Pandemic-Induced Decision-Making Fatigue
For the past 18 months, we have been collectively living through a pandemic, where everyday decisions that used to be simple have become potentially life-or-death for ourselves and our loved ones. There are not only too many decisions to make and options to choose from, there are increasingly fewer guidelines on what the right decision actually is.
The larger problem with decision-making becoming so difficult and potentially dangerous is that it robs us of the joy we regularly experience when we are afforded the luxury of making low cost, high reward decisions. I define these kinds of decisions as spontaneous, slightly exciting, and paid out in experiences (not currency). Many of these types of decisions were literally made impossible due to the pandemic and various restrictions.
Decision making has become an exhausting and stressful process. How do we start to dig out of this predicament?
Limiting our systems and choices
This topic of pandemic-induced decision paralysis was recently discussed by CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta where he stated,
“There’s a lesson in here I think for everybody. If you find yourself paralyzed by a small decision, it may help to try to restrict your options by focusing on fewer factors.”
I agree with Dr. Gupta, but how do we create these systems, in our lives and at work, and what factors do we focus on? If we look deeper into the benefits of changing and limiting our systems and our choices, it can offer more than simply making decisions easier. In business (and life), it can actually lead us to accomplish great things, if only we refocus our attention on the relevant opportunities and key outcomes that we really need in order to have successful forward momentum.
I often refer to Rembrandt, arguably one of the greatest painters of all time. He worked with a very limited color palette, yet within those restrictions he created groundbreaking masterpieces. Would he have created better paintings if he had every color under the sun to consider using when he painted? Or would he have been overwhelmed by options, and inevitably doomed to create something that had little harmony, with all the colors competing for attention?
In today’s world we need to focus on the things that will determine success or failure in a different way, in order to alleviate the stress of decision making, and ensure we can light our path and see around the next bend before we get there. We need to safely navigate to a place where we can make those higher-impact decisions that bring us joy, by reframing the way we get there.
The systems we create for ourselves provide the boundaries within which we operate, and oftentimes the clearer the boundaries and more limited the choices are, the more opportunity we create for ourselves to grow, gain confidence and even create unexpectedly amazing outcomes. Innovation often occurs when small adjustments are made within a very controlled environment, where the slightest variation can be evaluated and acted upon.
“The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.” ― James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
Goals, success metrics, whatever you call them — need to be scrutinized and perhaps completely reset. Most importantly they need to have shorter and smaller well-defined boundaries and goals, with only a few options from which to choose from to achieve the goal. Setting micro-systems clearly and in a way that can be tracked and evaluated at the beginning of any kind of effort could unlock untapped potential, and result in even better outcomes than what we could have imagined.
This means we have to get better about asking the question, “Is this working?” Not, “Did it work?”
I would suggest we look to our systems and processes to begin evaluating our answers. No longer should we ask ourselves “was I successful?”, but “am I succeeding?” and then to divide those questions up into systems that can clearly provide a yes or no answer.
Instead of existing in a world where your default process used to be, “I feel really great when I go out to dinner with my friends so I plan for a group outing at least once a week,” you are now possibility living within this process — “I feel horrible because I don’t even know if it’s safe to go out to dinner, and if we did I wouldn’t know where to go, and which place would meet everyone’s comfort levels, etc. so I just don’t go out to dinner anymore.” What if you shifted your thinking to focus on what steps or habits are required to eventually end up at dinner with your friends? What boxes need to be checked, what are the parameters or limitations, and what obstacles have to be cleared to get where you want to go?
It is also important to consider the amount of choices you are giving yourself. Humans, presented with too many options to choose from, generally default to making no decision at all, or are left feeling unsatisfied with their choice. We live in a world of immense choice in many scenarios, just consider this statistic:
In 1998, as the internet started to mature, there were 340 different types of breakfast cereals in the U.S. (which seems like a lot). By 2012 with the internet and advances in supply chain technology, there were roughly 4,945 different types.
Even with all of this choice the average grocery store limits its cereal aisle to 250 types. Why? Because people can barely handle that amount of choice, much less 20X that number.
In his well-known work, psychologist Barry Schwartz, calls this “choice paralysis.” In life and in business, more choices make us less likely to take action, and to be less satisfied with our eventual decision. With so many options at our fingertips, we blame ourselves if we’re not meeting our own standards, and we engage in frequent regret about the roads not taken. So we stop taking new roads because it’s so disappointing.
Micro-systems get you moving past each potential friction point by developing a process to support that effort. They will let you move through the process with less anxiety, help keep you making forward progress, and give yourself little wins along the way to achieving the larger goal.
We need to know we are moving things incrementally in the right direction, and what is working, as well as not working. As Barry Schwartz says in his TED Talk, “Everybody needs a fishbowl.” And that the absence of such a fishbowl (limited choice) is a recipe for misery.
If you can better understand your fishbowl, you can determine what a micro-win looks like when you’re only executing one small play out of many that are needed for a macro-win. These little things matter, particularly so when the larger objectives are much more overwhelming. We need to know what small victories look like, how to achieve them, and how to reinforce that activity or process.