Just a few months ago, we would have gone out for brunch with our friends, made a quick stop at the store to pick up a gallon of milk, and visited our grandparents, all without a second thought.
Then came the coronavirus. Then came the reports about community spread. Then came the worries about whether there would be enough hospital resources for sick patients, along with the risk to some of our most vulnerable friends and family. Then came the rising number of confirmed cases and death counts.
Along with all these worries came the questions. Is it safe to order takeout? Do I need to sanitise my groceries? How long does the virus last on surfaces? Should I wear a mask? Is it safe to visit my parents? Is this cough due to allergies or am I getting sick with COVID-19?
“This is made harder for us because we have to go looking for the evidence,” says Baruch Fischhoff, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University who studies why people make the decisions they do. “You worry you have missed something.”
Life in a pandemic means making all sorts of hard decisions, small and large. Whether it’s deciding to go to the grocery store, ordering takeout or visiting a loved one who is sick, ordinary actions we would have previously done without a second thought have become high-stake decisions, often with no clear right or wrong answer.
Too many decisions result in emotional and mental strain
“These are legitimately difficult decisions,” Fischhoff says, adding that people shouldn’t feel bad about struggling with them. “Feeling bad is adding insult to injury,” he says.
This added complexity to our decisions is leading to decision fatigue, which is the emotional and mental strain that comes when we are forced to make too many choices. Decision fatigue is the reason why thinking through a decision is harder when we are stressed or tired.
“These are difficult decisions because the stakes are often really high, while we are required to master unfamiliar information,” Fischhoff says.
But if all of this sounds like too much, there are actions we can take to reduce decision fatigue. For starters, it’s best to minimise the number of small decisions, such as what to eat for dinner or what to wear, you make in a day. The fewer smaller decisions you have to make, the more bandwidth you’ll have for the bigger one.
For this particular crisis, there are a few more steps you can take, in order to reduce your decision fatigue.
Find trusted sources of news
There is a lot of misinformation out there, as well as a lot of conspiracy theories, all of which is exhausting and confusing. To counteract this added stress, Fischhoff recommends identifying a select number of experts who can be trusted.
“The press is absolutely vital,” he says. His recommendation is to identify the outlets which have dedicated reporters and editors who are committed to getting the facts right. He also recommends avoiding the wilder conspiracy theories circulating on social media.
“Your instinct is to try and make sense of them, even if you think it is ridiculous,” he says, adding that by the time you’ve worked through the conspiracy theory, “You know less than when you started.”
Go easy on yourself
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to look back and second guess decisions, such as not acting sooner than you did. This is known as hindsight bias, and is something Fischhoff recommends we try and avoid, as we are all making the best decisions we can, given the limited information and changing nature of this crisis.
“Don’t second-guess the decisions you make,” Fischhoff says. “Do the best you can and go easy on yourself.”