Life

Brain drain: why is it so difficult to make good decisions on lockdown?

Posted by
Anna Brech
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A woman dealing with a mental health condition

Decision fatigue is alive and kicking in the age of coronavirus. Here’s why, and what you can do about it.

Hands up who is finding it difficult to make decisions right now? You’re not alone. It seems even the smallest choices, like what to have for dinner tonight, can spark a spiral of sluggishness and apathy.

Meanwhile, the bigger decisions that loom – whether to cancel your September holiday, what to do about your business in limbo, when and if you should move back home to save cash  – bring with them a crippling sense of uneasiness. 

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It’s not surprising really. When our minds are full of what is happening to the world due to a global health pandemic, it’s hard to maintain the same razor-sharp judgement skills that we may have ordinarily. 

And because we know we’re not quite on form, that makes the decision harder still. That ever-present fear that we may make the wrong choice is louder than ever.

A fight or flight response

decision making
Making decisions: the longer we leave it, the more we're prepared to risk.

Some people are acutely aware of the impact that the coronavirus lockdown is having, while others are more relaxed about it. But however you feel, it’s likely that the sudden change in circumstance – along with a steady drip-drip of terrible news – is likely to be having some kind of knockback on your subconscious.

On some level, your brain is probably operating on fight-or-flight mode, a setting that is notoriously hard to think clearly on.

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“When we are stressed or anxious, it can be hard to focus and think clearly,” hypnotherapist Chloe Brotheridge, of mental wellbeing organisation Calmer You, tells Stylist. “This is because when we’re in fight-or-flight mode, blood flow moves away from the frontal cortex, the rational part of the brain, towards the amygdala, the fear centre.”

Because of this, it makes sense to defer any major decisions you have in the running if you possibly can. But, if there’s no avoiding it, try and ease yourself into it. Don’t attempt to make a decision on little sleep, or after a long day at work. And better still, lull yourself into a relaxed state of being beforehand.

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“Try to make a decision when you’re in a calmer state; when out walking in nature, after playing with your dog or after a warm bath,” advises Chloe. “You can also ask yourself questions such as ‘If I know I couldn’t fail, what would I do? or ‘If I didn’t care what anyone thought, what would I do?’ to get to your true thoughts and feelings about a decision. “    

Hanging in the balance

Focus on the here and now to bring back control to decision-making

Another more practical reason why you’ll be finding it hard to make a decision of any kind right now is that the entire global outlook is uncertain.

We’re not sure exactly how or when we’ll get out of lockdown, or what the world will look like when we do.

This is stressful in itself, ramping up anxiety and leading to further decision paralysis. But also it makes the process of having a plan – the one mechanism that usually provides us with a safety net during crucial decision points – very difficult to do.

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“I think it’s easier to make decisions when we feel like we know where we’re going,” says Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook

“At present, the future for all of us feels incredibly uncertain. I have many clients expressing that it feels ‘pointless’ to commit to anything or to plan anything right now when it’s unclear whether they can actually execute those plans when the time comes.”

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Hilda says that she’s encouraging her clients to concentrate on the now, and think about what immediate things they can do to help their present situation.

“So rather than thinking, as is familiar to many of them, what might this decision bring down the line, focus on ‘the power of now,’” she says, referencing Eckhart Tolle’s classic self-help book about staying in the moment.

How to make a good decision

Try to avoid dwelling on the many choices available

Decisions are difficult to make at the best of times, and not least when we’re all in a state of collective turmoil. But if you’re finding yourself stuck in a circle of procrastination, here are a few tips to help break free:

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Be a ‘satisficer’ not a ‘maximizer’

These terms were coined by psychologist Herbert Simon in the 1950s, and are neatly explained by The Happiness Project writer Gretchen Rubin.

“Satisficers make a decision once their criteria are met; when they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.”

Studies indicate that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. If you often find yourself drowning in choice, sometimes it’s better just to make a decision, even if you haven’t considered all the options out there. The cost of missing out will be made up by the time you save on feeling drained and overwhelmed in the long-run.

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Take an extra moment

And we really do mean a moment. A 2014 study from Columbia University Medical Center found that pausing for even a fraction of a second led to more accurate decision-making among subjects making rapid choices in a test environment.

“Postponing the onset of the decision process by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors,” said study researcher Jack Grinband, assistant professor of clinical radiology at the centre.

“This way, rather than working longer or harder at making the decision, the brain simply postpones the decision onset to a more beneficial point in time.”

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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