We all have to make decisions every day. Small things, like what to eat or what to wear, medium things like the direction of a project, and the really big stuff, like what kind of career we want to have. Add in a healthy dose of uncertainty, a desire to ensure our actions match our intentions, and a world that seems to get more and more absurd with every news cycle, and it’s no wonder that many of us feel overwhelmed or even paralyzed as we attempt to make the best decisions for ourselves.

Big decisions, at least for me, are the hardest ones. What do I want for my career? Where, and how, do I want to live? What kind of relationships do I want to have with my family and friends, and how do I plan for the future? These questions can keep me up at night, wondering what the right move is, or terrified of the consequences of a wrong decision. Furthermore, these aren’t the sort of things that I can decide once and then be done with. We all need to continually commit to the decisions we make, do the work that matters to support our vision, and be willing to pivot when things don’t line up with what we truly want.

A Simple Exercise for Finding Personal Clarity

Whenever I am feeling stuck or uncertain about a particular area of my life, I use this simple exercise to gain greater clarity about what I want (and don’t want) for myself: the must-have and deal-breaker list. Taking the time to sit down and write out a list of what you want and don’t want, in a particular area of your life, can be an incredibly powerful exercise in clarity.

Now, this isn’t about The Secret, putting positive vibes out into the “universe,” or conjuring your dream job/relationship/living situation, etc. out of thin air. It is a clarifying exercise to help identify what is truly important to you, and to make decisions based on your vision for your life.

Let’s use the example of job searching and career planning. This is an easy example for me. I made exactly this kind of list at the start of my job search a few years ago. It allowed me to know that I was making the right decisions, both in turning down positions or stepping away from interview processes where there wasn’t a great fit, and in accepting a role, confident that it was the right choice for me.

Must-Haves and Deal-BreakersMy must-have list included things like:

  • A high degree of autonomy in how I manage my time and workload
  • A role that would involve complex problem solving
  • Opportunities to spend a lot of time writing and editing
  • A clear and defined path toward career advancement (both in skills and compensation)
  • Working with a highly collaborative team

My list of deal-breakers included:

  • A commute longer than 45 minutes each way
  • A boss who took themselves too seriously or always acted like the smartest person in the room
  • Working for a micro-manager and/or frequent interruptor
  • Working with team members who think of junior employees as beneath them
  • A role that involved a high proportion of maintenance/uncreative work

Notice that these list items are all about me—my vision, my wants, my ambitions. They have very little to do with any particular job or workplace. We should all mine our previous or current experiences and learn our lessons from them. However, if you do this exercise yourself, I’d encourage you to think more broadly than just about what you would change in your current circumstances. If you are constantly reacting, you run the risk of bouncing from one unideal situation to the next, and losing sight of what is most important to you.

Observing Must-Haves and Deal-Breakers in the Wild

This exercise can help you focus on what is important to you, to be proactive instead of reactive, and to move closer to the vision you have for your life.


Now, it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to walk into a job interview (or decision-making process), and be able to sit down and run through your list of must-haves/deal-breakers like a checklist. When I was interviewing for my current position, I couldn’t just ask my prospective boss if they were an egomaniac, or if they thought people in junior roles were inferior to them. But I was able to look for signals that helped me to evaluate them—and having my must-have/deal-breaker list close by helped me direct my attention and questions to uncover those signals.

Throughout the interview process, I could see that my potential employer valued my time and opinions (they started our first interview asking what questions I had, instead of launching straight into their own). They didn’t take themselves too seriously (a few self-deprecating jokes go a long way in my books). And that they consistently treated everyone they interacted with respectfully (they were kind and courteous to the waitstaff at the restaurant where we met in person). The role was virtual/remote, and I’d be able to set my own schedule (autonomy? Check. Short commute? Double check). I was 100% willing to walk away from the process if my needs hadn’t been met, and so delighted to eventually accept the position, confident that it was the right move for me.

I invite you to try this exercise today. Pick an area of your life where you’re feeling unsure about what path to take, pull out a notebook, and start thinking about what is truly most important to you. Refer back to your list as you navigate through the complex decisions that you need to make each day. Do you have what you truly need? Is there something that feels unacceptable? This list can help you have the courage to pursue what matters, and to walk away from things that detract from your happiness. We live in a noisy, complicated world—and this exercise can help you focus on what is important to you, to be proactive instead of reactive, and to move closer to the vision you have for your life.

Featured Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Additional Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash
Big decisions are tough. What do I want for my career? Where, and how, do I want to live? This simple exercise will help you find personal clarity and make your next big decision considerably less daunting.