Latent Lollygagger: Anatomy of a Decision

There are a few scientific models1 for what steps comprise the process of making a decision. For example2:

(I promise, that’s the end of the footnotes.)

  1. Define the problem
  2. Establish or Enumerate all the criteria (constraints)
  3. Consider or Collect all the alternatives
  4. Identify the best alternative
  5. Develop and implement a plan of action
  6. Evaluate and monitor the solution and examine feedback when necessary

I would imagine, for brains different than mine, these six steps proceed in order, there is a clear path in consecutive order, perhaps going something like this:

  1. I’d like to visit Mom but can I do so safely right now?
  2. Constraints: Covid-19, timing with work
  3. Options: Get tested and drive down, don’t go, wait until later this year
  4. Decide: Get tested and drive down
  5. Talk with Mom, quarantine for a few days, get tested, wait for results, rent a car, drive to Tucson as quickly as possible to limit chance of infection
  6. Upon arrival, be honest about how the trip went, perhaps decide to limit physical interaction or get tested again

Of course, there are a lot of things to think about, this isn’t a decision like “what should I have for lunch” or “run now or later.” A sample of the things to consider in such a decision – outlining the constraints and options in steps 2 and 3 – is definitely complex.

chart of what the process of making a decision to visit my mom might look like

In my brain, these steps get all shuffled out of order or I try to do them all at once, and I get stuck in a loop that makes every decision—from the minor ones about when or if I should run to more major ones like visiting my mom right now—a huge ordeal.

Each step becomes a new Step 1, creating a jumble of steps.

same chart with all components on top of each other rather than spread out into a plan

So, maybe this still isn’t exactly outside the realm of what happens to everyone. I suppose we’re not all sitting down to create a flow chart that we follow for every decision we make. Perhaps some of us make a pro/con list, or map out some of the possible outcomes, but usually we’re just pondering all our decisions at the same time we’re going about our lives, and bits and pieces of the chart pop into our brains, out of order and sometimes without context. I’ll be chopping an onion and think, “What about food? Will we cook together? Mom loves it when we cook for her.” And now, I’m imagining the last time we visited and the meals we (mostly J) cooked and how good it felt and now we have to make a decision about that and it’s not fair and and and…

chart with images of road signs (stop, wrong way, one way, road closed, dead end) overlaid

This is where I start to get distressed.

Making decisions based on all the factors, wanting to carefully consider options and not just jump head-first into an option before checking the depth of the water, this isn’t a bad skill to have. The anxiety appears when I skip over the line from functional to distressing.

The distressing part is in creating hypothetical scenarios and trying to problem solve my way out of them before I even take the first step towards implementing a solution.

The distressing part is feeling like I have to have a complete justification for why I chose what I did at each step along the way. Feeling like I need proof that I considered absolutely everything along the way.

There is a very real “They” in my head—a jury of my peers who reviews all of my decisions, major and minor, and hands down judgment on each of them. I trust this They more than I trust my own instincts. More than I trust my ability to make sound decisions with the information I have now (not hypotheticals).

This They is the compilation of every insecurity, every fear of disappointing someone, every time I’ve felt like someone real judged a decision I made, every time where being “perfect” and successful has earned me praise.

So now, I wonder, it’s not about getting rid of the jury. It’s about building up the trust in myself so that it’s strong enough to realize that I’m not under trial, and walk out of the courtroom.

If you appreciated reading this, will you do me a favor? Please share on social media (especially FB and Twitter, tag @bankoferin) and help me grow my reader base. xoxo

  2. Guo, Kristina L. (June 2008). “DECIDE: a decision-making model for more effective decision making by health care managers”. The Health Care Manager. 27 (2): 118–127. doi:10.1097/01.HCM.0000285046.27290.90. PMID 18475113. S2CID 24492631.

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