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Marissa Lawton May 25, 2021

Making Conscious Decisions in a Post-Pandemic World

Decision fatigue is not a new thing. But it feels like it’s been on the rise for years.

As society has become increasingly busy and inundated with tasks and obligations, we’ve started carrying more on our plates today than ever before. Not only do we have more to keep track of, but it feels like an endless game of mental gymnastics as we attempt to organize the clutter in our minds. Frankly, it’s become more and more overwhelming to make clear, calm, and intentional choices. Think about the clients and couples you see in session.

Sometimes it’s something as seemingly simple as choosing what to eat for dinner that turns into a moment of conflict. It’s not that they’re not capable of fixing or buying a meal. It’s that the mental labor required to organize information and evaluate their options is just too much.  Underlying that tension is decision fatigue. Now let's add one more layer to this: a pandemic.

With stress, anxiety, and trauma levels so high for such an extended period of time, every decision feels hard, whether it’s keeping the kids home from school for one more semester, traveling to a family member’s already twice postponed wedding, or putting on pants that actually have a zipper. We need a better way to cut through the noise, get quiet with ourselves, and decide from a place of knowing.

Making decisions without a grounded framework

What tends to happen when we aren’t able to tune into our inner needs is that decisions put us in an overloaded place. Rather than giving a decision the time and energy it deserves, we instead force one out of desperation.

Making choices from an exhausted or forceful place, causes us to feel boxed in, as if we've made a decision and we’re stuck with it. Even if we hate it, there's no changing it, no fixing it. Forcing decisions makes us feel trapped. Which then leads us to this idea that there's no room for failure. We’ve made the decision and we’re locked in. We believe it must be the right one because we think we’re not allowed to change our minds.

This is when decisions start to feel paralyzing rather than progressive. They start to feel like they are keeping us in one place instead of moving us forward.

When we learn to make conscious decisions

If we can lean into a decision-making process that feels supportive, we can start to undo the overwhelming feelings and conflict that can come from heavy considerations.

When our decisions come from a safe, grounded place, they no longer feel detractive. As if choosing one thing is automatically negative and dismissive of the other. Intentional decisions offer the opposite of feeling trapped. They’re expansive. Conscious choices connect us to our core and tie us to our authenticity. They feel like opportunities, not restrictions. 

Recent research in Australia and New Zealand shows that we have three decision-making centers in our body that function as brains: our cognitions, emotions, and intuition (Soosalu, Henwood, & Deo, 2019).

As counselors, we’ve known for a long time that thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are irrevocably linked. However, this new data shows that we can actually measure this connection by looking at three distinct areas in our bodies. These three areas are our gut, our heart, and our head. 

Gut brain

When we make decisions from our gut, they tend to be quick ones. A gut reaction isn’t a new term and the choices we make from this brain center are almost instantaneous. What’s also interesting is that our gut decisions are typically our most accurate.

When you have a hunch about something or when you know something in your gut intuition, it's often the truest. The crux of this though, is that most of us don’t know how to listen to our gut. It takes immense trust to be able to listen to our intuition, to not analyze it, and to operate solely from a gut decision.  The speed of our gut decisions is often what leads us astray. Because they come so fast, gut reactions can feel impulsive.

We're more likely to question these choices, even though they’re often the most authentic, because we're not tuned in as well as we could be to our inner knowing and intuition. Which is why gut decisions tend to get overruled by our other brain centers.

Heart brain

The next brain center is our heart brain, which takes in and receives emotional signals just as our head brain does neural ones.  And what research has shown is that our heart decisions tend to be our clearest decisions. 

Our heart brain is where clarity comes from. This is because heart decisions tend to be more values-based. To use our heart brains, we're checking in with our emotions and how we feel about something. For this reason, heart-based decisions tend to be slower than gut reactions. The energy of a heart choice is emotional and lends itself more to embodiment than reaction.

Head brain

The brain that we’re obviously most familiar with is the one inside our head. Our head brain is responsible for cerebral cognitions. It’s the home of our linear and systematic thoughts. But our decisions that come from our head brain are the slowest

Head brain decisions often involve things like writing pros and cons lists, comparing and contrasting options, checking off criteria, and evaluating different scenarios. Because of this, these decisions take a long time and require lots of mental energy.

Just as we tend to overrule our gut choices, we can also dismiss our head decisions based on the amount of time they take. But rather than snap judgements, head decisions can take so long that self-consciousness has the potential to creep in. Slow, methodical decisions lead us down a rabbit hole of “what if’s” and leave us doubting that we’ve made the right choice.

Three-step conscious decision process

What’s most fascinating is that humans have three operational centers (not just one) and each one does something different. So how can we embrace the potential and power of these three brain centers and use them to make the best decisions possible? We layer them on top of each other.

Whenever you have a choice to make whether it pertains to your counseling practice or your personal life, here’s what you do:

First, check in with your gut. Do you have a hunch about what you should do? What is your intuition hinting at? Depending on how much time you spend listening to this brain center it might be a tiny whisper or a booming voice, but you’ll likely get some kind of immediate guidance from your gut.

Second, once you have an initial reaction about the decision you have to make, take it to your heart brain. Evaluate how it aligns with your values and your feelings. How do you feel about this gut reaction? Reflect on what you feel when you’re exploring the different aspects of the choice. Check in with things like alignment and integrity and see how it would feel if you followed this hunch. This stage will bring you clarity.

Third, once you’ve gotten to this point and feel clear about your choice, bring it to your head brain. The job of your head brain isn’t to convince you whether it’s the right choice to make or not. Your other two brain centers have taken care of this for you. At this stage it’s less about deciding and more about planning. This work feels like brainstorming. Like going through the logistics and tactics which your head brain is really good at.

So, the next time you feel exhausted and like you’re forcing a decision, lean into all three brain centers in your body. Utilize them together to help make choices that are accurate, clear, and well-planned, and you’ll feel much more grounded in the decisions you make. Now and during whatever else life throws your way.

Soosalu, G., Henwood, S., & Deo, A. (2019). Head, Heart, and Gut in Decision Making: Development of a Multiple Brain Preference Questionnaire, 9(1) https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019837439


Marissa Lawton is a licensed counselor, military spouse, girlmom, and self-proclaimed believer in the slow-living movement. She is most passionate about helping fellow clinicians slow down, step away from the shoulds, and live a values-based life. Find out more at marissalawton.com/values
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