Decision making isn’t easy at the best of times, and this isn’t the best of times.

In this respect, when most of us were under strict or fairly strict lockdown, life was a bit simpler. We pretty much knew what we could and couldn’t do, and there weren’t many important decisions to be made.

But now as lockdowns are being eased or lifted, we are starting to have to make more and more decisions.

A big one facing many parents and schools in the UK is how to manage sending kids back to school. Or even whether we should be sending kids back to school.

These are the worst kind of decisions to make because:

  • They could have serious consequences.
  • We still don’t really know enough about what the risks are.
  • We aren’t sure what the consequences will be if they don’t go back.

This combination of lack of certainty and great responsibility is the perfect storm of decision making. Added to which, most of us are already in a heightened state of stress arousal, which interferes with our ability to make good decisions.

Analysis paralysis

We can very easily end up in a state of what is sometimes referred to as ‘analysis paralysis’, constantly searching for more information, and running over and over all the possible scenarios and outcomes. It’s exhausting, and the more we do this, the less we feel able to make a decision at all.

Nowadays we have access to enormous amounts of information and opinions. Our brains were designed to work with far more limited options, and we can only hold so many ideas at once in our working memories. Feeling anxious and stressed reduces the working memory’s capacity even further. We end up either paralysed and unable to make a decision, or simply going down the path of least resistance.

So, how can we get better at decision making in stressful times?

Maximisers and satisficers

Perhaps the first thing to say is that we have to fully accept that without having all the necessary information (and a crystal ball), we cannot make perfect decisions.

Herbert A. Simon coined the terms Maximisers and Satisficers back in 1956 to describe two different styles of decision making. Maximisers are people who when making a decision strive to make a choice that will give them the maximum benefit. Satisficers are those who are satisfied with a decision which is adequate for their needs. You might expect that Maximisers would make better decisions, given all the energy they put into it, but the evidence is that they tend to be less satisfied with the outcomes of their decisions, and may even make worse decisions overall.

Decision fatigue

Secondly, limit the number of decisions that you spend time debating. Decision fatigue is a real thing, and the more decisions we have to make, the worse those decisions are likely to be. An often quoted piece of research showed that judges were less likely to award parole the later in the day they had to make the decision. It was easier just to say no. So, don’t sweat the small stuff, at this time more than ever.

Finally, while some choices, such as buying a car or a house may be relatively final, a lot of decisions are not. So, you can, to use my example, decide that you are going to send your child back to school, but then change your mind if other information comes to light.

Crucially this doesn’t mean that you have made the wrong decision (something else which can paralyse us), but that you made a good decision at the time, and are now making another good decision based on what you now know.

There are a lot of factors over which we have absolutely no control, and accepting this while decision making can, paradoxically, be quite freeing. Just take a step, see what happens, take another step, and little by little make progress.