress response activates, your body will respond with classic signs of sympathetic nervous system arousal – increased heart rate, shallow breathing, GI discomfort etc. A primary function of your stress response is to alert you to external threat in your environment so you will do something – approach or avoid, fight or flee. This is all unconscious reaction, so your brain isn’t really emphasizing decision-making in the prefrontal cortex, and that actually works for survival.

However, let’s say you’re at your desk about to send an email and you start imagining all the bad things that could happen like a client or supervisor’s angry reaction or words, it switches on a virtual reality headset in your brain that leans hard negative.

Now, when you really need your prefrontal cortex to help you make a decision, it is in the trunk while your limbic system drives the car running from or towards perceived lions, tigers, and bears, oh my. In these moments, your brain can misinterpret threat or overact to threat from internal experience and negatively impact your decision-making.

Your brain also hates to change or take action that deviates from the status quo. For most of us, this activates the limbic system, the stress response, and emotional brain circuits. Choosing feels hard and not choosing feels easy, but it is deceptive. Not choosing IS a choice. Your brain discounts it though because – once again – it hates discomfort and uncertainty.

If that isn’t enough, culture, upbringing, and your learning history (even that you can’t remember) can impact how certain parts of the brain develop and influence our decisions. For example, childhood trauma has been shown to correlate to reduced volume in the hippocampus and greater volume in the amygdala, which can increase threat response and fear conditioning. In other words, a person with this history could be more prone to perceive threat when a supervisor schedules a meeting to discuss performance and be in full stress response mode after the email.

Without completely nerding out on the neurobiological aspects of human behavior, this complex relationship is also why people stay in relationships and jobs that are toxic. “Better the devil you know” is a thing, a potentially dangerous bias, heuristic, or shortcut in cognitive psychology.

If you really want to understand how to make decisions, understanding the neurobiology of why we do what we do is critical.

Getting a Foothold

When people ask me to help them with making a decision, it usually relates to whether to career or relationships.

I wish advising them was as easy as decision-making in skiing. When I moved to my husband’s home state of Colorado several years ago, I was able to dive passionately into my love of skiing. I pushed my limits and found myself working from blues to blacks to backcountry runs. Yet there were always signs like this one that made the risks (and consequently, my decisions) abundantly clear!

Unfortunately, most day-to-day decision-making on what to do when doesn’t come with these kinds of warnings.

In this article, I will lay out a very basic and generalized version of a common ACT method for making decisions that may help you in making important decisions on what actions that you can take in a certain situation. This type of decision-making is most useful for developing and brainstorming options for things you can do when you’re not sure what to do.

(In a later article, I will discuss how to make specific decisions between alternatives – choosing whether to stay or go in a job or relationship. In that process, we reduce the options to three basic ones, and when I work with people, it even involves an Excel-driven decisional matrix for the other data geeks out there).

It’s important to note that BEFORE you can get to the nitty-gritty of strategic decision-making using ACT, there are a few skills that are important to master or steps that you already have taken. To get to the point, most of the people I work with have already worked through quite a bit:

  • learning how to be present with, aware of, and opening up to (instead of escaping or hiding from or pushing down) difficult thoughts, sensations, emotions, memories, experiences that often impair thinking, reasoning, and decision-making (discussed in multiple articles here and here for parents)

  • clarifying your most important valued domains and values that are involved in the relevant decisions

  • setting values-aligned goals (discussed here)

  • planning and taking some intentional, specific actions linked to their values and giving consideration to:

    • what things they can control or influence and how to be willing to accept (which doesn’t mean what you think) and move through what can’t be controlled or influenced (discussed here)

    • understanding how are memories and past experiences can interfere with our decision-making (discussed here)

To make decisions, I often use a variety of decision-making tools from both. My favorites from ACT are: the Matrix, the Choice Point, and the Life Map. Here’s a very straightforward one using the Choice Point model from Russ Harris.

Although the tools are different, they have general components in common. I’ll run through brainstorming some decisions on actions to take for a mid-level associate in a large law firm hoping to leave his or her law firm. (Um, I have absolutely no idea who that could be. Er, just a little me-search).  

Typically, I use a visual tool for this exercise. However, for this article, I am going to describe the written narrative version of the visual tools I typically use. And this would be a cue to finalize the tool and post it to my website!)

Here’s a narrative version, which shows the primary components of making a decision on what actions to take.

You can journal these out to start the process.

Key Steps for Decision-Making


Please complete all the steps above to be present, aware, and emotionally regulated and clear on your values and goals.

(Seriously, that’s a whole lot to ask, I get it. If you’re looking for the quickest pathway there – I typically recommend the Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris or if you have experienced trauma, grief, or loss When Life Hits Hard by Russ Harris).

