In this episode, our host and Utah-area licensed therapist, Jackie Pack talks about the importance of developing decision-making skills.
Life is full of decisions to be made. Not many of us were taught how to make good choices. In this episode Jackie talks about science of decision-making and shares some ideas for improving our ability to make great choices.
TRANSCRIPT: How to Improve Decision Making
Hi everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. At the beginning of this episode, I wanted to take a few minutes and talk about how the nature of therapy is changing across the country because of the recent COVID-19 virus. Now it used to be that if you wanted to find someone that you could meet with in person near your home and where you lived, you could do a Google search and someone would pop up, and you’d give them a call and touch base and schedule an appointment. It might be a little more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. Now this has always been a problem for more rural communities because they may not have the option of having a therapist located near them or they may not have a therapist located near them who specializes in what they might be seeking therapy for. Now with many therapists moving to online video platforms to provide therapy services for their clients, this opens up opportunities for everybody to find the right therapist wherever they live. At Healing Paths, we have made the move to online therapy services over the past two weeks we’ve been doing online sessions, and there are some differences, but what I find is people adjust pretty quickly. I’ve adjusted pretty quickly. Maybe the first week was kind of a learning curve to being on video instead of in person, but we’ve made the adjustment and most of my clients are able to pick up the work that they were doing when they were coming to my office and continue that in the online sessions. We also had some groups that were in progress when this virus started to hit the United States, and so we also had to move those groups onto an online platform, and that was a little bit more questionable for us. We weren’t sure how that would work when we have like 10 participants in a group, plus 2 therapists moving to an online platform, and the good news is we found the same effect. We found that maybe the first night we spent 5 minutes kind of saying how weird it was, people adjusting, but then they were able to drop into the issues that they were working on the group and support each other and connect with each other and the group work continued. So as we’ve been able to add additional services through the online platforms to what we offer at Healing Paths, we’re starting to talk as a staff and talk as a team also on online platforms because we’re not getting together, and we’re able to talk about maybe how we could more efficiently take advantage of these opportunities that this virus has given us in moving to online platforms and giving services to people who maybe do not live by where Healing Paths is located. So we’ve been talking about topics for groups that we would want to offer that clients can access in an online format. We’ve also begun to talk about offering psychoeducational groups that people throughout the country could access. In psychoeducational groups, we can offer those across state lines because they’re psychoeducational and they’re not therapeutic in nature. These groups can also be really effective for people and help them move through some of the issues in a more informed way than they had prior to that. So I’m going to include a link to the contact form on our website if you’re interested in maybe participating in one of these groups, and where we were located was an issue before but you’d like to participate in one of these groups, or if you’d like to be part of a group and you haven’t found kind of the group that you’re looking for, you can suggest that to us through this contact form. Let us know. Also be watching our Facebook page, which is Healing Paths Inc., and our website because we will be updating the services that we are adding from those two sites.
Okay, so on to the episode for today. In today’s episode I wanted to talk about decision making. In the past few years, and increasing body of research has emerged related to the limits of our decision making energies. It turns out that the quality of our decisions begins to erode during the course of a typical day as our fixed amount of will power is used up, so we sync that differently. Scientists have discovered that decision making power is a depletable resource. The science makes it clear that it is increasingly important that we reduce our non-critical decisions as much as possible in order to free our brain for more important high-order thinking. So this might mean delegating tasks at work so that one person isn’t making all of the decisions. It may mean hiring additional people to help carry the load. It definitely means taking breaks and making self care a regular part of your day. Now some of these tasks that you may have to do throughout your day may be short tasks. Maybe they’re only taking you 5 or 10 minutes, but the science is also clear that while 5 or 10 minutes out of your day may not feel like a lot of time, those 5 or 10 minutes of actual worktime might have cost you an hour’s worth of your mental resources. The time that it takes your brain to switch between various tasks can be tremendous when we’re talking about high-level thinking. Now Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit every day so that he never had to think about what to wear. Tim Ferris eats the same healthy meal for breakfast every day, so he doesn’t have to think about what food to prepare, and President Barack Obama limits his low-priority email responses to agree, disagree, or discuss to simplify the mental burden of his small decisions.
