Surviving Hard Decisions

surviving hard decisions

An often overlooked part of working in the not-for-profit sector is the high levels of emotional stress that hard decisions have on the leader over a period of time.

Think about it. You have an enormous, important mandate, but very limited resources. Every day, you are required to balance between staying within budget and more effectively serving those who rely on you.

Inevitably, you have to watch some things fall through the cracks.

It’s heartbreaking. We care so much about what we do, yet we know we can’t do everything that we want to – or even everything that’s vitally needed.

Over time, it takes a massive toll on our well-being. We either have a mental breakdown, or we grow a hard shell over our psyches. Neither is ideal. So, what do we do?

The key to surviving hard decisions is self-care.

It may sound trite, and begs the question “What does self-care really mean, anyway?” Here are five ways that you can build self-care right into your work, so that you can be compassionate and caring, but still remain strong enough for the hard decisions.

Buddy up.

Find someone you can vent to when things start building up. A shoulder you can cry on when you’ve seen something happen that you just couldn’t prevent. Choose someone who is in a similar position so that they really understand what you’re going through, and so you can be there for them when they need it. Supportive relationships are critical to self-care.


During your breaks, go for a walk, or climb stairs, or do some stretching. Working our bodies gets rid of a lot of the tension that builds up from stressful situations. It’s amazing how much mental relief comes from physical exertion! You don’t need to do a full workout or get all sweaty, just move regularly.


At the end of each day – or the end of the week at the minimum – think about the good things that have happened. What did you accomplish? We tend to think about the things that we didn’t do. Or, when we think about what we did, we put a “but” after it. “We served meals to 250 people today, but we had to turn away 50.” If you regularly take time to focus strictly on your wins, you can repeatedly prove to yourself that what you are doing (even if it’s not everything) is valuable and makes a difference.


Meditation and breathing exercises are proven to reduce stress and anxiety. They calm your mind and relax your body. They are also very flexible; you can meditate for an hour – or for five minutes. You can practice conscious breathing at your desk, or as everyone is settling into their chairs for a meeting. If meditation is new to you, there are dozens of apps and online guides to help you get started.

Leave work at work.

I know, easier said than done. What we do is so important to us that we tend to think about it long after we’ve left work. And that can hurt us – especially if we’re thinking about what we weren’t able to get done, or who didn’t get served that day. If you have trouble leaving work behind, set up things right after work that turns your mind in a different direction. Watch a movie, or learn a new recipe for supper – anything that focuses your mind on something other than what happened during the day.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of stress-busters. They are simply quick things to implement for most of us, and can be easily worked into our daily schedules. Not all of them will work for everyone, but all of us can use at least one or two of them. And I encourage you to do so. Your cause will be better if you are strong, mentally healthy and able to make those hard decisions.

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