How to make tough career decisions

“Should I quit my job? Which of my offers should I take? Which long-term options should I explore?

These decisions will affect how you spend years of your time, so the stakes are high. But they’re also an area where you shouldn’t expect your intuition to be a reliable guide. This means it’s worth taking a more systematic approach.

What might a good career decision process look like? A common approach is to make a pro and con list, but it’s possible to do a lot better. Pro and con lists make it easy to put too much weight on an unimportant factor. More importantly, they don’t encourage you to make use of the most powerful decision-making methods discovered in the literature.

In this article, we present a step-by-step process for making your next career decision, drawing on our impression of the most useful discoveries in decision-making research1 and our experience advising hundreds of people one-on-one.

Career decisions usually involve a huge amount of uncertainty. If you sometimes feel stressed or anxious, don’t worry – this is normal. We can’t make your next decision easy, but if you work through this process, we think you’ll be more likely to avoid common mistakes and take the best next step you can.

You can work through the article below, or use a simplified version in our tool.

First, make sure you have a clear idea of exactly what decision you want to make. Are you choosing where to apply, between two specific offers, which medium-term options to focus on, or something else? When do you need to decide by?

Also note that this process is geared towards choosing between a list of specific options. If you want to do big picture career planning, see our career plan page.

Write out your most important priorities

Once you’re clear about the next decision you need to make, write out your 4-7 most important priorities in making the decision. When making decisions, people usually focus on too narrow a set of goals. Writing out your list of factors will help you stay focused on what most matters.

We typically recommend that people focus on the factors in our framework, which we think capture most of the key elements in high-impact careers. They include the following:

  • Impact potential – how pressing is the problem addressed and how large a contribution might the typical person in this career make to the problem (in expectation)?
  • Personal fit – compared to the typical person in this career in the long-term, how productive do you expect to be?
  • Personal satisfaction – how would this path satisfy other important personal priorities that aren’t already covered?
  • Career capital — does this option significantly accelerate you in a long-term path, or otherwise open up better long-term options?
  • Option value — if you pursue this option, how good are your back-up plans?
  • Value of information — might this path be an outstanding long-term option that you’re uncertain about and can test out?

If working with a community, you might also consider:

  • Relative fit – how do your strengths compare to other community members focusing on these issues (which determines your comparative advantage)?
  • Community capital — does this increase the influence of the community and its ability to coordinate?

Read more description of these factors in the full articles.

This list of factors needs to be adapted depending on the decision you’re making. For instance, if you’re thinking about your long-term options, then focus on impact, personal fit and satisfaction. If you’re considering which job to take next year, then also consider value of information, career capital and option value.

Also try to make the factors more specific based on your situation. What type of career capital is most valuable? What signals best predict impact in the areas you’re focused on? What exactly are your priorities in personal satisfaction? On the latter, it’s important to try to be honest, even about your least noble motivations, or otherwise the path won’t be sustainable.

See a list of all the factors in our framework and a worksheet here.

There are also some other filters to consider:

  • Do a significant number of people think this option is likely to have a negative impact in a top area? If so, can you modify the option to avoid the risk? If not, eliminate it. Read more about accidental harm.
  • Does this option pose a significant risk of a long-term negative impact on your happiness or career capital? If so, modify it or eliminate it.

One of the most important mistakes when making career decisions is to consider too few options. Some research suggests that even just making sure you consider one extra option improves satisfaction with outcomes.

You can generate options for long-term career paths using our article on high-impact careers.

If you’re focusing on your next step, then also consider questions like:

  • Which jobs / courses / projects will best help you get into your top long-term options?
  • Which options will best help you test out your long-term options?
  • What ‘open doors’ are available right now?

Check out the jobs listed on our job board

Here are some other ways to come up with more options. Pick and choose whichever seem most useful to think about:

  • Career capital – What’s the most valuable career capital you have right now? What are your greatest strengths? How could these be applied to having an impact?
  • Ideal world – What would you do if money were no object? What is your dream job?
  • Ask your friends and connections – Do they know of any open positions or types of jobs that might suit you?
  • Priorities – For each of your key career goals, which options might be best? For instance, in which career do you have the best chance of excelling? Which career do you think is highest-impact? Which would most increase your career capital? Which would make you happiest?
  • Combinations – are there any ways your top options could be combined to get the best of all worlds?
  • Elimination – if you couldn’t do any of your top options, what would you do instead?

Now you’ve got your options on the table, put them in a rough order according to how well they satisfy the factors you wrote down at step two. Don’t worry too much about accuracy – we just want to get a rough idea at this stage to make it easier to do the next couple of steps. Now is also a good time to capture some outcomes in your career plan.

List your key uncertainties

Try to identify the information that is most likely to change your ranking.