So let’s talk about for a minute what decision making is. So decision making is the process of identifying and choosing alternatives based on values, preferences, and beliefs of the decision maker. Every decision-making process produces a final choice, which may or may not prompt action. At any point in our lives, there are going to be decisions to be made. Some need to be made now, some need to be thought about. Life is made up of an infinite amount of choices. Most decisions such as what you’ll eat for lunch today are small and only slightly impactful, but it’s the big decisions, the ones that can change your life forever, that are tough to make. Now the human mind is a remarkable device. Nevertheless, it is not without limits. According to an article in Scientific America, a growing body of research has focused on a particular mental limitation which has to do with our ability to use a mental trait knowns as executive function. When you focus on a specific task for an extended period of time or make a choice, you are flexing your executive function muscles, and it turns out that use of executive function, a talent we all rely on throughout the day, draws upon a single resource of limited capacity in the brain. When this resource is exhausted by one activity, our mental capacity may be severely hindered in another seemingly unrelated activity. So if making choices depletes executive resources, then downstream decisions might be affected adversely when we are forced to choose with a fatigued brain.
University of Maryland psychologist Anastasia Doulis and colleagues found exactly this effect. Individuals who had to regulate their attention, which required executive control, made significantly different choices than people who did not, and these different choices followed a very specific pattern. They became reliant on a more and more simplistic and often inferior thought process, and they fell prey to perceptual decoys. So for example, in one experiment, participants who were asked to ignore subtitles in an otherwise boring film clip were much more likely to choose an option that stood next to a clearly inferior decoy, an option that was similar to one of the good choices but was obviously not quite as good, and then participants who watched the same clip but were not asked to ignore anything presumably trying to control one’s attention and to ignore an interesting cue exhausted the limited resources, the executive functions, making it significantly more difficult to ignore the existence of the otherwise irrelevant inferior decoy. Subjects with overtaxed brains made worse decisions. Now these experimental insights suggest that the brain works like a muscle. When depleted, it becomes less effective. We should take this knowledge into account when we are making decisions. If we have just spent a lot of time focusing on a particular task, exercising self control or even if we’ve just made a lot of seemingly minor choices, then we probably shouldn’t try to make a major decision. Good decision making is an essential life skill most people acquire through trial and error. Few have had the benefit of formal training in decision making or are aware of decision science, and for most of us, learning through trial and error can be a harsh learning process. We want to try and get it right more than we want to err, so one critical issue in decision making is to recognize the nature of our choices and to recognize that the decision has to be made. People often have trouble when they do not see that a choice has to be made or they ignore the realities about making a decision. Sometimes people can procrastinate making a decision for weeks or months or even years. Much of therapy is about helping people make and face choices. Therapy often goes much smoother when people are in a place where they can recognize and face the reality of their previous choices, and the realities presented by their choices. This can be a painful process coming into our own reality, and it often involves some sort of grief process, a letting go of what was wanted or desired in order to see reality as it is.
In the workbook Recovery Zone, which is the second workbook in Dr. Patrick Carnes’ task model for recovery from sexual addiction, chapter 1 is called the decision table. Now in Dr. Carnes’ task model, the first workbook that clients work in is called Facing the Shadow, and Facing the Shadow is a great workbook, and it’s really focused on the external tasks, so we’re understanding addiction cycles and we’re understanding what this particular person’s addiction cycle looks like. They’re preparing for relapse and what to do to prevent relapse, or if relapse happens, how do you process through the relapse? They’re also focused on how do I heal my brain and how do I develop some new neuropathways, and what about the people I’m hanging out with? So it’s really kind of focused on these external tasks of setting up a life that’s going to support recovery. Recovery Zone, the second workbook in his task model, shifts to internal tasks, and like I said chapter one is the decision table, so we start to look at what’s going on inside of the client or inside of the person, or I’ve done these exercises myself, so inside of me when it comes to making decisions because that’s an important part it turns out in recovery or in healing or in effective positive change. I use this chapter and the exercises in it for most of my clients at one point or another in therapy. Dr. Carnes says, “Imagine a table in front of each of us. On it are decisions we know we should make. Every one of us has choices that, if made, would make our lives remarkable. These choices include diet, weight, career, relationships, and unfinished tasks. These are the tasks we wish we would simply do but do not. Statements we wish we would say but leave unsaid and habits and additions we hope we could stop, or the projects we started but never finished and the creative ideas thought about but never completed. In short, it is the life we want but do not have.” Now our life changes when we understand the decision table. People in recovery understand that decision making is a core recovery skill, and who isn’t in some type of recovery? I mean, even if you don’t have an identified addiction, I don’t think I have an identified addiction, and I still find that the recovery principles very much apply to my life. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, it sets the tone in the third step which starts off with “made a decision.” The third step asks for a commitment to the program as a way that alcoholics can heal their lives. It’s a commitment asked for up front before the new member knows where all of this will lead or what will be required. Throughout the Big Book, there is the constant request for commitment that forces us to look for the courage to decide to do something on our own behalf. Bill W. writes that if you are not in the solution, you are still in the problem. Bill W. also wrote about the willingness to go to any lengths, so the commitment to change or decide on your own behalf is echoed throughout all the recovery groups and most self-help programs. For examples, a constant theme in Al Anon is that in your decisions, you get to decide how important your serenity is. Sex addicts talk about the sobriety imperative. One of the traditional closings of a 12-step meeting after the recitation of the serenity prayer is “Keep coming back.” It works if you work it, if you put it into action. Most addicts have problems because of inaction. They’re not facing the decisions on their decision table.
