Decision sickness

Decision sickness

There are a lot of experiences people go through which I might term decision sicknesses. These are things like anxieties, decision paralysis, waffling, decision avoidance, bubbling (a form of decision avoidance), trusting one’s gut/intuition, etc. In other words, behaviors and emotions which take someone further away from healthy decision making.

To be clear, here, by healthy decision making, I mean decision making which is dynamic and balances the needs of exploration and exploitation. Decision making that is not plagued by avoidable biases or delusions. “Optimal” decision making where “optimal” is applied to the whole process and the outcomes of it, not merely the individual decisions.

I think it’s fair to say that we are all plagued by these decision sicknesses at all times. One of the hardest parts of human life is balancing opportunities both in the small and the large. We’re not good at it generally, it’s expensive and emotionally taxing. More than that, our “fast brain” thinking tends to hold biases both serious and difficult to ignore.

What I’m saying is in lots of ways nothing new, but using sickness as a metaphor we can ask different questions and take different positions. First off, we can recognize that we’re all suffering from these sicknesses and that the world is plagued with pathogens for them. There are even people (think: aggressive, maligned advertisement) who are essentially bioterrorists.

What’s more interesting to me, though, is our decision sickness immune system. What do we as people do to ensure that we’re protected from these diseases?

The most obvious and direct are the care teams we already recognize in psychological health: our friends, family, confidants, mentors, and profession help like psychologists. These systems, when strong, help us do the immunity-building work of gathering outside perspective. When weak or non-existent, we have to fall back to other mechanisms.

Other forms of immunity include what one might call grit. Decision sicknesses induce stress and anxiety and those wear you down. Grit entails the psychological strength and will to overcome those oppressors.

At the same time, grit feels like such a raw system. Overcoming and persevering are important and critical, but also far from thriving. Grit alone protects you from the worst consequences of decision sicknesses—catatonia, shutdown, despair—but only just.

The most powerful resistances I know to decision sicknesses are (a) building your decisive strength and (b) practicing reorientation.

Decisive strength is the actual skill and proficiency of quickly making decisions. When you’re particularly weak here, you fear making decisions because of their expense. This leads to a failure to create a dynamic state of operation—you become locked in fixed, unchanging paths until complete disaster shakes you from them.

Even when you exceed that failure mode, it’s possible to practice your decisive strength. How many decisions do you make in a day? How long does each one take? What procedural or emotional barriers must you overcome each time? What kinds of deliberate practice can you perform to make these burdens lighter and faster?

Reorientation (which I’ve written about before) aims at the preparation required to make decisions. Even if you’re tremendously decisive, you will not really be avoiding the consequences of decision sicknesses if you continuously make the wrong choices. At the best, you’ll have to do 3x the work to stumble upon a functional tactic by trial and error. At the worst, you’ll bear all the consequences of bad decision making leading, eventually, to collapse. All that decisiveness won’t be worth a dime if, truly, all your decisions aren’t worth one either.

Proper (re)orientation in a process of understanding your mental model of the world sufficiently well that you can change it. And, then, changing it regularly and effectively so that it remains a useful tool to you. How do you improve this process? How can you practice it? What emotional or cognitive barriers exist?

Interestingly, these strengths are easily improved through practice. You don’t want to expose people to the pathogens of decision sickness (at least not at first) but instead the everyday need for decision making.

For instance, experimentation and chaos introduced in service to it can be a perfect state for practice. In this sense, you can imagine deliberately changing the context that people operate within, requiring them to continuously create new orientations and negotiate new decisions. So long as this is directed—there is a way to win and a way to know when you’re doing so—then you’ll be forced to exercise all of these strengths.

This is also part of way some decision sicknesses—symptoms like bubbling and avoidance—are particularly insidious. Once you’re afraid of decisions, you will cripple your own ability to practice.

How often are situations you’re in—whether you’ve created them or been thrust into them—products of refulgent decision sickness? Do people and teams your admire protect themselves from these ailments? What do they do?

And, how do you protect yourself? Don’t just see these things as facts of life, but instead as the injuries they are.

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