Decisions vs. Choices: Is There a Distinction?

By June 19, 2012Generations

Life Choices. Leadership Choices.Does it matter if there is a difference between decision and choice? It may.

The line between what constitutes a decision versus a choice may be slight. Let’s look at the definitions in

Decision:  the act of or need for making up one’s mind.

Choice:  the right, power, or opportunity to choose.

When you dive in deeper, the origins of the two words are interesting. Decision comes from “cutting off” while choice comes from “to perceive.” Taking the origins and definitions together, we may gain some clarity.

With decision, it is more of a process orientation, meaning we are going through analysis and steps to eliminate (or, cut off) options.

With choice, it is more of a mindset approach, meaning we have a perception of what the right or wrong choice may be.

Does this all matter? I believe it does.

We can easily setup processes to enable the best decisions possible. The decisions can range in scope from being low impact to high impact, and we can build in checks and balances along the way in reaching a decision. It can be a thoughtful, thorough approach.

With choices, we face opportunities – large and small – to select or choose an option. Although we may put thought into the larger choices we make, the smaller ones may be more instinctively made.

We make choices based on our values, beliefs, and perceptions of where a selected one may take us. One of life’s responsibilities is centered here in that we need to spend time building our choice senses and systems.

Choices are more difficult. At times, we cannot collect all the data, analyze the options, and reach a sound conclusion. Time escapes us to “cut off” certain options because life choices fit a different model. Choices involve our life more in which path we select and the direction – intended or unintended – it then takes us.

Here is the kicker. We may make many decisions during a day, week, or month, but how many life or leadership choices do we really make?

We can go through our life making decisions on where to live, work, and play, but do we make the choice of how to best live or lead?

We should take the time to make more proactive choices in setting a life and leadership direction.

We can spend our lifetime making all sorts of decisions, yet we spend little, if any, time making distinctive life choices.

I believe we may need to focus more on making choices than making decisions. We need to make real and necessary choices on how to lead our life in the most purposeful way possible.

Three key points:

  1. Life choices set a direction, so spend the time to develop a mindset on how to build a meaningful future.
  2. Choose how to lead. How we lead our teams and our work demands a thoughtful approach, meaning we need to define the presence we want through our actions and interactions.
  3. Decisions still matter, so use a process to prune out the bad options and select the best ones possible.

Make life and leadership choices. Live inspired choices.

What distinction would you make between choice and decision? Where do you spend more of your time?

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

Latest posts by Jon Mertz (see all)

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • James Copple says:

    I think a choice is an illusion. We make decisions, but when there is a conflicting desire between different judgment processes in the brain of which we have a conscious awareness and one of these judgments ‘wins’, it feels like we have made a choice. It’s all atoms under determinism though – unless you can prove a supernatural agency controlling our brain by supernatural remote control.

  • Vinny says:

    Interesting observations and distinction between choice and decision. Our decisions ifif seen as “cutoff” must lead to higher value in some measureable form-most often M1 money and in some instances tangible or intangible value (volume of sales or size of organization). Choice on the other hand is often limited to a binary process which has to be according to Akerloff Spence model the clearing height which most often gravitates to hard choices of value creation.
    Very seldom has anyone seen anyone win with hard choices although impossible as it may be sometimes the last choice leads to 1 or 0 (life or death).

  • Scott Mueller says:

    I love this distinction that I learned from Landmark Education. It has helped me think sooo clearly and kids really get it much easier than adults. I think deductive reasoners get this distinction much quicker than inductive reasoners. If you see kick back on this chances are the person is inductively processing anyway. So the decision seems more effective because they get time to process.

  • Lodown says:

    Hello John–
    I was browsing the web
    and stumbled over your post. Very interesting frame. Thanks for the insight.

    I totally respect your thoughts – on the topic of, Decisions vs. Choices. However, I am VERY stubborn, to accept your theory, on putting more emphasis on ‘Making
    Choices’ over ‘Making Decisions’. In any case, I do personally believe that both ‘Choices’ AND ‘Decision Making’, should carry the same consideration process towards a favorable conclusion… but for you to say: “We may need to focus more on making choices than making decisions.” …sounds a bit misleading/misinformed! …and here’s why:

    I think it is a bit naive – to believe that there’s always ‘Choices’ in life. In most cases, when traveling through life, there aren’t always choices! In most cases, you’ll see yourself trying to DECIDE on how to go about carrying-out/dealing with issues/situations in life. When you don’t have any ‘Choices’, all conclusions are then born via the hierarchy…in which is “The ‘Decision’ Making Process.” Decisions of when—how—where, etc… Overall, I truly believe, that the power of ‘Choosing’ falls under the strict umbrella of ‘Making Decisions’. Wish I had more time to explain this.