Dr. Carnes outlines four essentials in decision making. So essential #1 is you have to decide. Now there are a number of issues that can prevent us from making a decision, and I’m going to put them into kind of two categories. The first category is we don’t have enough information. If we don’t have enough information, it can feel like we’re making a decision without any basis, and we would be. Sometimes our decision or choices are coming from a place of intuition. Sometimes we talk about intuition as if it was a magical thing or like kind of a fluffy kind of fantasy thing. Intuition is actually a combination of past experiences and our personal values, so it is worth taking your intuition into account because it reflects your learning about life and the things that you’ve to this point experienced. This is where your trial and error come in useful. Intuition, however, is not always based on reality. It’s just about your perceptions or your interpretations, many of which may have started in childhood and may not be very useful to you in functional adulthood, so it is worth examining your gut feeling closely, not completely dismissing it or being unaware of your gut feeling, but just because you feel it in your gut doesn’t mean that’s enough. We do have to examine that gut feeling, especially if you have a very strong feeling against a particular course of action. See if you can work out why and whether the feeling is justified and where is this coming from? Take some time to gather necessary data to inform your decision so it isn’t simply a matter of gut instinct. Now the other thing that makes it difficult in making a decision is too much information. So this is the opposite problem, but one that is encountered often. We kind of talk about it in terms of like we can’t see the forest through the trees. This can result in what is called analysis paralysis. This issue can be solved by using our reasoning. So reasoning is using the facts and figures in front of us to inform our decision. Reasoning has its roots in the here and now and in facts. The problem with reasoning is that it can ignore emotional aspects of the decision. It may not take into account those gut instincts or that intuition we were just talking about. So finding a balance between reasoning and intuition is going to be key.
Now essential #2 is most critical decisions are made without knowing what the outcome will be. People are often very attached to the status quo. Decisions tend to involve the prospect of change, which most of us find difficult and uncomfortable. One of the problems that I think people have with making a decision is that while we may be deciding what course of action to take, at the same time we are making the decision about what course of action we won’t take, and sometimes the decisions that are required of us aren’t necessarily like a decision between something that’s bad or good. Those are easy decisions to make usually. But when we have a host of good decisions placed before us and we have to choose one, we kind of feel intuitively that when I’m choosing this one, I’m at the same time not choosing these other options. Joseph Campbell in his studies of the stories of thousands of cultures found that all heroes and heroines go through the same process. It’s also a process that addicts go through. It’s also a process that many people who find themselves in therapy go through. First of all, they did not want to go on an adventure or accept a new challenge. They found themselves thrust into situations in which they had a choice of doing something or being defeated by despairing circumstances. Invariably the choice to do something meant embarking on a quest or adventure without the knowledge of how it would end. Our culture is full of myths and stories that follow the same pattern. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars did not want to go but preferred to stay with his aunt and uncle on their farm. Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit preferred to stay in the Shire. Harry Potter had no clue about his exceptional future as he struggled with his muggle family. In the Greek stories Oedipus, Medea, and Atreus all were thrust into circumstances beyond their control. Essentially our stories help us grow personally and teach us about the courage it takes to be human beings. So it is with recovery or therapy or any change process. Most of us did not want to start the process. We didn’t realize the issue that we came in to work on would turn out to be much bigger than we anticipated. In 12-step fellowships, there’s a phrase that honors this moment in people’s lives. The line is “Some of us cried out it is too great a task. However, we must continue to find the courage to take the next step, to process our fears and discomfort, to honor our commitment and make the decisions that the process demands of us.” Which leads us to the next essential.
