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Anxiety

Making Good Decisions During Hard Times

How to make your next best decision.

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What's next?
Source: Simon Migaj/Unsplash
  • "I don't think my business will survive. Is it time to give it up?"
  • "Is my city ever going back to normal? Should I leave?"
  • "Am I crazy to think about having a baby when the world is in chaos?"

The combination of COVID-19, the national reckoning with systemic racism, and the chaotic political environment have left many feeling rudderless, overwhelmed, and racked with indecision. When projecting even six months into the future feels impossible, it's easy to feel anxious and unmoored. But making thoughtful decisions and moving forward with cautious optimism is critical for your well-being. Here are some guidelines for making good decisions in an unstable world.

You only have to take the next step.

We often get stuck moving forward with any decision because we fret about disastrous scenarios that might come up. Let's say you're disillusion by your company's response to the racial justice movement. You've started to dread getting out of bed each morning to sit in Zoom meetings all day, pretending to be a team player with people you don't believe are on your team. An old dream about going back to school to pursue a degree in a more meaningful field keeps bubbling up, but when you start to consider it more seriously, you're seized with anxiety. How could I take on more debt? Shouldn't I be happy to have a reliable paycheck? Is it foolish to be considering this kind of move as the country might be on the verge of a massive recession?

The truth is, it might be foolish. This change may create a mountain of debt and spit you out into an uncertain job market. On the other hand, maybe this new field is a huge growth area. You might be able to cobble together grants, stipends, or teaching assistantships to pay for your degree. It may be that if you have 20+ years of a career ahead of you, a move now means 20+ years of work you love instead of work you loathe.

The next step in this scenario might be to schedule a phone call with a friend—a friend of a friend, a colleague, anyone who already works in this field to get a clearer picture of what it takes. It might be to attend informational sessions at the graduate schools you are interested in. Or to join message boards for people in the field to get a sense of what it's like. The next steps are small, information gathering steps, nothing drastic like quitting your job, or taking out student loans. As you go down this road, you might realize its not for you, the costs are too high, the pay too low, or maybe you won't be accepted to the program or get the grants after all. This will be disappointing, but you won't have told yourself "no" before the world could say "yes." And often different, even better, opportunities appear when we start down a path to make a meaningful life change.

At the beginning of any process, don't worry too much about what might happen. Make the next best decision and trust that you'll have the tools necessary to handle the next set of problems once the future is the present.

Consult your values

To make good decisions, you need to have a clear idea of how you want to live your life and what sort of person you want to be. This advice might sound trite, but committing to live according to your values can be hard. Rejecting your family, friends, or community values, if they don't match up with your own, is complicated and painful. Turning your back on a promising relationship because you can't land on a shared vision for your lives is gut-wrenching. Deciding not to pursue a dream because it no longer makes sense in light of your other obligations can feel crushing.

Spending time to get clear on your values, and how they will intersect with your current responsibilities, is not easy or self-indulgent. This is even more true in a crisis when the urge to respond out of fear will be sky-high.

If you're not sure what your values are, take a look at this values exercise. Pick the five that are most important to you. Keep that list on a Post-It note where you will see it often. While a good outcome is never guaranteed, if you consistently make decisions based on your core values, things will work out more often than not.

Who are the experts here?

Only listen to people who know what they are talking about. We often speak to the same people about everything, loved ones, or colleagues, which is fine for most decisions. But when the stakes are high, it's worth seeking out those with a particular expertise or knowledge base.

I recently had a conversation with a fledgling business owner who went against her instincts to take some bad marketing advice from a friend. As we discussed where she had gone wrong, it became clear that this friend knew nothing about the field in question and even less about running a business. So why did my client listen to this person? "Because he sounded so certain!"

It's easy to mistake over-confidence with competence. Certainty does not necessarily correlate positively with accuracy. Vet experts carefully and never ignore a gut feeling that you are being misled. It's up to you to discern who/what to listen to. You are the expert on your life and your circumstances. Every other person—your spouse, your mother, your boss, and your doctor—is a consultant.

Avoid Avoidance

Pretty much anything can become a crisis if you wait long enough to deal with it. It is much harder to make the right decisions when you are scared, in pain, or overwhelmed with anxiety. These emotions shut down your brain's executive planning area and leave you with only flight or fight as an option. This is an ideal basic instinct when you are in physical danger, but not helpful when you are walking into a meeting where you might lose your job.

If you have nagging pain, go to the doctor before it becomes debilitating. If your job security starts to feel tenuous, ask your boss to sit down to address your concerns or plan what you'll do if you need to find something else. Get the information you need to make a decision and make it. These decisions do not get easier. They get much harder. Now is the time to do it.

Sometimes you are going to do everything right, and things will go wrong anyway.

We are living in incredibly trying times. It's easy to want to hide, deny, or ignore what's happening around us and hope that we can put our life on pause until the world feels safer and more secure. But taking the next step, consulting your values, vetting the experts, and avoiding avoidance can help you take agency in your life, and therefore feel more in control of what might be next.

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