    Final argument:
    I think it is somewhat NAIVE to try to ‘Choose’ a wife…but yet more realistic to
    ‘Decide’ on whether you want to HAVE her AS your wife!! …It’s a bit NAIVE to ‘Choose’ a job offering…when there’s only ONE job offered!!…thus meaning – you have to make a DECISION!! It’s not as simple as a ‘CHOICE’ to accept OR deny a job offering; but it is meaningful, to make a thoughtful, CONSIDERATE ‘Decision’ to accept or deny the job offering. Please focus on the word ‘CONSIDERATE’… furthermore, take a look at the Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word Considerate:
    1: ”’continuous”’ and careful thought
    2: a matter weighed or taken into account when formulating an opinion or plan b : a taking into account
    3: thoughtful and sympathetic regard
    4: an opinion obtained by reflection

    –See John…when talking of simply making ‘Choices’, there’s nothing whatsoever within the definition-contents of the word ‘Choice’ – that includes any talk about being CONSIDERATE; and as we should all know, when being at the constant crossroads of life—whether via ‘Choice’ or ‘Decision’ (whatever we prefer to believe), such conclusion should be thought upon, from the pure root of Consideration. Whether considerate for your family…Considerate for other people that may be involved…yet more importantly – considerate for YOURSELF!!

    I truly see the “ART” of ‘Decision Making’ is a more thoughtful, CONSIDERATE driven process…where as with ‘Choices, sounds a lil’ more careless and candy-store like! In real life, when we make plans—-those plans are driven by Decisions!! It is hard to say that plans are driven with ‘Choices; simply because, the whole preference of planning deals with making the choices in the beginning. It’s during the process of the plan, were the ‘Decision Making’ process is always relevant. But again, in most cases, situations/problems do not come with CHOICES!! It takes strong Decision Making skills to create your OWN choices…not vice versa.

    As I close, let’s look at the word, Decisions. Check how ‘Decision’ and ‘Consideration’ forms a union.
    ‘DECISION’ (via Merriam-Webster)
    1a : the act or process of deciding b : a determination arrived at after ”’consideration”’ : conclusion

    —see the key word,
    consideration!! This word is vvvvery important!! The word ‘Choice’ doesn’t want anything to do with the word ‘consideration’.

    –The difficulties of ‘Choice’, resides within the depth of the ‘Decision Making’ process!!

    • Lodown says:

      Apologies for the misspelling of your name, Jon.

      Also, please respect my position on the disagreement of your thought…furthermore,
      please reply. I’ve been debating all of my nature life…nonetheless, this is how
      I learn. Please enlighten me- if you disagree with my thoughts.

      Thnaks, Jon

      • Jon M says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful perspective. I definitely see your viewpoint on this. I guess I look at choices as more the context in which we make decisions. Choices set a direction, and decisions help us carry out that direction. To use your example, I choose the type of characteristics I would like in a spouse, and then I make decisions on who to date and marry based on those choices. The hope is the decisions reinforce the initial choices.

        I am glad you found this post and offered your insights on it. If you have written anything on this topic, please direct me to it. I would welcome the opportunity to read more.

        Thanks! Jon

        • Ash says:

          I think it’s an egg and chicken situation. You have to decide what type of spouse you want based on how she might compliment your life. Then make a choice on whether that’s what you really want when you meet said spouse.

        • Ash says:

          I say this because when you decide on the attributes for your wife it is a logical analysis of your own personality and how he/she may or may not be compatible. But when you meet said spouse, they could tick all the boxes which you decided on before hand but whether you marry or not is based on feelings, values or perception at the time, not a logical process and there for us a choice

    • Rob says:

      Decisions are a process of analysis… choices are more derived from observation and realization… you cannot analize your way to observation or realization…as a matter of fact analysis often gets in the way of realization…ask any writer who gets writer’s block. Observation is a higher form of thinking…you can observe analysis in your own mind, but you can never analyze your own observation (the attempt to do so is hypnosis)…Although the Aristotelian way of reasoning has prevailed in this modern age…his instructor, Plato, hit in more on the mark in that we can never reason our way to goodness because emotion always gets in the way…thanks to Aristotle, today we are mostly a society of decision makers, hypnotically believing we have been make real choices all along…instead we just have more of the same decisions chopped up into more refined analytical pieces…and the chefs are all hypnotists.

