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How to decide when you can't decide

When you are in two minds about doing something, asking the four Cartesian Questions will help you find clarity and finally make a decision.

Making decisions is not always easy. There can be times when, even though you think you have decided something, you go back and forth second guessing yourself. I see this occurring in myself and when coaching others.

Image: Damian Siodlak Unsplash

Luckily, when indecision strikes, I have a coaching tool that enables someone to see all angles of both choices. Going through the process helps someone see the benefit of taking action, whether there is another option or if it's best to do nothing.

The tool is called the Cartesian Questions or the Cartesian Compass (rationale for the name at the end). For now, let’s examine the tool.

The power of the Four Cartesian Questions

Often when you are deciding between staying the same or doing something different you weigh up the pros and cons from your current viewpoint. Doing so can leave you in a place of no-decision.

These four questions are posed as if you have taken the action. They move you into imagining the future and help you bring to light all the benefits of taking/not taking action, doing/not doing something or making/not making a change so that you can clearly see what comes with both options.

Alongside the benefits, the questions also surface reasons you might have for not wanting to take action, known as secondary gains, and the beliefs you might have about the change. This pulls into view what is important to you which in turn leads to making decisions that feel right for you.

Taking time to write down the answers helps you see what you think and feel about the action or change, as well as decide if these are real truths or imagined ones and, if they are things you can cope with or manage.

After you have completed the questions take time to reflect on what you discover from the answers.

The Four Cartesian Questions

At first glance this will likely seem like an odd set of questions but go with it.

They are all a bit samey, this is how they unlock insights into how you think and feel.

Trust the process and answer each question as best as you can.

1. What will happen if I do…x?

Here the mind gets to work imagining all that might occur if we took this action/made this change/followed this idea.

Layout all the things that are likely to occur if you did do x including how you might feel if you did.

And when you are done, check-in and ask yourself “and what else might happen?" The first set of answers are what is on the surface of the mind. Asking "What else?" bring us deeper ideas.

When there is nothing more to add move onto the next question.

2. What will happen if I don’tx?

This is about the status quo. What do you get if you don’t take action?

Your answers here might be similar to the previous one but in the negative but you are also likely to find other answers arising in the mind too.

Here is where feelings often get noted down and the pain of not taking action becomes apparent.

Make sure you have exhausted all possible answers before moving onto the next one.

3. What won’t happen if I do…x?

Now you get to consider what this action/change might stop or prevent from happening.

It also reveals what you might lose if you do take action. Are they significant losses for you? And again, ask what else?

4. What won’t happen if I don’t…x?

Finally the most challenging question to answer. It’s two negatives for the brain to get itself around!

Persevere with it.

This is the one that goes to your subconscious and uncovers hidden perspectives and things that are important to you.

Cartesian questions in action

Here’s a worked example based on a decision I was making last week about whether to work on a client project in the afternoon, rather than a morning, going forward.

What WILL happen if I DO work on the project in the afternoon rather than the morning?

  • I will be able to 100% focus on the client’s project, instead of drifting into thinking about my standing coaching appointment at lunchtime.

  • I will be able to go for my morning walk which I miss when I dedicate the morning to this client.

  • I will feel good and be able to settle down to work on the project because I'll have walked.

  • I might be able to help more people as I will have coaching and training slots available for people and organisations. No one tends to book coaching in the afternoon.

What WILL happen if I DON’T work on the project in the afternoon rather than the morning?

  • I will feel miserable in the morning because I won’t have time for my walk.

  • I will feel a pressing need to walk all day but might not get round to it.

  • I will feel resentful about the client project. I know this because I already do.

What WON’T happen if I DO work on the project in the afternoon rather than the morning?

  • I won’t feel resentful.

  • I won’t feel so rushed or driven.

  • I won’t clock watch.

  • I won't feel that I am not doing my best.

  • I won't have to turn down people who are seeking worklife coaching.

What WON’T happen if I DON’T work on the project in the afternoon rather than the morning?

  • As I won't be settled (due to lack of walk and standing appointment), I won’t focus as well as I might which means I will likely spend more time on the project than necessary.

  • I won’t get to offer stress reduction coaching slots and wellbeing training to people who are looking for support.


I really don’t like missing out on a morning walk. Allocating 4 hours before my lunchtime coachee means an earlier than usual start which leads to choosing not to walk (as I enjoy my sleep too!).

I want to support people’s wellbeing and filling up my morning misses that opportunity.

I am beginning to feel resentful which I don't like feeling.


After completing the Cartesian Questions I realised that moving the project work to the afternoon was a sensible decision and a win/win for everyone.

A note on the name "Cartesian Questions"

Rene Descartes developed what became known as the Cartesian Plane which revolutionised geometry.

Using the Cartesian Plane you can provide an exact reference (coordinates) for any point from two fixed lines (x and y axes). The crossing point is known as the origin; from there numbers are either positive or negative.

I don't believe Descartes invented these decision-making questions, however each question clearly corresponds to a place in the Cartesian Plane (see diagram).

A vertical line and a horizonal line cross at the mid section to form a grid. The vertical line has will at the top and won't at the bottom. The horizontal line don't to the left and do to the right. Each cartesian question is put into the grid demonstrating how cartesian x and y axes mirror the questions hence the name Cartesian Questions


The Cartesian Questions are a useful tool when decision-making has you in a spin. They are asked in such a way that they move you into a future state so that you can see the potentials inherent in a decision.

Spending time writing the answers down helps us see all consequences of an action and uncovers those things that are important to us.

Regularly using them can help us make better and faster decisions that align with our values, in our work and personal lives.

Take care of you.

Why not experience what it is like to answer these questions with a coach? Together we can really explore your dilemma and surface insights to help move you forward. Get yourself out of stuck today and arrange a free coaching session with me.


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