Decision Making Under Stress and Uncertainty




Many people are struggling with decision making in both their professional and personal lives – whether to reopen their offices, whether or not to send kids back to school, whether to go on a family trip, which activities are safe and which activities are unsafe, etc. Decision making under uncertainty and stress in many ways IS the question of the moment. We’re not a public health experts, so while we can’t give you concrete direction about what to do, we can offer a framework for how to get the most clarity in *how* you go about making these decisions.


1. Recognize your own confusion

Good decision making in the face of uncertain threats is inherently confusing. Our brains are wired to get confused anytime reality diverges from our expectations. All of us had hopes, dreams and assumptions about what 2020 would bring that are wildly different from how things have played out, in ways large and small. In the face of this confusion, our brains go into threat mode – fight / flight / freeze – in ways that can be hard to recognize from the inside. The first step to seeing clearly is acknowledging just how likely our judgment has been clouded under these conditions. From that acknowledgment, we can open ourselves to genuine curiosity about what’s going on and how we’re making sense of it.

2. Get clear on your attachments/fears

Because confusion emerges in the gap between reality and our expectations, clarity requires seeing all the underlying stories we hold about ourselves that are coloring our view of the situation. What narratives do we hold about what it means to be a good parent? A good coworker? A safe person? A courageous person? Do we react to restrictions with anger at the imposition on our freedom, and search for ways to downplay the risks? Do we react to risk with guilt at the idea of exposing our loved ones to danger, and freeze in place? How much of our behavior is oriented toward trying to capture a sense of “normalcy” based on how we thought things were going to go, versus striving for what we really want in these new circumstances?

It can be helpful to list out all your fears and the meaning you put into them. Don’t try to make it rational – the goal is to get at what’s really driving your psychology. For example, “If I don’t go on the family trip this year, I’ll be the black sheep of the family forever,” or “if I don’t send my kids to school, I’ll hurt their education in ways they’ll never recover from.”

3. Get clear on your essentials – reorient to your “why”

Under threat, most people reorient away from their intentional goals toward protecting themselves. There’s a good chance the fears you just explored are the main drivers of your decision making right now. To get beyond that, step back to reorient to your bigger “why.” Reorienting to what really matters to you is like finding your north star; you might not know how you’ll get where you want to go, but you know which direction you need to go. This doesn’t mean ignoring risks — it means placing those risks in the context of your broader life and aspirations, so you can start thinking about what to do next.

Take a moment to reflect on what’s truly essential to you. Try to avoid single, concrete points of action (e.g. it’s essential for my kids to go to school) and focus instead on the larger goal you want to achieve (e.g. I want to raise thoughtful children with the education they need to thrive in the world). See if you can get beyond the expectations of others or stories you’ve told yourself about what it means to be a valuable, happy person. What has actually brought you fulfillment in the past? What outcomes feel genuinely meaningful to you (versus things that “should” feel meaningful?) What goals, if you were looking back from your deathbed, would still matter?

Don’t worry if you can’t yet see how to achieve these essential goals – what matters is beginning to distinguish what genuinely matters to you from your kneejerk reactions and stories.

4. Evaluate the risks RELATIVE to your essential “why”

Once you’ve gotten clear on what genuinely matters to you, you can do your research on risks from a sounder analytical footing. Safety doesn’t exist as a concept in a vacuum – it exists relative to what matters to you. Now is the time to go explore what can be known (and what remains unknown) that puts your underlying goals at risk. For example, if your goal is raising children to thrive in the world, then you’ll need to weigh the risk of them missing out on standard schooling (or the burden on you of finding alternate arrangements) to the risks of longer term damage from COVID infections, both for them and you.

Go back to your fear list – what fears are actually relevant to your goals? For the fears that are relevant, what evidence supports them (or not?)

Of course, in an environment like this with so many unknowns, getting good information in and of itself is a major challenge. To that end, I recommend five practices when you do your research:

  • Check your assumptions: Start any search by writing down the big assumptions you’re starting with. How dangerous or benign do you currently believe COVID is? How long do you believe it will last? How stable (or not) do you believe your current economic situation is? Without clarity on what you’re assuming, you’ll fall into the trap of only finding information that reinforces what you already believe.
  • Be wary of anecdotes designed to prey on your hopes and fears: While getting information (especially on the internet) it’s critical to remember that your brain is primed to look for information that stands out as scary or relieving, and that the economic incentives of the media are set up to reward what gets attention rather than what’s true.
  • Look for evidence: Wherever possible, look for peer-reviewed studies that ground risk factors in more rigorous quantitative analysis.
  • Look for sources that go against your current ideas: Recognize that you are primed by nature to seek evidence that supports your existing views and disregard evidence that goes against it. Actively overcoming this bias means putting MORE effort into looking at sources that go against your current thinking than the opposite.
  • Take the long view: Your big life goals are exactly that – goals for your entire life. When faced with major uncertainty our sense of time often shrinks, making us weigh short term risks much more highly than long term risks. Be aware of this tendency, and ask yourself what risks really matter to you not just this year, but over the next 5, 10, 20 years.