The third essential is true decisions require that we do all that we can to make them happen. So to go along with the third essential, Dr. Carnes created a decision index that indicates the level of our courage. It starts off with wishing. Now we’ve all heard what’s said about wishes—if wishes were fishes… So wishing is just the beginning stage to desiring change. It’s just a wish at that point. Wishes are not likely to come true if we don’t do something with them. So this is going to be on the low end of his decision index. Wishing is then followed by hoping. Hoping is having a moderate desire for change. This may progress into wanting, having a high desire for change. All of these things, wishing, hoping, wanting are still in those phases of desire. The wanting phase is then followed by what Dr. Carnes says is “whethering”, which is this commitment to make it happen. So I’m going to do this whether or not. And then the fifth level in the decision index of courage is going to any length, and this is using every possible advantage for success. Now we may hear statements like “I wish I had a happy relationship” or “I wish I could save money”, and that might escalate to hope. “I hope I start losing weight” or “I hope I can find a better job.” Then comes a higher level of energy in which people really want to do better. “I really want to do something about my marriage” or “I really want to change careers.” You can tell a difference in their use of language from wishing to hoping to wanting, yet wishing, hoping, and wanting is not going to be enough to create transformational change. This is where “whethering” comes in. If we are listening for weathering, we can hear the seriousness of whether or not the change will happen. This may sound like I’m going to communicate differently with you from here on out, whether you make any changes or not. I will be more direct and clear going forward whether you’re still confusing to me. I am changing my career whether it dips into my savings account. I have resigned and I’m starting my own business. I’m making my health a priority. I’m ready to do what is necessary to make my life rewarding. So this is the point in therapy that we talk about with clients when we say there’s no going back. You know more now, and how you used to cope or live simply won’t work anymore because you’ve come too far on the journey. We can’t put the lid back on. We can’t un-see what has been seen. We can’t un-know what now we know, and clients have to surrender to the process of change and what is required of them because they’ve come too far in the journey and going back isn’t possible. This is a courageous place to be, and clients don’t get here by accident. For me as a clinician, this is when I know that they’ve turned a corner and something is different about them and they will never be the same. They are going to see what there is to see. They will do what there is to do, and they will be who they were meant to be.
Essential #4 is the critical decision in life is to decide to come to your own assistance. Dr. Carnes says, “Sooner or later in life, one has to make a core decision about oneself. Am I worthwhile to fight for?” He says this is a choice that is revisited many times in one’s life. It’s much more than just the will to survive. It’s even more than a positive self-concept. In recovery, it is the decision to heal. In its most robust form, it is the decision to thrive. As a clinician, I’m often asked to make a prognosis, something like “Is my spouse going to get better? Is my spouse going to stop doing hurtful things to me?” Maybe they want to know for themselves, can I make this happen? Is it possible for me to make the changes that I need to make? Almost always prognosis is based on the motivation of the client and their willingness to come to their own assistance. Dr. Carnes says everything turns on this, that willingness to come to their own assistance. Charles L. Whitfield was a medical doctor, and John Bradshaw, they did a lot of writing and work on the concept of the child within in the 1980s and 1990s. Pia Mellody wrote about the permission to be precious. The metaphor of healing the child within allows for deep compassion and appreciation for the impact of trauma, addiction, and neglect on ourselves. To heal at a profound level calls for us to act on our own behalf over and over and over again. There won’t come a time for us to be infants again and get what we needed for our development at that stage of life. When I’m working with clients and we’re working on those periods of time that they’re usually kind of vague because we don’t have a lot of great memories from that time period, but we can kind of put together the story or enough of the story from how they’re acting in their current life, what’s missing, what their relationships look like or don’t look like, and we’ll start to make some inferences about maybe what didn’t happen for them or what did happen that caused things to go off course, and I find sometimes for people in relationships, they’re wanting those early developmental stages that they never got. They’re wanting somebody to care about them more than they care about anything else in life. In sexual addiction, we call this the search for the cosmic lover, that perfect person who exists only for you. I often say to clients that’s the role of Mom or that’s the role of your primary caretaker. That isn’t the role of a lover. That isn’t the role of a spouse, and yet because those things didn’t happen, there’s some handicaps that did not get developed. Now that doesn’t mean that they have to be lifelong handicaps, but what that means is the person is going to have to heal some of those wounds and put in place some of those things that were not in place by the person who should have. We recognize this. We grieve this, and then we come to our own assistance.
