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Stress & decision-readiness: Decide now or later?

We are not always in a good state to make a decision. When we are stressed, physically or emotionally, we are more likely to make a mistake in decision-making. For example, when we feel over-whelmed, hungry, angry, hot or tired.

Our stress system is intended to prepare us to act, specifically to run away from threatening things that might harm us. It has served us fine in the dangerous savannah when dealing with all kinds of life-threatening things. But it is now antiquated. Nowadays, it can feel life-threatening when you are not prepared for a presentation, when the stock market goes down, when you have a test that's coming up. So our stress system is not adapting the way it could to modern life.

Why is this important?

Memory impairment. When stressed, cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones course through our system, hampering the activity of other functions like cardiovascular and memory. This makes it difficult to make a sound decision if you need to recall helpful data or information – which is the case with most decisions.

Negativity focus. Stress also narrows our vision (tunnel vision) making us focus on the negatives of a situation (the “life-threatening” part), ignoring the upside.

Inability to deal with situation. Whenever we are stressed we focus on "Is this going to harm me?" instead of thinking "What is the situation I am dealing with? What do I have to overcome this situation?". We lose our ability to effectively deal with the situation in any way other than running away from it.

On a nerdy note, many psychologists find it useful to describe our minds as made up of two different systems: System 1 and System 2. The two-system model was introduced by Keith Stanovich and Richard West and popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It points to the idea that when we react to any situation, we often have an initial gut response that isn't well thought out. That's our System 1 response, and it tends to be emotional, automatic and poorly reasoned. Given more time to reflect and analyze a situation, a second, more thoughtful and rational System 2 response ideally comes online. If all goes well, System 2 dominates System 1, but in stressful situations, System 1 is more likely to win out, leading us to make rash decisions.

What can we do about it?

Is there such a thing as a stress-free situation? No. So it’s not about eliminating stress. It’s about managing it. Here are some strategies:

1. Making stress work for you instead of against you. Researchers at Yale University have found that shifting your stress mindset can curb negative outcomes and even lead to positive ones. Individuals who look at stress as a growth opportunity report having better health, greater workplace performance, enhanced productivity and greater overall satisfaction with life than those with a more negative mindset on stress. The "stress-is-enhancing" mindset can be described as follows: You look at stress as an opportunity for growth and positive impact. You recognize how experiencing stress facilitates your learning and growth, and how it can enhance your performance and productivity.

2. Emotional agility. As Susan David of Harvard Medical School explains, the words we use in our head matter. If you’re experiencing a strong emotion, take a moment to consider what to call it. But don’t stop at the obvious umbrella term. Once you’ve identified it, try to come up with two more words that describe how you are feeling. You might be surprised at the breadth of your emotions—or that you’ve unearthed a deeper emotion buried beneath the more obvious one.

Here is what this may look like when under pressure:

3. Organizational processes. Professor Modupe Akinola tells us how at Columbia university, when they are doing recruitment, they don’t make the decision the day they are meeting the candidate. They wait until the next day to vote. It gives them time to reflect back on their thoughts from the day before and calibrate them. Instead of saying “Let’s get this over with” they intentionally leave some space to the decision-makers to clear their head.

This process can apply in many different situations at work and other aspects of our lives. For example, adding a small delay to your email so that when you press "send" you have some time to rethink the email before it gets sent.


1. We are not always decision-ready.

2. It can be valuable to observe ourselves and become attuned to the state we are in.

3. Turning stress into a positive force is achievable. The "stress-is-enhancing" mindset.

4. It's our responsibility to manage our stress levels, with simple things. Making the most of the weekends and any free time we get. Sleep well, eat well, spend time with loved ones, relax, take care of yourself.

Be kind to yourself. Ask "What do I need today?"

5. It can be valuable to learn to label your emotions and become more attuned to what state you are. Keep the umbrella in mind and use it when needed, either notionally or in writing: Fill in the blank on the umbrella with the quick and easy label for your feeling. Then pause to carefully consider your emotion. Write the specific terms that describe what you are feeling under the umbrella.


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