How to Make Good Decisions Before, During and After a Crisis

David Cain
Making decisions amidst the crisis

COVID-19 has effectively dumped the contents of our lives onto the floor like an old junk drawer, and there’s nothing to do but gather it all up and figure out where everything goes now. 

The year 2020 will be remembered as the year each of us had to reimagine and rebuild our day-to-day lives. What will paying the bills look like? What about exercise? Social life? What should happen on a normal day? 

Think of it this way: life is asking each of us the fundamental philosophical question -- how should I live? – and we need to come up with a thoughtful, coherent answer, possibly for the first time. 

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So how do you make good choices, particularly when you’re feeling unprecedented levels of anxiety and uncertainty? 

Here are a few ways we can support ourselves in making rational, proactive choices that come from our better selves. 

Meet Your Body’s Needs First 

Every decision you make arises from your current state of mind, which depends on the state of your body. Gyms are closed, and you’re probably walking much less, getting too much screen time, and ordering unusual amounts of takeout. It’s never been easier to be sedentary, and it was always easy.

Make sure the body moves. Come up with a fitness routine you can do at home. It absolutely does not need to be ambitious -- it just needs to be consistent. In fact, it may be more helpful to think of it as a “movement” routine, to make it as unintimidating as possible. 

Employ the unexciting secret to fitness success. Pick movements you enjoy, or at least don’t mind -- and make sure you do them. I do 30 squats in my kitchen each time I put my kettle on, which is at least three times a day. In the afternoons I do a simple calisthenics routine I don’t mind. 

Do anything. A consistent standard is all that matters. No need to get ambitious, just active. 

Practice Embracing Anxiety 

Anxiety is a normal response to perceived threats. You should be feeling it right now. There’s no way not to feel it in the midst of a global pandemic except to be completely unaware of what’s happening. 

The trouble with anxiety is that it works by convincing you that it’s not okay to feel it. Your system is trying to spur you into action, by producing harrowing mental and physical symptoms that make you want to do anything to get rid of them. 

That’s all anxiety can do though: frighten you into acting. The symptoms do ebb and flow, however, and recognizing this basic pattern hints at its deceptive nature. If you need to make big decisions, wait for an ebb if you can, but don’t assume you need to eliminate anxiety symptoms before you can live your life again. 

One of the most powerful ways to deal with anxiety is to learn, through some gentle experimentation, that it’s okay to feel it. This is one place a modest mindfulness practice is incredibly helpful. Gently -- a few seconds at a time at first – see if you can allow yourself to feel its symptoms. You may discover something empowering: anxiety can chase you around, but it can never really get you. All it does is bark.

Use This Uncertain Time to Reassess What’s Truly Important

When life is unfolding normally, it can be hard to know whether you’ve been living from your values, or merely from habit. 

If you’ve been neglecting your health, you may not realize it until the day you receive unsettling news from your doctor. If you’ve neglected your social life, that may only become obvious when a well-connected friend moves away and you’re left with only acquaintances.

Now that your “normal” has been torpedoed by a crisis, it may suddenly be clear what you haven’t been taking care of. Have you been underestimating the value of social contact? Or savings? Or health? Or generosity? Disasters, for all the harm they cause, shake us out of complacency.

Here’s the vital question: when things go back to normal, to the extent that they do, in what ways do you want to be living differently than you did before? Perhaps you want to invest in your social life, and rely less on electronic entertainment. Maybe it’s clear now that long-term savings provide more value than annual beach vacations. 

Whatever your priorities have been this last decade or two, what do you want them to be now? Sit down with a cup of coffee, a notepad, and pencil, and write down what’s truly important -– and what’s not — while it’s still unusually clear. 

Take the Long View

Everything ends. There are people alive today who can remember when the Second World War was today’s news. They had no idea how things would turn out, or what the next months or years of their lives would look like. Yet the war did end, and they’ve lived the last 75 years with it behind them. 

Human beings are incredibly resilient. The cliché is that “life is short,” and in one sense, it is. But it’s also unfathomably long. The average human life is a vast enough thing to span multiple cultural eras and world-changing events, with many happily uneventful years between them. 

We can see this effect even on the personal level. Almost every breakup or job loss seems world-ending at the time. Inevitably, each event proves to be a small segment of your life, and by a certain point you rarely think about it anymore.  

The key is to recognize the vastness of life while the difficult moments are still happening. Your life right now is always one line, of one page, of one chapter in a very long novel. You may have no idea how you’re going to make things work, but at every moment, both now and in the future, you will always have the freedom to choose a sensible next step – and there’s nothing else you need to do.

David Cain
David Cain is a writer based in Winnipeg, Canada. He is the creator and author of Raptitude, a blog about getting better at being human.