The questions people most commonly ask us are often not actually decision relevant. Frequently, people focus on big picture questions that are too hard to settle, so thinking about them is unlikely to change their ranking. It’s also easy to get lost ruminating about the huge variety of issues that can be relevant. Try to focus on the questions that are most relevant.

Some useful questions to consider include:

  • How could you most easily rule out your top option?
  • If you had to decide your career tomorrow for the rest of your life, what would you do today?
  • What were you most uncertain about in making your ranking? Do any of those uncertainties seem easy to resolve?

Some of the most common questions are things like:

  • Would I enjoy this job?
  • Could I get this job?
  • What skills are required to get this job?
  • How pressing is this problem compared to other issues you could work on?
  • How much influence would you really have in this position?

Try to make the questions as specific as possible.

Not every decision in life deserves serious research, but career decisions do.

We often find people get stuck analysing their options, when it would be better to go and gather information or test out their options. For instance, we encountered an academic who wanted to take a year long sabbatical, but wasn’t sure where to go. They’d thought about the decision for a while, but hadn’t considered going to visit their top choice for a week, which would have likely made the decision a lot easier.

Here are some common ways to learn about your options (in ascending order of effort):

  • Often the most useful step now is to go and ask people about your key uncertainties. Once you’ve identified your key uncertainties as in the previous section, you should be able to ask pointed, specific questions that can reveal a lot about what’s best.
  • Is there something you could read?
  • Can you simply apply to the job (or course) and see how you do? In our experience, people should often make more applications.
  • Is there a cheap way to try out the work? (e.g. shadow someone, do an internship, a part-time project, online course). Trying things out is the most reliable way to work out what you enjoy and what you’re good at.
  • See our career reviews and list of priority paths for specific ways to learn about and test the paths we’ve reviewed.

Aim to do the cheaper tests before you do those that are more involved. We sometimes encounter people who decide to quit their job so they can work full time on their job search, sometimes without even having a specific plan in mind, but it usually seems better to us investigate in cheaper ways on the side first.

The higher the stakes of a decision, the more uncertain you are, and the cheaper it is to learn more, the more research it’s worth doing.

Keep investigating until you run out of time, or don’t expect to learn much without investing lots more time (technically, when the value of information is less than the cost of the test).

The aim is not confidence. You will likely always be uncertain about many aspects of your career. Instead, the aim is to find the best possible ranking using cheap tests and basic research. Once you’ve done that, the most efficient way to learn more is probably to pick an option and try it out.

Make your final assessment

When you’ve finished investigating, it’s time to make a decision. Here are some more decision-making tips to help make your ranking more accurate.

It can be useful to score your short-list of options on each of the factors listed in your second step from one to ten. There’s some evidence that making a structured decision like this can improve accuracy. It can be useful to add all your scores together and see what ranks highest. Don’t blindly use the score to determine your decision — it’s mainly a means of probing your thinking.

When it comes to assessing each factor, there are more tips on what to look for in our career framework article.

If you want to go into more detail in making your assessment, then also consider working out the following for each of your options:

  • The upside scenario – what happens in a plausible best case scenario? (To be more precise, the top 5% of outcomes.)
  • The downside scenario – what happens in a plausible worst case scenario? (Worst 5% of outcomes.)
  • The median – what’s most likely to happen?

This exercise helps to make sure you consider the full range of possibilities. Moreover, if you weight each scenario by their probability, you can make a rough estimate of the expected value of each option — this will probably be dominated by the value of the upside scenario.

If you’re trying to decide your next step for the next couple of years, then value of information should be a significant part of your decision. This can mean it’s best to simply focus on the paths with the best upside scenario rather than the best expected value (provided the downsides are similar).

After you’ve finished your assessments, take a break, and re-rank your options.

Once you’ve made a ranking, notice if your gut feels uneasy about something. You can’t simply go with your gut to make good career decisions, but you shouldn’t ignore your gut either. As we cover, your intuition is good at aspects of the decision where you’ve had lots of opportunity to practice with relatively quick feedback, such as whether the other people involved are trustworthy.

If your gut feels uneasy, try to pinpoint why you’re having that reaction, and whether it makes sense to go with your gut or not in this instance. The ideal of good decision-making is to combine intuitive and systematic methods, and use the best aspects of each.

It’s also a good idea to sleep on it. This may help you process the information. It also reduces the chance that you’ll be unduly influenced by your mood at that moment.

If you want to go further, here are some other techniques to help reduce bias in your thinking:

  • Ask yourself why you’re most likely to be wrong about your ranking.This is one of the most useful tips to reduce bias.
  • Pre-mortem and pre-party: Imagine that you take an option, but two years later you’ve failed and regret the decision — what went wrong? Then imagine that instead the option was way better than you expected — what happened? This helps to expand your views about what’s possible, which tend to be too narrow.
  • Change the frame. Imagine you’ve already made the decision, how do you feel? How do you expect to feel one year later? What about 10 years later? What would you advise a friend to do?
  • Ask other people. Having to justify your reasoning to someone else can quickly uncover holes. You can also ask people where they think you’re most likely to be wrong.

