decision making and intuition

from evy's notebook

David R MacIver (drmaciver) wrote in a recent newsletter about how depression can make decision making more difficult:

One way a problem can be difficult is if it involves a lot of decision making, and the outcome depends crucially on the decisions made.

That last part is important. Just having to make decisions isn't difficult - if I go for a walk I can just meander around, making decisions about which turn to take arbitrarily. This is not a difficult problem, because the decisions made don't matter to the desired outcome, which is just to have a nice walk.

I think decision making is particularly difficult when it doesn't exactly look like decision making. If you have a simple decision to make between two options then this can be emotionally difficult, but it's not typically cognitively taxing. The problem is more common when you have to choose between myriad possibilities - when writing a long essay there are thousands of directions you could go in, endless ways to reorganise or reframe the text, and you have to decide between all of these.

When things are going well it often doesn't feel like you're deciding at all - you just follow the thread of intuition, pick the option that sparks joy, and do what comes naturally. When that stops working, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the possibilities.

This is, I think, why being depressed can so easily compromise our ability to act. Depression mutes our ability to feel positive emotions, so we lose that sense of which way to go.

I often struggle with making decisions, and this passage really resonated with me, and I would even take some of these ideas further.

Decision making, as this post mentions, often relies on intuition. While drmaciver suggests intuition is most useful for choosing between a myriad of possibilities, I think intuition is also pretty important for even deciding between two options. It's usually impossible to list out every pro and con of every option of a decision, to weigh how important those pros and cons are in some objective way, and use that to pick the "correct" answer. For example, when I think about which of a few things in my fridge I want to eat, and none of those options spark joy, it's hard to pick what to eat or to even want to eat anything at all. When I decide which task to pick off my todo list, I often pick whichever feels like it would be fun or bring me energy, which doesn't work when nothing sounds appealing.

I would also add that not only my experiences of depression-like symptoms (muted emotions, loss of motivation) contribute to decision making feeling difficult, but also my experiences of anxiety-like symptoms (stress, worry, overwhelm). If I'm trying to decide between some options and I end up worrying about the outcomes of all of them, then my intuition for which seems like the best option is buried under all the worrying.

And as drmaciver said, when the mechanism for decision-making is obscured, and all that's left are options and a decision that needs to be made, it's easy to become overwhelmed (which, unfortunately, often further dampens intuition).

There are some things that help. One is noticing when it's okay to choose wrong. For example, if I order food I don't want to eat, I can throw it out and order something else. If I write a public post without much editing, and it's not very good, I might feel sad about it but it doesn't necessarily change much in the long term. There are many ways I can set up a decision so that it's safer to choose wrong, including having supportive friends or coworkers to help me out sticky situations, and using money to spend myself out of bad situations. (I hate that money is so useful for this kind of thing, and I'm grateful it's an option for me.)

I also regularly defer decisions to others, when they're willing to help me. I've deferred a lot of my covid-risk-mitigation decisions to friends I trust. I've deferred some work decisions to coworkers - often presenting them with the many options, and pros and cons I've thought of, and letting them pick a solution. (Perhaps this could be rephrased as "collaboration".) And when I play the video games Hades, I often defer in-game choices to friends who watch me play.

Lastly, it's also helped me to remember that there are few "definitely right" and "definitely wrong" decisions. There are a lot of options that are fine, even if I don't get the intuition-sparking-joy feeling from picking them. I think if something is clearly right or wrong and it's important that I pick a particular option, I can trust that I'll realize this happening or that a friend will tell me. So I can just pick one of the meh-feelings options and get on with my life. I've considered buying dice to roll to pick an option when any option is fine.

Today I chose between writing a notebook post (felt meh because I didn't think it would be very good) and not writing a notebook post (felt meh because I hate how I stop practicing writing and creating things when I feel bad). This is me practicing just choosing something, and choosing something different than I usually have in recent months, and trying to feel okay about the choice I made.