How is it possible to be a functioning adult, finding yourself faced with options in life and not know how you feel about them? Sometimes the big decisions are easy, and we leap into them with great certainty and confidence. What about those other times, though, where we feel torn, conflicted and unsure? I’m currently in a kind of limbo between work situations, and it offers me a valuable chance to think about my thinking.
One of the biggest things I realised in my first week of ‘freedom’, was how often I question my first choice and redirect myself to do something else, with small everyday activities. I soon began to wonder how often I have done this with other decisions, and where it originates.
Two points in time stand out for being particularly uncertain, permeated by a need to try to control things and make them work better. The time which first comes to mind was when I became a parent. It turns out that having your first baby on the other side of the world from everyone you know (except my husband, that is) is quite challenging. Shocking, I know. Who knew… Well I imagine our parents had a good idea what we were in for, but were supportive enough to offer lots of love and advice from afar and not say what a questionable choice we had made. At least not to our faces, for which we are grateful since it was much too late by then!
Some events are so far outside what you have experienced, that it’s impossible to anticipate accurately how you will cope.
Our confidence that we would make our way through parenting with research, hard work and determination, the same way we’d done other things before, illustrates this really well. We didn’t understand how our lives would be fundamentally different, that there would be no option to take a break from it at any point. It even changes the way your personality expresses itself. I wonder now if it’s like that phenomenon that blurs a woman’s recall of giving birth, enough that she’s willing to do it more than once. Only in advance, so that you can happily imagine you’ll probably be quite a capable parent. Ah, that’s cute.
So, in at the deep end we went. I’ve written before about how I use catastrophising as a way to approach tricky situations and put aside my worries (in my post about learning new skills). In this instance a different strategy emerged: endlessly worrying about the best order to do things in. With a baby who had difficulty feeding or settling, having structures, plans and theories seemed like a good approach. In reality a lot of what I did as a parent may have simply been persevering with a strategy for long enough that some time had passed and they’d moved on to a different phase! It passes the time though, doesn’t it? Some of it also worked pretty well, making things run smoother or improving a problem, so it wasn’t wasted effort at all. It just happened to exaggerate the tendency of thinking and rethinking my next actions in the day, in the hope of making it all turn out “well”. Whatever that means. Looking back, it’s still hard to know if that was a realistic ambition, but you’ve got to hang onto your sanity somehow when so much feels out of your control! I had big things I needed to achieve, like having showers and eating some meals while they were still warm. Leaving the house added extra layers of disruption and unpredictability that made me worry even more, so I thought slightly obsessively about what would help.
What I also did was put hours of practice into second-guessing myself.
Every idea was compared to all possible alternatives, to try to get to the ‘best’ way to do things. What will get baby to sleep longer? What will help him feed better? Should I do this first or that? If it sounds tiring, it is! I didn’t realise I had made this process a part of all of my thinking for years afterwards. At the same time I often wondered how to be more decisive and get more done. It’s fascinating looking back even to my recent self and realising how big an impact this was still having, yet I didn’t see it in the bustle of everyday life. A bit of distance and stillness has been amazing for letting me see more of the details in the picture, in a way that feels calm and safe.
So why do I see such a downside in trying to be strategic?
We have a lot of bias in the way we think, and psychology suggests that a lot of our initial assumptions are false or misleading. Our decisions are frequently based on guesswork and incomplete information. We are easily manipulated: even by things as obvious as the $9.99 versus $10 pricing trick. It’s logical, then, to take your time, question your initial instincts and consider the alternatives in a scenario.
Except… What do you learn about your judgement if you never do what you first felt was the right thing? How will you know if your instincts are sound, if you drown them out with “or should I do that instead…”? And how can you learn to think more quickly if you have a hundred what-ifs to work through every time?
I believe we know when we’re not trusting ourselves. The decisions we make feel awkward and forced despite their apparent logic. When I don’t do what I initially thought was best, I find I’m much more upset if things don’t turn out the way I hoped, because deep down I believed it was the wrong approach. It sparks the same frustration as when someone else takes away my freedom to choose, or makes me feel like I don’t know what’s best. I see it in in my kids sometimes too, when their judgement has been second-guessed, probably by me, and then they haven’t had the outcome they wanted. We know we were short-changed, and it’s unfair! It’s not helping anyone for me to second guess us all, when we each need chances to reflect and learn.
So this is now my daily challenge: instead of all the micro-agonising, I pause and acknowledge what I really wanted to do, and I do it.
