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Decision Making Deficit

We make thousands of decisions a day, whether consciously or not. But when we get stuck in indecision, we could be missing important opportunities.

I’ve been a little scattered the last couple of weeks and it’s made it hard for me to focus on doing one thing at a time, which is not only mindful but the most productive way to work. I understand cognitively that it’s because I happen to have multiple disparate projects all coming due right now and so I’ve probably got some stress rising up, simultaneously with not being in the mood to do some of the work I need to do. I feel like my brain is sort of fighting me. Another probable cause of my struggle, however, is that I need to be decisive and when we’re stressed, we have a much harder time making decisions.

Our brains don’t actually like having a lot of choices. The brain is not unlike a computer in that it prefers a binary code. Yes or no. Up or down. Black or white. For each additional choice we add, the brain begins to struggle. One of the reasons is what is called choice overload and this ties into stress. Research indicates that stress can have an impact on both the quality of our decisions as well as actually making them. In one well-known study, researchers set up two displays offering free samples of jam at an upscale food market. One display offered customers six different flavors to choose from while the other gave them 24.

While the display with 24 flavors attracted more people, they were six times less likely to actually buy a jar of jam compared to those who visited the display with only six choices. Choice overload can happen any time we feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. Because we have such a hard time comparing them, we're less likely to choose anything at all. It’s too stressful, so we decide we’d rather skip the choice altogether rather than deal with the overwhelm of having to decide which option we want from a large selection.

Similar results occurred in studies of employee sign-up rates for 401K savings plans. The lowest participation occurred when the highest number of options were presented. Second best was when there were just 3 to 4 options available and the highest rate of participation was when the employees were automatically enrolled in a plan unless they actively opted out.

Consider the difference between the menus at In-N-Out Burger and the Cheesecake Factory. For those of you who don’t yet have an In-N-Out Burger, your choices are a single or double hamburger with or without cheese and fries, plus a choice of beverage. Cheesecake Factory on the other hand has 250 items on their menu. Both food establishments are wildly popular -but think about how you feel when you look at a simple white board with basically 3 options, versus 21 pages of options to choose from, especially if you’re tired or stressed. It can feel overwhelming.

Speaking of making decisions when stressed, another common problem that affects our abilities is decision fatigue. Decision fatigue suggests that making a large number of decisions over a prolonged period of time can be a significant drain on our willpower that results in us having a harder time saying no to things like junk food, impulse buys, and other less than desirable options. Decision fatigue also makes it harder to say yes when decisions that upset the status quo are involved. Think about how displeased you may be with your cable or satellite provider, your cell phone carrier, or even your local grocery store. Most of us simply don’t want to face the decision-making process in changing, so we stick with the status quo, even if we’re unhappy with it.

Decision fatigue makes it difficult to even think about making decisions, let alone what's right or wrong, correct or incorrect. We follow the path of least resistance because it's the easiest thing to do.

I think the pandemic and shutdowns have increased decision fatigue for a large portion of the global population. We lost a substantial amount of our habitual decision making, resulting in our brains going on overload having to make daily decisions about where to go, what was safe, where we could find what we needed, if we should get vaccinated, if we should wear masks. Way, way, way too many decisions to make every single day over a long period of time and I think there is still a definite lingering effect.

Fear of making the wrong decision is another cause of indecision when faced with a choice. Fear of failure or even the consequences of success, worrying about what others will think about your decision, and even perfectionism may be getting in the way. We’ll be talking about how to better manage perfectionist tendencies next week when Dr. Z returns to the show, but as far as decision-making, perfectionism can cause you to completely freeze because you can’t be sure that the outcome of your decision will be right or perfect.

It's important to point out that indecision isn’t always a negative. Hesitation in deciding might provide valuable time to think about the situation and provide the chance to gather more information and consider the facts. If you’re second guessing yourself, it might be a warning that you’re about to make the wrong decision, but it’s critical that you remain self-aware as to what’s occurring so you don’t allow the indecision to keep you stuck forever.

Indecision becomes a negative behavior when it lasts too long, but how long depends on the circumstances. I was shopping for a car in December 2019 because my 2003 vehicle is finally ready to retire. But I couldn’t make up my mind. Electric, hybrid, small, SUV. I couldn’t make a decision because I was having a hard time envisioning what I would need in the future. A car big enough to haul workshop stuff all around the county? Maybe. But I was already forming a plan to move the work more online, so then I could go with a smaller car. Electric cars are clearly where we’re headed, but there aren’t enough charging stations yet, so could I get from point A to point B without my battery dying? Too many decisions. So I waited.