More advanced decision-making techniques

There is much more to say about how to make good decisions. For instance, often decisions come down to predictions, especially about your likely chances of success in area, and the expected impact of different interventions.

For instance, to make better predictions, you can make base-rate forecasts from many angles, combining them based on their predictive power. You should try to update on your evidence in a ‘bayesian’ way. You can break down the prediction into multiple components as a ‘fermi estimate’. And you can try to improve your calibration through training.

Here is some further reading we recommend on decision-making:

Here is some more advanced reading:

Make your best guess, and then prepare to adapt

At some point, you’ll need to make a decision. If you’re lucky, one of your options will be clearly better than the others. Otherwise, the decision will be tough.

Don’t be too hard on yourself: the aim is to make the best choice you can given the evidence available. If you’ve been through the process above then you have put yourself in a position to make a well-considered decision.

What’s more, there are some further steps you can take to reduce downsides.

First, create a backup plan if your top choice doesn’t work out.

  • Why is your top option most likely not to work out?
  • What will you do in this situation? List any promising nearby alternatives to plan A, and call them your ‘plan B’. For instance, if you’re already in a job and applying to a masters programme, one possibility is that you don’t get into the programmes you want. In that case, your Plan B might be to stay in your job another year.
  • We often cover nearby alternatives and ‘exit options’ in our career reviewsand profiles on priority paths.

You may face even more setbacks, so it’s also useful to figure out a ‘Plan Z’. Here are some questions to help you do that.

  • If you take your top option, what might the worst case scenario be? Many risks are not as bad as they first seem, but pay attention to anything that could permanently reduce your happiness or career capital.
  • How can you reduce the chances of the worst case happening? It’s difficult to give general advice, but there are often ways to mitigate the risks.
  • If the worst case scenario does happen, what will you do to cope? Call this your ‘Plan Z’. Some common options include: taking a temporary job to pay the bills (see some ideas here), moving back in with your parents, or living off savings. What makes most sense will again depend a lot on your situation.
  • Is your Plan Z tolerable? If not, then you should probably modify your plan A to build more career capital so that you’re in a better position to take risks (e.g. take a job that lets you save more money). If it is, great – hopefully this exercise will make it easier to commit to your Plan A.

A final point to bear in mind is that your next career step is probably only a commitment for 1-4 years — building a career is a step-by-step process, not a one-off decision — and if you plan ahead to that next revision point, you’ll be better able to focus on your top option in the meantime, as well as be more prepared when it arrives. Here are some extra steps to consider:

  1. Schedule in a time to review your career in six months or a year. We made a career review tool to make it easier.
  2. Set check-in points. Make a list of signs that would tell you you’re on the wrong path, and commit to reassessing if those occur. For example, publishing lots of papers in top journals is key to success in academic careers, so you could commit to reassessing the academic path if you don’t publish at least one paper in a top journal before the end of your PhD.

Once your plan is set, it’s time to focus on execution. How to execute is not the main focus of this article, but here are some further resources.

First, translate your plan into very concrete next steps. Write out what you’re going to do and when you’ll do it. Setting ‘implementation intentions’ makes it significantly more likely you’ll follow through.

To get more ideas on how to increase your chances of success in a path:

One of the most useful steps you can take is to team up with others who want to have an impact. There are many great communities out there, often focused around specific problems. Your first step should probably be to try to meet people in the communities most relevant to you.

We also helped to found the effective altruism community, which is a group of people who use evidence and reason to work out the best ways to have a positive impact. This community is not for everyone, but through it we’ve met some of the most impressive people we know. Find out more about how to get involved.

Notes and references

Some of the sources we drew upon include the following, as well as those listed above:

Ariely, Dan. Predictably irrational. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Arkes, Hal R., and Catherine Blumer. “The psychology of sunk cost.” Organizational behavior and human decision processes 35.1 (1985): 124-140.

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work. Random House, 2013.

Hubbard, Douglas W. “How to measure anything.” Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business (2007).

Keeney, Ralph L., and Ralph L. Keeney. Value-focused thinking: A path to creative decisionmaking. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011.

Larrick, Richard P. “Broaden the decision frame to make effective decisions.” Handbook of principles of organizational behavior (2009): 461-480.

Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.” Science 185.4157 (1974): 1124-1131.

  1. If you assess your options in terms of what would happen in a plausible best case scenario, rather than just in terms of expected value, then value of information will already be somewhat captured. This is the ‘upper confidence interval’ algorithm discussed in our podcast with Brian Christian
  • Vitas Consult are grateful to Robert Wiblin of 80000 Hours for granting permission to publish this article here.

Author: Vitas Consult