What I really need is practice. Going with my instincts at the micro level is my training. The training goal is to know whether my judgement is good. Do I make beneficial choices, or at least benign ones, if I trust my first call? Where do I miss important details? What bias is evident after the fact? Do I end up with any more regrets, or any more difficulty in putting things right, when I act on gut feeling?
It might sometimes be as small as choosing tea versus coffee, without fretting about whether I should have more or less caffeine at that time of day. I know it sounds sad that I’m worrying about that tiny decision! I am though, or rather I’m trying to stop fretting about such petty things, exactly because at the other end of the scale are rather bigger questions. Like whether I apply for a job when it seems like the sensible thing to do, but I feel uneasy about it for reasons I can’t articulate. Or what the hell I should do with myself for the rest of my working life. Or how to draw the right boundaries and make the right allowances with my children, so that they grow into confident people who can balance meeting their own needs with those of the people around them. Yikes. The stakes are big, and in all of it I want to be acting with authenticity and consistency, because I believe that’s important for my happiness and as an example to my kids.
Obviously even at the day-to-day level it isn’t all about cups of tea and coffee; there are dozens of small and medium sized choices to make all the time, and some of them are components of the really big decisions.
Having said that, the small stuff matters too. I went with my instincts this morning, and took a detour off our walk and into the bakery for some excellent cake. We ate it in the garden in the winter sunshine. Never regret a well made custard slice 🙂
I referred to more than one episode in my life that was characterised by worrying and second-guessing.
The second was my time as a newly qualified health professional in a big and busy hospital. I think it’s fair to say I did not cope well with the demands on my time management, as I am a pretty slow-moving creature at the best of times. My husband says I have great inertia, mostly when I don’t want to put down my book and get out of bed on a weekend morning. I can’t really argue, and I’m not insulted because it’s not a wholly negative property. Like Newton’s First Law of Motion, once something gets me moving I keep going patiently for a long time, even with difficult things. But quick and snappy I am not. So marrying up a massive workload, an unhelpful perfectionist tendency and no ability to move fast was a bit beyond me. As I would do years later in the New Baby Fog period, I tried to solve it with logic. I think it eventually became a self-defeating loop of wondering where my time went, and worrying where my time would be best spent next. There are some related themes here about decisiveness, confidence and resilience that I have also been reflecting about a lot, and will come back to in the near future.
In that time, I struggled but learned huge amounts. I worked alongside great people (I am married to one of them) and had amazing experiences that have stayed with me for a long time. No period of such intense learning could be considered a bad thing really, but perhaps it set the pattern for how I would struggle in other hard, overwhelming times in the future.
Despite the desire to be more relaxed and decisive, I don’t want to close my eyes and stick a pin in the map to make decisions.
The reasons I gave above were good ones for needing to check on the quality of our thinking. Actions and choices do have meaningful consequences. But, I noticed I used the phrase “endlessly worrying about the best order to do things in” about my early parenting. I really did mean worrying, not just considering. Being vaguely afraid of not having the capacity to cope with certain outcomes if I made the ‘wrong’ choice, is a sensation I recall vividly from my time as a new mum. Many of the things I hesitated over seem like easily survivable issues now, but I often felt I was at the limit of what tiredness and uncertainty I could manage (as I think we all sometimes do). Even after I’d proven to myself so many times that yes, you can get more tired and still not have your brain dribble out through your ears, or fall asleep and drown in your cereal, I couldn’t face the thought of things being any harder and was very motivated to avoid it.
In my early years of work, I was very aware of the need to keep up and pull my weight within my team, which at times I wasn’t managing compared to the others. I wanted to be capable, accomplished, proud of my work. I was very aware of the patients, too: real people who miss out when things don’t get done. At both these times in my life, the looming unfavourable consequences gave an extra weight to all my small decisions.
Now, it occurs to me that there could be an important side benefit to this daily mindfulness task of trusting in my first thoughts. I can aim to recognise the impact of fear, and challenge the concern that I won’t cope if things go wrong. Because in reality I usually do cope. I can convincingly figure things out on the spot if I trust myself, and nothing has really sunk me yet. So I can redirect myself where necessary to consider or ponder (with or without stroking of imaginary philosopher’s beard) as a proactive process, and steer well clear of that old nemesis worry.
If nothing else, I will say again that the way I used to think is tiring, and I’m happy to leave it behind.
It feels like there are a limited number of choices I can make in a day before cognitive fatigue sets in, followed by the much less fun/more irritable version of me arriving. I have the opportunity to eliminate loads of pointless decisions by doing what came to mind first, and I already feel like it saves a load of mental energy that is better directed toward a million other things.
I’d love to hear what other people have noticed about their own decision-making process, too. Please leave a comment below.