Then the pandemic hit and I thought how great it was that I couldn’t make a decision because now I’d saved myself a monthly car payment for a car that would just be sitting in the driveway for two years. Indecision looked like a good decision! Then the supply chain issue arose and now not only are cars a lot more expensive, but they’re hard to find. So I’m still driving my car into its retirement as I now again face making that decision.

My car still runs, so it’s not the end of the world even if it is pretty unattractive at this point, but I think about an important missed opportunity. Could you miss out on a potentially great job because you can’t decide? Could you let a great home slip between your fingers? Indecision can sometimes become decision by default. If you decide not to decide, you give up your power of choice. Someone else might be hired for that perfect job or someone else might move into your dream home. If the decision is getting harder to make the more you dwell on it, you might need to take mindful action.

Think about how well you’re making decisions these days. Does figuring out what to eat for lunch cause you pause? How about what to wear for a night out? If even these simple decisions are giving you trouble, you might have choice overload or decision fatigue. Try to minimize the number of options you’re facing or the number of decisions you’re making each day by simplifying your routine. That could mean eating the same meal for breakfast each day. Choose what you’ll wear the night before or even create a sort of uniform so you don’t have to make any choices in that area. Make a list of priorities. Writing things down moves those thoughts out of your mind as you put them on paper and helps reduce decision-stress.

For the bigger decisions, like whether or not to quit your job, retire, have a child, or move to another state requires more mindful contemplation. First, check in on your fears. Move out of your head or ego where you’re over-analyzing and tune in to your emotions and body. Think about whatever you’re trying to decide upon and notice what you feel in your body. Does your stomach clench or do you even perhaps feel nauseous? Are you clenching your teeth? Those are signals that this opportunity may not be in alignment with your values or long-term goals. If your body is not contracting or if what you feel is excitement, that’s also a sign and one you can follow by making a decision to go for it.

The more you practice making decisions by tuning in to your body’s reactions and your emotions, the more you learn to trust yourself. The stomach is one of the most sensitive areas in the body to get a good reading and that’s why there’s the common saying, trust your gut.

Contemplate whether or not this will matter 5 or 10 years from now. Whatever car I end up finding, it’s not going to matter at all 10 years from now, so I can look at it as a small decision and reduce some pressure. Buying a home will matter 10 years from now, so take the time to consider potential gains and losses, and again, check in with how you feel about the building itself, the community, the weather, the distance from relatives and friends. Try to organize the data so that it’s not hard on the brain, like two columns – pros and cons. That makes it more binary and the brain doesn’t get as drained before you can decide.

For decisions big or small, consider asking for advice. The pressure to make decisions on our own can be overwhelming and even emotionally exhausting. When faced with difficult decisions, it may help to reach out to a trusted friend or family member. You can talk through your choices together. Connecting with others can be a helpful way to cope and make decisions, especially during uncertain or stressful times.

When you’re struggling in making decisions, it’s also important to make some time for self-care. It can be a brisk walk or a power nap or deep breathing or stretching. All are a good way to give our brains a little rest and then re-energize.

Struggling with indecision is like being stuck in the mud. Famous psychologist and philosopher William James said, “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” If you’re stuck in indecision, take some time to figure out your best strategy to get unstuck so that you can move forward, whether the decision is big or small.

With my current work obligations, I’m suffering from what I’ll call a decision-making deficit; and I’ll accept that I’m temporarily stuck in indecision on small decisions, due to decision fatigue. I know from past experience that when I get to this point, what works is to simply put everything in a big stack and start at the top, working my way down, meaning no other decision-making is involved. Whatever’s at the top is what I’ll work on until it’s finished and then I’ll go to the next. It’s actually incredibly productive but does require a commitment on my part to do that next thing in the stack, even it I don’t enjoy it. This process gives my brain time to heal from decision overload and by the time I’m done, I’ll be ready to make the next decision needed, big or small.

We can get through periods of indecision mindfully by noticing what’s occurring in both our minds and bodies. We also need to avoid self-judgment. We make thousands of decisions every day, so be sure to be gentle with yourself as you explore. And if you really can’t decide right now, recognize that indecision is a decision in itself. Chances are, the sky won’t fall regardless of the decision you make, so be open to new opportunities that follow.

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