How The Pandemic Is Affecting Decision-Making—And What We Can Do About It
The pandemic has changed each of us in ways that are hard to fully comprehend. According to a new survey on behalf of the American Psychological Association, one area it has affected is our ability to make decisions.
Of the 3,035 American adults polled for the report, 32% said that they had been struggling to make basic decisions, like what to wear in the morning or what to eat at night, since the pandemic began. This figure was even higher for young adults and parents with young children.
This is likely because the pandemic has come with lots of draining decision-making challenges, the APA notes. Clinical psychologist Elena Welsh, Ph.D., says that the resulting decision fatigue many of us feel is only natural. "Decision fatigue is typically a sign of stress or mental tiredness, as we have seen in the pandemic, so it likely happens to most people at some point in their lives."
However, just because something is normal doesn't mean it's beneficial. "As a result of this fatigue, your decision-making skills decrease," clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., tells mbg. Decision fatigue should be taken seriously because Abrams explains it can "lead you to make decisions that are not actually in your best interest, or avoid making decisions about things in your life that are important and/or time-sensitive."
In an age of overwhelming choices, here are Abrams' and Welsh's top strategies for making timely decisions you can stand behind.
When making smaller decisions:
"Thinking ahead and planning is a very useful strategy to help mitigate decision fatigue," says Abrams. This can look like taking time on Sunday to meal plan for the week or laying out your workday outfit the night before.
"While it inherently involves making a series of decisions, they are made upfront and intentionally so that on the back end, the only decision that you are making is to choose what has already been prepared (oftentimes in the midst of having to make other more time-sensitive decisions for the given moment)," she explains.
Make a few choices when you feel good.
Stressful times invite us to really pay attention to what our bodies need. Abrams recommends noting what times of the day you feel most positive and have the most energy, and when your mood tends to take a dip. During those time buckets when you do feel rested and clear, Welsh recommends riding the momentum and making a small batch of choices.
By getting these decisions out of the way, you'll reduce procrastination and the stress that can come with it. After all, Abrams points out that not making a decision about something is, in itself, a choice—and not always the healthiest one.
Keep things in perspective.
"When you catch yourself wasting time and mental energy on a relatively inconsequential decision, remind yourself that this decision has limited consequences," Welsh says. "In these cases, you can also use a tool like a coin toss or go with your 'first thought' to help you move forward more quickly."
Abrams adds that the best way to reserve energy for decision-making is to get adequate rest. The next time you're stuck on a small-potatoes decision, ask yourself if you can sleep on it.
For larger decisions:
Write your thoughts down.
When you feel stuck about a larger decision, Welsh recommends taking the time to get clear on what is pulling you in each direction by writing down a simple pro-con list. Still feel stuck after that? She shares these journaling questions for investigating how each option aligns with your values and principles:
- Does either decision fit more closely with your values or your long-term vision?
- Is there anything influencing your decision that you don't necessarily want to influence you, like fear or someone else's opinion?
- What would you need to be more clear about your decision in either direction? (Depending on the answer, this can also help you identify your next steps, which might be something as simple as gathering more information about X, Y, or Z.)
Once you write down your thoughts, Abrams says that you can always let them sit before coming back to them with fresh eyes.
Give yourself time and space.
And finally, Welsh says that "if you still feel entirely unsure after exploring your options and how they align with what is important to you, you may just need more time. Make space to sit with the decision without forcing it, and see if you can tap into an inner knowing. If nothing comes, give it space. Time will tell."
"Life-changing decisions should not be made impulsively," reiterates Abrams, "and require time to sort through practical and emotional data to help yourself come to a conclusion."
The bottom line.
After 18 long months of making unique pandemic-related choices, you may find yourself with a case of decision fatigue. Planning ahead, keeping things in perspective, and practicing self-compassion can help you get back into the swing of making solid choices. So, what's for dinner?
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.