My Session with Decision Coach Nell Wulfhart

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

If, in a moment of desperate uncertainty, you were to Google “How to make a hard decision,” you might stumble across Nell Wulfhart, a self-proclaimed “decision coach” whose website promises to get you “unstuck in just one session.”

Most of Wulfhart’s clients find her this way, which baffles her. “But if you’re coming to a stranger on the internet to help you make up your mind, chances are, you’re overthinking it,” she says. “My job is to pull you out of that spiral.”

Since starting her business ten years ago, Wulfhart has guided hundreds of clients through high-stakes quandaries like whether to get married, get divorced, go to grad school, switch careers, have a kid, start a business, retire, and move across the country — or not. She recently worked with a couple to choose a name for their baby.

“Somebody called me to ask whether he should get a tattoo removed,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, if you don’t like it, why wouldn’t you?’” Of course, it was more complicated — he was studying Buddhism and felt a responsibility to keep the tattoo as a visual reminder of his own fallibility. Her response: “Not everything has to be a lesson. Just get rid of it.”

It’s easy to be skeptical of Wulfhart — how can one person advise on such a wide range of topics? But when I meet her over Zoom in January, I see why she inspires confidence. At 42, she has an unvarnished warmth that lands somewhere between cool aunt and favorite camp counselor. Unlike so many therapy-adjacent gurus of the Instagram era, with their soft lighting and hot takes, she speaks in loose, wandering sentences free of jargon and taglines. She holds her screen to the window to show me her view of Montevideo, Uruguay, where she and her partner moved eight years ago for his job as a union organizer.

Raised by immigrant parents in Philadelphia, Wulfhart has lived abroad since she was 18, first in Dublin and then in Vietnam and Korea. Until the pandemic, she worked predominantly as a travel journalist (she wrote the “Carry-On” column for the New York Times); the decision business was an occasional side hustle. She created her website on a whim after her friends urged her to charge money for the opinions she’d always given them for free. Then, when the world shut down in 2020, decision coaching became her main source of income. She now sees up to three clients a day, at $197 per session (which typically last about an hour).

Wulfhart is up front about her qualifications for helping people make some of the biggest decisions of their lives: She has none. She is not a psychologist or a spiritual adviser or even a certified coach of any kind. (The life-coaching industry, she points out, is so unregulated that even if she was accredited, it wouldn’t really matter.)

“One thing I’m good at is getting to the heart of a problem, seeing what a person really wants to do, and figuring out how they should do that,” Wulfhart says. “I’ll give you a real opinion, no waffling.”

Wulfhart has theories about where her decisiveness comes from, but she also believes that anyone can improve their ability to push through self-doubt. “The most likely worst-case scenario is probably not as bad as whatever disaster you’re afraid of,” she says. “I get so many people who are like, ‘Well, A is what I really want to do, but B seems like the safer option, so I’m just going to go for that.’ And I’m like, ‘But you could have the thing that you really want. It’s right there.’”

She also advocates for deciding promptly. Sometimes, when she has a lot of minor questions buzzing around in her head, she’ll write down each one on a Post-it note, stick them to the wall, set a timer for ten minutes, and knock them out. “It’ll be like, ‘What dress am I going to wear to that wedding next weekend?’ Done. ‘How should I respond to this email?’ Done.” Not everything comes out perfectly, but that’s part of the exercise. Wulfhart believes that decision-making is like a muscle; it gets better with practice, especially if you start small.

Naturally, I wanted to ask Wulfhart about a dilemma of my own. I’ve been mulling over a book idea for a few months, but it’s proving difficult to research, and I’m not sure if the juice will be worth the squeeze. Also, I have a 1-year-old child and a backlog of assignments, and I am tired. Should I push on?

Before our meeting, Wulfhart assigns me two exercises that she gives to every client. The first is to determine my “values,” with an emphasis on what’s most important in my everyday life. (Self-conscious, I compose a motley list that includes “getting enough sleep,” “empathy,” and “learning about new ideas.”) The second is to imagine “future me” — what I want my life to look like in one, five, and ten years. According to Wulfhart, a “good” decision is whatever moves you closer to that vision.

Wulfhart’s clients generally fall into one of three camps. “A lot of people just need a permission slip to do what they want,” she says, especially when it comes to quitting a job or ending a relationship. “They call me to check their work.” After reviewing the implications of the decision, Wulfhart usually gives her blessing.

Except when she doesn’t: “There was one guy who was having an affair, and he was like, ‘I want to leave my wife and kids and move across the country to be with this other person.’ And I was like, ‘Can’t do that, bro. You can leave your wife, but you cannot leave your kids.’”

The second camp doesn’t know what they want, and Wulfhart has to tease it out of them. “I can hear it, and usually by the end of the conversation they can hear it too,” she says.

Then there’s the third group — Wulfhart estimates it’s about 5 percent of her clients — who are simply too stuck. “All I can do is tell them what I think. But it would take a higher power than me to get them to stop second-guessing.”

I ask Wulfhart if any of her clients have regretted a decision she helped them make or blamed her for a bad result. She widens her eyes: “God, no. That would be awful! I think people do understand that I cannot predict nor control the future.” You can make a good decision and still not get the outcome you want, she adds. “You can only control one of those things — making the best decision with the information you have.”

This practicality strikes me as the core of Wulfhart’s appeal. She doesn’t dangle a nebulous carrot of self-improvement the way that therapy or life-coaching or other personal-development vehicles often do. Instead, in one hour, she delivers a singular directive: How to move forward. And what could be more self-actualizing than that?

For my own conundrum, Wulfhart points out that I need to know if there’s enough material for the book before I can tell if it’s worth writing (she’s right). She recommends that I take a three-month period to explore it and commit to doing a specific amount of research every week (send ten emails, make five calls). A week after we talk, she emails me to see if I’ve hit my first outreach goal (I have).

“Even if you realize that you don’t want to proceed, at least that’s useful information — it won’t be a waste of your time,” she assures me. “If it works, fantastic! Double down, keep going. If it doesn’t work, just stop. Now you know that you don’t want to do that thing. You have real data. And you never get that from spending the same amount of time deliberating.”

The Decision-Maker