Step 1: What Matters Most to You Now?

First, you decide what matters most to you in this moment with regard to the decision. This involves values clarification, which is discussed in this blog article. External circumstances can change this, so it’s important to revisit if that happens. 

Check out my article on values here. Then, select a few valued domains to emphasize and a few specific values and jot those down.

  • Valued domains that often come up in a job change are work or career, learning or education, personal growth, and relationships (parenting, family, and partner).

  • Values that might come up in relationships are being present and engaged, loving and supporting, adventurous or playful, etc. Values that might come up in work or career are things like being collaborative, authentic, autonomous, creative, etc. So, you would go through and choose those that were most important. 

Here, we typically are organizing goals around these values that will then link to specific values-based actions (see “towards moves” below).

Step 2: What Gets in the Way of Doing What Matters? What hooks you?

Second, after identifying and clarifying what matters, then you consider what difficult thoughts, urges, feelings, sensations, memories, or images come up when you try to take values-based action and hook you. These “hooks” often lead us away from what matters to us, so it’s important that we have a pregame strategy to handle or reappraise them.

There is a VERY important neurobiological reason for this.

When you are currently stressed or have been dealing with chronic stress for a long time, your sympathetic nervous system is engaged and your amygdala and other neural circuitry involved in alerting you to fear are in the driver’s seat. We need your prefrontal cortex to be in the driver’s seat.

By identifying and becoming aware of these hooks you are engaging present moment awareness, language, and reasoning which all involve the prefrontal cortex. When these hooks come up again, your hippocampus will also remember that you’ve “coped ahead,” so to speak. 

This is similar to why athletes and military special forces overlearn plays or protocols to run during extreme stress situations so that the prefrontal cortex will engage faster with more automaticity.

Take a moment to identify some of your hooks. Here are some examples of common hooks for a lawyer considering leaving his or her job: 

  • Thoughts: “I will never find another job that pays this much money” or “My partner / family / random person in a coffee shop will think I’m stupid for leaving” or “No other job offers me the prestige of being a lawyer”

  • Urges: Scroll social media, read the news, procrastinate about doing my resume, buy something on Amazon

  • Physical Sensations related to emotions – quite literally “feelings”: (These are really important as this is the brain’s first signal that you can spot in your body. These sensations are unconscious. With emotions, remember, it’s like Star Wars – “feel don’t think” or body first) Tension in chest, holding breath, fidgeting, stomach pain, butterflies, flushed face

  • Emotions: Shame, fear, regret

  • Memories: My family smiling at me at my law school graduation, Remembering how proud they all were of me

  • Images: My Audi, our empty house, moving boxes (this is that virtual reality of headset of doom that your brain can come up with in a flash!)

To take any action towards your values, you will have to walk or swim past these hooks, so a key component to making and implementing a decision is the willingness to “embrace the suck,” as high-performance athletes say. (See my last article that mentions willingness here).

Just this basic step of observing and acknowledging these hooks leverages your prefrontal cortex to give you a break from the virtual reality headset. I call it “name it to tame it.”

Step 3 - What Do You Typically Do When You’re Hooked? (“Away Moves”)

Third, identify your “away moves” – those actions or behaviors you tend to take or have the urge to take when all of the hooks (that is – the difficult thoughts, emotions, urges, memories, sensations, etc. identified above). This is the “hooked” way. 

Often, these actions have some short-term payoff by relieving discomfort or pain temporarily but there’s little to no long-term or lasting benefit.

This is tough to admit for many people. Being vulnerable here is tough, yet it will pay off when we’re trying to reverse engineer towards what matters to you.

Here are some examples of common away moves that people have shared on changing jobs:

  • Waste time in people’s offices or on lunch breaks with people who tend to complain alot or talk about everything that is wrong with our jobs

  • Self-medicate after work with unhealthy food, binge-watching, playing video games, excessive cleaning or organizing

  • Cancel or not attend things that I enjoy – book club, language class, dinner at my brother’s house, working out, fitness group

  • Stay up too late in a twisted attempt to seek revenge for my job taking away all of my life

  • Remain distant from my partner to numb by avoiding talking about my day, physical intimacy, or any other expectations that I can fail at. 

  • Read career change books or listen to podcasts every day but taking no action on networking or updating my resume.

Step 4 - What Actions Can You Take that Will Get You Closer to What Matters? (“Towards Moves”)

Finally, identify your “toward moves.” These are the actions that you could take towards your values or maybe have taken in the past and noticed it works. To actually do these, you will need to be willing to do them. This is the “unhooked” way – going through not around. 

Typically, at this stage, you are just brainstorming actions that you could take. 

