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Have you noticed just how hard it is to think straight, stay focused and productive and make good decisions when feeling super stressed?

What stress is doing to your brain

When we’re stressed your brain is desperate to conserve mental energy where possible, so it cuts down your options, forcing you more into a binary decision, right or wrong, black or white. The problem here being neither option might be the right decision.

If you’ve ever been in a that tricky position where you had to make a decision quickly despite knowing you didn’t have all the relevant information available or blindly picking something you haven’t got the headspace to think through properly, you’ll know how living in a stressful situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic can push you right outside your comfort zone of knowing the right thing to do.

In this new space, adhering too rigidly to what “you know” may no longer be relevant or correct and if your anxiety and stress are high, the mental bandwidth required to access your logical, analytical, reasoning brain may no longer be available.

Too much stress makes us do crazy things

Changes that lockdown has produced in our household includes the kitchen being much tidier because my husband and I are making much more of a concerted effort to keep the place clean and tidy.

But we’re also misplacing far more items and blaming each other for when a ramekin dish is put in the rubbish bin, when the frozen peas find their way into the pantry and the dog’s lead mysteriously ends up in the fridge.

I’m pretty confident we’re not losing our minds, but our heightened state of anxiety is covertly raiding our brain’s ability to pay attention to what we’re doing and disrupting our thinking!

Letting go of the expectation that every decision, every choice we make in these times will necessarily be the best one, can be helpful along with the awareness of the need to slow things down and check-in – OK so what information do I actually need right now to decide where is the best place to store our camping equipment?

Call a friend

If you’ve ever watched the show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, you’ll have seen those situations where the contestant is valiantly wrestling with their brain but under stress, the right answer just doesn’t come or their mind goes blank. They are then allowed to phone a friend. This can be helpful in many decision-making situations because your friend may come up with a suggestion you think is good, or not, but sharing that mental space with someone else will help allay some of your anxiety – with the added benefit of making it easier to access your memories and past experiences.

Reduce the risk

The problem with making a high-risk decision is that whichever way you cast your vote there’s the probability it may be the wrong decision, producing an undesired outcome, or you may upset or disappoint someone.

So, do you enter a state of information gathering where every snippet of information no matter how tiny or obscure is sourced for consideration in the high stakes decision or do you toss caution to the wind and go with your gut. The problem with intuitive decisions being you may have overlooked some critical pieces of information that would have made making the better decision much easier…

Reducing the risk includes determining: how urgent or important is this decision, really?

If it’s relatively minor, can you afford to delay or defer making the decision until you have had time to fact check?

If it’s important, who else can help you gain all the information required or provide trusted counsel about the issue?

Remember not making a decision, still counts as a decision.

Admit you may not have all the answers

If you’re the boss, a CEO, business owner, manager or team leader there can be a certain level of expectation that

a) you know what you’re doing

b) you have all the answers especially to that horrible curly question that’s been a challenge to resolve for months

This is especially true for doctors who have been trained to “know.” It can be a dangerous sandpit to play in.

Do you go hardcore and announce what you believe IS the right decision and anticipate everyone will accept it because you said so?

Or do you admit you’re not sure and would welcome input from others to collate a collaborative consensus?

Either way will antagonise or motivate different people.

Few people I’ve met like being told what to do, and with information on virtually anything now readily available, the consumers of your decision are likely to be well educated and will want to have a say in any decision, especially if it’s going to concern them. Which is why the command and control form of leadership is falling by the wayside.

Admitting you don’t know which decision is best could be seen as a weakness, but at the very least it shows you are human and funnily enough, as humans, we love to help and want to jump in and contribute towards a solution.

The quickest way to build trust and deepen connections is to ask for help.

Ask: Will this decision make you feel good?

The great thing when you’ve made the right decision is the feeling you know it’s the best choice. Any horrid tension disappears, you can relax and get on with what else the day demands of you.

So, rather than anguishing over a decision that’s giving you heartburn ask yourself one thing.

Which decision best matches my values and sense of purpose?

If that still doesn’t provide you with an answer, try distancing yourself from the need to decide. Uncouple your focus by taking a walk in the park, taking a nap, meditating or getting on with another task to free up your brain to come up with an insight more easily.

Eliminate information overload and reduce the number of choices to 2 or three rather than twenty.

With 30-35,000 decisions to be made every day it’s reasonable to assume they are not all going to be perfect or correct and that’s OK. Stress can aggravate the need to make consistently good decisions, by making it harder to keep things in perspective.

By accepting your fallibility as a human and letting go of perfectionism, you can choose to live more easily with the decisions you do make, knowing you’re simply doing the best you can every time.

It’s all part of developing a thriving mind that will keep you happier, more fulfilled and contribute to cultivating a good life.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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