One of my good friends is a divorce attorney. Since the pandemic started, his phone has been blowing up with new clients.
Usually it takes months of counseling for clients to hire me. “But not now,” he said. “Now, they call me to file for divorce.
Apparently, when people are uber-stressed they seem to make big decisions more easily.
And that’s where the story begins.
A Different World
We are living in a different world now. A new and uncertain world. It’s not the uncertainty of getting sick or dying, necessarily. We are mentally, socially, politically and financially fragile. With most of our churches, synagogues and mosques closed, we even find ourselves spiritually fragile. And, in the midst of this fragility, we are also incredibly frustrated.
In light of this fragility and frustration, I started thinking harder about how we make big decisions. And I came to a pretty solid thesis. Here is is.
When people are fragile and frustrated they tend to accelerate extremely significant decisions. Decisions where there is no “do-over”. Decisions that will dramatically alter the course of their lives.
You see, when people are frustrated they get unhappy. And, when they’re unhappy they start looking for things to make them happier. Makes sense to me.
It seems we aren’t in control of much these days. Every minor decision is now viewed through a different lens. A lens that is designed to identify risk factors we couldn’t fathom six months ago. Even seemingly simple decisions include a risk/reward calculation: going to the Waffle House for breakfast, seeing your friends, sending the kids back to school, returning to church, etc. We’ve lost control of seemingly simple decisions and outcomes.
When I get frustrated and feel out of control I start looking for things that I can control.
A New Kind of Stress
All this fragility and frustration is making us stressed out. But it seems to be a different kind of stress. Less busy stress; more survival stress.
Research on decision-making, from Harvard Business Review, shows our brains react differently when we are stressed. It’s the fight or flight mechanism kicking into overdrive.
Some of the decisions I’ve made under intense stress didn’t work out so hot.
Surprisingly, we tend to focus more on the upside when making decisions under duress. It’s like we are wearing a pair of rose-colored glasses. Everything suddenly looks different, better when we see a light at the end of the tunnel. What could possibly go wrong?
Once we’ve made a decision, our brain floods the body with dopamine. And the light at the end of the tunnel gets remarkably brighter. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that allows for communication between nerve cells. Scientists call it the happy hormone.
Men are from Mars
All this fragility and uncertainty creates problems. See, men are trained to fix problems. When we think of fixing, we think of taking immediate and decisive action to make things better. (Think: fixing a flat tire.)
On top of all this, our lives have slowed down significantly. It’s like we’ve been a passenger in a car traveling 65mph. But in the last two hours the driver started gradually speeding up. We never even noticed. We are now doing 145mph, but it still feels like 65mph.
The simple truth is that the pace of life speeds up gradually until it reaches maximum velocity. We achieved maximum velocity around January 2020. Then it all started to unravel. I wrote about it last week in “Can We Hit the Reset Button on 2020?” It was my most popular post of 2020, so far, but it kinda wrote itself.
I’ve learned that when I make big decisions under high stress I am typically moving away from something.
Said another way, I tend to make better decisions when my main objective is to move towards something that I desire.
I recently wrote about this in a story called Everything is Gonna Be Okay.
Is Busy the New Stupid?
Let’s be honest, the last few years prior to the Pandemic were nuts. Everything is rushed.
We’ve fallen victim to the glamorization of the “grind”.
Busy has become the new status symbol. Our busyness is aimlessly and meaninglessly driven by a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). People simply want to “do it all”. You know, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, etc. You get the point.
When women feel stress, they become more hesitant to accept new risk. But, when men are under stress, the Testosterone kicks into overdrive. They become more risk tolerant. That can create big problems in relationships.
And, maybe that’s why my Attorney-friend is getting so many phone calls from total strangers.
So what can you do to keep from making really bad decisions during times of high stress? Ask yourself these five questions.
Do you have all the facts? (No, seriously, do you?) Sometimes when we get jiggy our brains get anxious to make a decision We convince ourselves that we have all the facts. But we don’t. So we make wild assumptions that support our premise. Then we make full decisions with half the facts. That’s bad.
Are you simply running away from something bad-or running towards something good? It’s important to identify the probability of the potential negative outcome. In times of high stress our brains can imagine some batshit crazy scenarios that are not likely to happen. Conversely, we must take off the rose-colored glasses before we make big decisions.
Based on the currently available facts, data & logic, is this the wise thing to do?
In many cases you don’t have all the information at your fingertips. And, trying to make a decision without all the facts is silly. But when stressed we feel that extra urge to “do something”. Slow down, my friend. According to my friend JP, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
Have you sought wise counsel? I once had some bad neck pain. I went to see a friend who happens to be a neurosurgeon. A surgeon really only has one solution and it involves a scalpel. So, there’s a pretty good chance he’s gonna filet you like a Sea Bass to solve your problem.
Is this the right time or is there a benefit to waiting? I used to run marathons. I learned not to make any decisions on a hill. Nobody is thinking clearly in Mile 19 on the biggest hill of the day. Same goes for life. If at all possible, wait until you can exhale and enjoy the downhill. You’ll be in a much better place to make a wise decision.
Previously Published on tomgreene.com