Before actually taking action, it’ helps to set values-aligned goals and then get specific about the behaviors or actions that you can take to move the ball forward in the form of a strategic, action plan that links values and goals to specific behaviors. 

An example of a strategic brainstorming plan for beginning stages of exploring a job change might include this:

I want to focus on the following values for this exercise: Work that involves – flexibility, authentic, creative, independent, collaborative, involves working with and helping others

I have set the following SMART goals to target these values: Gather information from firsthand sources on career opportunities within and outside of law by taking specific actions each week

I am committing to engaging in the following specific behaviors that are linked to my values:

  1. Cut out time going to get coffee downstairs, talking with complainer / hater people during the day and timeblock that on my schedule as time for career

  2. Identify jobs within and outside law that will be more consistent with my list of important values

  3. Write draft resume for jobs outside and inside law (start with outside jobs to honor my dedication to authenticity and creativity as an experiment) 

  4. Make a list of alumni contacts inside and outside of law this week

  5. Draft emails to at least 2 contacts per week starting Monday

  6. Work with my coach to prepare a written script to ask for a flexible work schedule

A Few Extra Tips

When planning actions there are a few principles that guide my work in decision-making with ACT:

  1. Low Hanging Fruit. Why not borrow from law when you can? Law involves a lot of discussions about fruit actually – low-hanging fruit, fruits of poisonous trees, etc. Ok, I digress.

    When choosing a place to make a change, it’s helpful to choose some low-hanging fruit goals for action. These would be places where you estimate high motivation and low resistance to success. Taking action here will give you confidence in your abilities faster and give you a boost to your dopaminergic system that will further increase your motivation.

  2. What Does Your Experience Tell You? Because the human mind loves to predict the future (although it’s a terrible fortune teller), we tend to time travel there and make decisions in the present as if the future has already happened. So, instead of spending all of your time worrying about the future (what might happen out there if) or ruminating about the past (what happened back there then), it would be switching things up and getting out of your head and into your life.

    Instead, test your hypothesis by collecting data or observing things in the real world. So instead of listening to a thought like, “they will never let me work an alternative work schedule,” it’s making a plan to ask for exactly that. If that’s too much, then it’s starting with lower hanging fruit and working your way up to it. Overwhelm doesn’t help decision-making.

  3. Tiny Steps/Big Leaps or One Thing Principle. One problem that hangs up most of us when we make decisions is that we have linked those decisions to goals that are too big, too complex, and often linked to things we can’t even control. This leads to “being hooked” as discussed above. To avoid this, it helps to break things down into smaller and smaller behaviors. The question often becomes: what is one that that you could do to move towards your values? And if it’s something like a job change, an answer like “quitting” might feel way too big and hook you, so it might be breaking it down to something smaller like “talking to 1 – 2 networking contacts per week” or “setting up a few informational interviews a month.”

  4. Be SMART. You’ve probably already heard of SMART goals. SMART goals are those that are:

    • Specific

    • Measurable

    • Actionable

    • Realistic

    • Time-Limited

    When setting goals or actions, it is very helpful to use this principle. This will help preserve clarity and parsimony. We are much more likely to do what is easy and straightforward. If things are messy or complex, our brain is going to resist. So keep it simple, and when in doubt clarify and simplify.

  5. Honor Your Resistance. One of the reasons people hate to make decisions is that when we choose one path, in that moment, our brains can see the loss of the other choice as a death. And if you’re getting pretty metaphysical like in this exact moment in time and all, that’s accurate. However, there are very few failures that don’t teach you something, and very few that will kill you. But when you choose the roaed less traveled, please give yourself some serious credit. Self-compassion and self-validation are tough skills to master, but it helps calm your limbic system like a boss. If you can, validate why it’s hard to let go of what’s safe even if it’s bad for us. We come prewired for it.

Making decisions about which actions to take when you are feeling stuck are difficult. This exercise is one that you can use to simplify the process using ACT so that you can brainstorm and work towards developing a strategic, values-based action plan.

Remember with taking action that it is always about taking the first step. One of the wisest things that I’ve ever read came not from a neuroscience textbook, but from a sign in a Mathnasium bathroom:

“Mistakes are grist for the mill. They are what sharpens the stone.”

— Dr. J


Making Decisions Using the Choice Point, Dr. Russ Harris

What is the Matrix? (Life Map Adaptation)

The ACT Matrix, Dr. Kevin Polk

For more information on the specifics of time-blocking, see Indistractable by Nir Eyal.

For hardcore neuroscience geeks, Behave by Robert M. Sapolsky. He rocks!


Our psychologists use research-based methods which can help you with making better decisions and improving your decisionmaking in work and life.

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