When I was a senior in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was six months from graduation, and I had two awesome opportunities ahead of me- I had been accepted to a fantastic graduate program and a domestic volunteering program. Both had so much promise, so how could I possibly pick one?
As I agonized over my decision, a mentor of mine helped guide me through the process of discernment. He provided me with a step-by-step process for making decisions based on the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, who wrote extensively on the topic. By the time I announced my decision to get my Master’s degree, I was feeling confident with the direction I had chosen for my life. Since then, I’ve used the same process countless times. So do you need to make a hard decision? This guide will make it feel easy.
1. Identify the decision that you are attempting to make, along with any and all potential outcomes.
This is the time to use your imagination. Go wild, and consider all the possible outcomes for the decision you need to make. Obviously, there are always factors that will remain unaccounted for, but it’s always best to make your decision after spending some time in prayer and reflection, considering how this decision might affect you in the future.
2. Take note of your gut feelings, intuition, and emotions.
If you are peacefully approaching the decision-making process and trust the Lord to guide you, then you can feel free to trust your gut. If you’re anxious and stressed while contemplating your choices, your emotions could lead you in the wrong direction. But if you’re at peace, your intuition can really help you know where God wants you. Even if you don’t choose to listen to your gut in the end, it’s always worth taking into consideration. Oftentimes, God places emotions and desires in our hearts because He really wants us to pursue them.
3. Create a pros and cons list.
I am a huge fan of the classic pros and cons list. The Ignatian discernment process uses a nuanced version of the classic list when making decisions. Begin by listing all the pros and cons regarding your decision. If you’re choosing between two options, create pros and cons lists for both options. Be exhaustive, and be honest with yourself. When I was debating between volunteering and continuing my education, the flexibility to return home frequently was a huge pro for getting my Master’s degree. That might be minor for some people, but it was extremely important to me.
4. Eliminate the lesser pros and cons. When I was discerning between volunteering and getting my Master’s degree, the fact that he volunteering program came with housing was a terrific pro. However, I also knew that if I chose to continue my education, I would have plenty of housing options (and another choice to make). The housing situation for the volunteer program was a convenient pro, but it wasn’t really an important one. Consider your priorities, and eliminate any lesser pros and cons.
5. Circle a maximum of the three most significant pros and cons surrounding your choice.
This is where my desires and gut feelings really came to the fore. As I reviewed what remained of my pros and cons lists, I could feel my heartstrings being pulled toward specific pros and cons that I was just not willing to part with. Identify those most important pros and cons on your list, and circle them.
6. Consider the number of circled pros and cons in general, as well as the nature of each pro and con specifically.
Once you’ve narrowed down your pros and cons list and highlighted those pros and cons that are most important to you, spend some time in prayer reflecting on what you’ve discovered so far in the discernment process. Weigh each pro and con individually, and reflect on how the discernment process might have changed how you feel about each of the options in front of you.
7. Take your altered list to prayer, spend some time reflecting on what your list has revealed, and then make your decision in peace and confidence.
Oftentimes, your choice will become clear during the process of eliminating lesser pros and cons and identifying the most important ones. If it doesn’t, spend some time in prayer and then choose the option that seems best. At this point in the discernment process, you can feel confident that you have prayerfully weighed your options and can trust the decision you’ve reached.