5. A
ccept reality

There’s a large gap between seeing what’s happening and accepting it. All those fears and dashed hopes you listed in step 2 – they don’t just go away because of your research and logic. Acceptance is as much or more an emotional process as it is an analytic exercise. In times of crisis we are called to walk a narrow road between panic and hubris. This is hard. There is a lot we don’t know. Things we were excited about may be disappearing overnight. Security we relied on may suddenly appear shaky, or gone entirely. In the face of this we may go numb, or have strong feelings we aren’t quite sure what to do with. This is the time to commit to clarity with one another, to recognize our feelings and those of others are not moral failings but the first steps toward courage. To recognize loss as an inevitable part of life — and creation, sometimes where we least expect it.

Giving ourselves the space for this acceptance often means giving ourselves the space for grief. If grief seems like too strong a word for giving up a family vacation, I invite you to set aside your judgement and let your emotions be what they are. Grief is a remarkably powerful tool for transformation – it’s what we’ve been equipped with to move forward when there is nothing left to be done. While everyone grieves in their own way, I recommend giving yourself the space to find yours. This might mean going on a long walk by yourself, or staying up late looking up at the stars. Maybe it’s commiserating with your most trusted friends. Whatever your mechanism, give yourself the space to feel whatever you have to feel about the ways this year has gone differently from what you may have wanted – not with the goal of changing it, but accepting it for what it is. It’s the only way to open space for what this year can be.

6. Look at creative design options for achieving what you really care about

Once we’ve seen our attachments, identified our true goals, researched the risks and accepted the reality they present, we can start looking at creative options for how to reach our goals in ways we didn’t see before. If what we really care about is helping our children grow, the time at home that we can spend helping them work through their own confusion or picking up a new hobby together may be far more valuable toward that goal than the summer camp that’s no longer open. Start with the goal, and look at how to reach it if you drop your idea of HOW to reach it.

Creativity doesn’t require having all the answers – in fact it often starts with acknowledging the unknown and working with it. Many of us, at all levels of experience, can fall into the trap of thinking our hands are tied until we get more information. What we’re really saying is “we’re paralyzed by our inability to compute the future.” The need for certainty can blind us to how much we can do to work towards our “why,” even when the future looks particularly hard to predict. If you don’t know whether or not schools will be open (or if you feel comfortable sending your children there if they are), it’s worth at least exploring what a private homeschool coop would look like with a group of other parents. The process of exploring the option, even if you don’t end up using it, will set you up for a wider range of scenarios than spending all your time trying to get more information about what will happen this fall.

7. Make the decision when you’re at your best

When it comes time to make a call, it helps to go back to step one of acknowledging confusion. When we’re afraid or stressed, some of us feel an increased pressure to make decisions, even though our thinking is at its worst in those moments. When you feel that impulse arise that you have to make a call NOW, there’s a good chance that what you really need is a snack and a nap.

You can prepare yourself by getting to know your own rhythms and designing decision making time into your schedule during the periods when you know you’re at your best. If you’re a morning person and do best when the world is asleep and the steam is curling off your coffee, leave your big decisions to that moment of the day. If you struggle to shift contexts between personal and work life, perhaps leave your big life decisions to the weekends, or take a day off with the specific intention of creating space for yourself to step back and think more clearly.

While you won’t always be able to make the right call (that’s the nature of living in an uncertain world), you can set yourself up to make BETTER calls. Ironically perhaps, making better decisions often means letting go of fixating on the decision itself. By letting go of the idea that you need to make the perfect decision, and instead focusing on what you need to be at your best for any decision you are making, you create more space to run through the process described above, and discover creative ways to manage the risks you can see against what matters most. In the end, there are many decisions you’ll have to make. Doing that well means worrying less about the decision, and more about the decision maker.

  • What decisions are you currently struggling with at the moment?
  • What makes those decisions challenging?
  • What makes those decisions important?


Pick one key decision around which you are experiencing high stress or uncertainty.

Run it through the process described above. This includes:

  1. Recognize your own confusion
  2. Get clear on your attachments / fears
  3. Get clear on your essentials – reorient to your “why”
  4. Evaluate the risks RELATIVE to your essential “why”
  5. Accept reality
  6. Look at creative design options for achieving what you really care about
  7. Make the decision when you’re at your best


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