So Dr. Carnes also posits that a simple formula for change exists for understanding how change occurs or does not occur. Three elements have to be present for significant change. The first element that has to be present is a model for the world. This is our internal paradigm, our belief system and our perceptions of the world. Albert Einstein once said that the most important decision a person could make is the belief that the world is a friendly place, not because there isn’t evidence to the contrary. Most of us if asked could come up with a multitude of examples that would point to evidence that says the world is not a friendly place. However, if I believe that the world is a friendly place because I know that I’m a better person and I do better when I focus on that belief instead of the contrary evidence, it changes how I view the world, it changes how I view others and how I view myself. So we start with something that we wish to change or something that you wish to do. We need to also have a motivation for doing it. This motivation can be things such as because what you’ve been doing doesn’t work for you or those you care about, because what you are doing works but it isn’t honorable, it is inconsistent with who you are. Maybe the motivation is because you have discovered new ways of doing things that will make your life better. You know better, and now you do better. Maybe the motivation is because you want to be the best you you can be, or because of others who matter to you, or maybe the motivation is simply because change will be meaningful to you. Stephen Covey observed that if you focus on behavior, you will get modest change, but if you change the paradigm, the internal programming, the change will be significant.
So the three elements are A) a model of the world, that internal paradigm, B) a decision to come to your own assistance, in other words, changes about your core values and your core sense of yourself, discovering or reclaiming who you are and who you can be. The third element is that change also involves a plan with concrete steps for making a change. We have to break it down into component parts that are not overwhelming. That’s a critical piece. Sometimes we may be breaking things down to a day or a moment in time, and we go from moment to moment or day to day. So the first exercise in the Recovery Zone workbook that I work on with clients is I’ll ask them to reflect on their own history and identify positive decisions that they have made. Now there may be a wide range of some pretty awful choices that are there when they’re coming into therapy, especially if it’s due to addiction, and we may have to go back a long time before we find some choices that they made that were positive. So these may include commitments that they made and followed through on that positively impacted their life. It is not uncommon for me when we’re talking about this to hear stories of elementary grade teachers who got them to be motivated to make some change in their life, and maybe it only lasted during that school year with that particular teacher, but they made a positive choice. So we list what it was, and when it was, that’s important too, and then we look at specific steps to making it happen. What did they have to go through in order to get from A to B? So we want to look at what those steps were, and then the last thing we look at is what were the important learnings? And maybe it’s been a while and you forgot the important learnings, and that’s why we’re doing this exercise is we want to gather those important learnings into one place that you can revisit. So we want to know what did you learn from that positive decision and the steps that you took? So as they’re recording these choices, typically we notice a pattern that emerges that often got hidden or went unseen for far too long. Now that we’ve identified and recorded the times when they’ve come to their own assistance, we can start to move into the decisions that are currently before them. This is a similar process. We write down the decision that needs to be made. We write down specific steps that they have to take. We look at what is the impact this is going to have on their life? And then we also rank where they are on the courage index, so going back to wishing, hoping, wanting, whethering, and finally fifth, going to any lengths. Now often clients will feel like well all of these should be a five. Every decision that I have before me, I should have on my courage index at going to any lengths, but again if we go back to the beginning of this episode when focusing on specific tasks is a limited capacity that our brain has, we can see that we have to prioritize. So we may hope or we may want or we may wish that all of these could be a number five right now, but the reality is they can’t all be. When we have decisions currently before us, we usually have to make a timeline and rank them in terms of priority according to that timeline to help us understand this is what I need to do first, then I can go here. As I get here, that courage index can increase.
Now there are always reasons why people may not act on their own behalf. As I’ve said before, all behavior makes sense. They may have family messages that told them what they could or could not do or how successful they could or could not be. Sometimes clients are seeking comfort in their fantasies or dreams, rather than their accomplishments, or they could be paralyzed with fear and need support and belief in them. A series of studies led by Andrew Hafenbrack found that mindfulness helped counteract deep-rooted tendencies and led to better decision making. The researchers found that a brief period of mindfulness allowed people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment, which led to more positive outcomes in the future. Mindful decision making can derail compulsive or addictive patterns of behavior and take you down a path that’s in your best interest for long-term health, happiness, and overall wellbeing. Often when I’m doing this exercise with clients, it does lead us back into their childhood to explore how their wants and needs were handled, what they could or couldn’t ask for and how that is showing up and playing out in their current life. This exploration is often met with insights and connecting dots and oh that makes sense and some doubt that it could be any different for them. This is where we go back and we explore their paradigm and the beliefs they created based on how their world was. This tends to expose the traps they have lived in and the limiting beliefs that have kept them from having anything different. They saw this as evidence that their belief is accurate instead of just how it was. In looking at how decisions are made or were made, we are also confronted with trauma, depression, and issues around the family that you came from. In order to effect change, core perception in your life have to change, which will manifest in various ways for the change to be permanent. In order to truly transform, you have to see the whole package. This is a very personal process, and if you truly make it your priority, your recovery and your healing becomes an extraordinary treasure trove that will mean more to you than anything else you have done.