  • Will be using this in my workforce development class today. Well done.

  • shawmu says:

    This is a great distinction. One of which Susan and I have discussed. So it was good to see that she weighed in on your message. I would add one thing about choice. Choice is also just because. Meaning, I choose to lead for no other reason but because I chose. 

    Keep these great conversations going, Jon.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks, Shawn! Appreciate your comments… will definitely keep it going. More to come on Tuesday next week, too, during the #leadfromwithin tweet chat. Appreciate all you do. Jon

  • Deeone Higgs says:

    Very nice break down of the two, Jon. Many people aren’t privy of the differences. I was recently corrected of this very thing, by a friend of mine. We had a very friendly debate about the differences – your post here has confirmed what my friend was sharing with me; so I will be making a phone call to stand corrected, shortly after leaving this message and sharing it, as well.

    Taking that into consideration, it’s only been within the last couple of years that I have gotten into the choice making realm of living. As my influence grows, I have found it more important to be mindful of my choices – I believe as the saying goes, “With much power, comes an even greater responsibility.” As a leader, I think we have to take into consideration both really – our decisions and choices, alike – simply because we never truly know whether either of them could potentially cause someone else to falter. I have become a lot more mindful that “making distinctive life choices” ensures that I am providing a role model to those that are to come behind me. 
    This was an insightful read, my friend. Thank you for shining a illuminating light on the topic. Cheers. 

    • Jon M says:

      Grateful for your insights, Deeone. I agree. We need to make both choices and decisions in a thoughtful and intentional way. They are hooked together with our choices providing the guidance for our decisions.

      I am glad this will help continue the conversation with your friend… good discussions to have! 

      Thanks again.  Jon

  • Great post Jon.  Interesting perspective on the terms. 

    A while back, I had the chance to speak with Liz Strauss, who made a different distinction between the two terms.  She reversed the terms, but she did so in such a memorable way, that I still remember this over a year later.  Choices in her way of thinking are those things we make all the time, like what brand of cat food we buy or what flavor of ice cream we get.  But when we de-cide, like homo-cide, we kill all the other options. 

    It’s just a slightly different perspective, but it’s one that has helped me force rank priorities and back up my choices with action that moved me in the direction I really want to go.

    Thanks again for the post and reminder.

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you for your insights, Mike. It is an interesting twist, and I will need to look up that post by Liz Strauss. I am suggesting that our choices provide the context in which our decisions should be made. True, there are smaller choices we make. How we make those smaller choices showcase what foundation we have in place… snap choices test our consistency.

      Anyway, this is an interesting topic to explore, and it is one of the key reasons I started this blog! 

      We will be exploring this topic more during next week’s #leadfromwithin tweet chat. I am excited to be a guest in this community facilitated by Lolly Daskal.

      Again, I really appreciate your time and comments. Great additions!


  • I agree, this is a very thought provoking article Jon. Ultimately we’re talking about living intentionally and heading down that path begins with the choice to live life on our own terms. Only when decisions are made based on that fundamental life choice will all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together to create our best life. Thanks for this great read!

    • Jon M says:

      Agree, Marquita! It is about intentional living and leading, and it makes a huge difference when we frame decisions around this. Life and leadership choices – maybe – are the framework in which decisions should be made. Grateful for your insights! Jon

  • Susan Mazza says:

    This is a great distinction presented in a thought provoking way John.  In particular I love this line…”We can go through our life making decisions on where to live, work, and play, but do we make the choice of how to best live or lead?”

    One of my favorite songs is Hold it Up to the Light by David Wilcox.  There is a line in that song that goes “I was dead with deciding, afraid to choose.  I was mourning the loss of the choices I’d lose…”  When we choose what kind of leader we want to be, how we want our lives to look, what our values are, etc. a lot of options fall off the table and somehow I think those moment to moment decisions become a lot easier. 

    Your post has me thinking that when struggling over a decision, perhaps a question to ask ourselves – what choice would each decision imply relative to the things that matter most to me?

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks for your insights, Susan. It seems that we have blended decisions and choices into a similar “bucket” of thought and approach, but they are different. 

      I agree that if we make our life and leadership choices, our decisions will be made with greater clarity and purpose. And, this then comes back to the question you added: “What choice would each decision imply relative to the things that matter most to me?”

      Appreciate you joining the conversation! Jon

Leave a Reply