Deciding vs Acting vs Observing 2: Balance

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

(If you haven’t already done so, read the previous post before this one.)

So, we’re overwhelmed with bombarding demands from news, solicitations, requirements at work or trying to find work, friends, family, and personal requirements of health, psychological issues, staying safe on the streets, or tormentations of moral quandaries. Yuck! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as we try to stay afloat in this demanding world of ours.

As discussed in the prior posting, reducing access of all these demands upon our time is an important first step toward making life less stressful. That means choosing to put ourselves in positions where less decision-making is required or in positions where we spend time simply being physically active or observing life. The classics of those situations are vacations away from home, road trips to see the country, holidays abroad, camping trips, touring national and local parks, picnics with family and friends, cycling and running competitions, floating around on a water toy, going fishing, and so many more. And now we have to consider virus precautions that temper these.

The essential thing about them all is that their primary purpose is simply to “get away from it all”—to get away from the assaulting demands for making decisions about controlling whatever is making life too stressful. They are above all activity and observation oriented: worry free, diversionary, stressless, seeking some time to get “it” off our mind. Of course, these escapes can also turn into just a new set of competing demands for decisions if we’re not careful, and turn into that syndrome of being glad to get back to the old demands which are at least more familiar. But keeping in mind that the goal is reducing stress from decisions by doing simple activities and just observing life can help make the escape successful.

However, these are bigger escapes which are not accessible on a frequent basis. How about daily solutions? The previous post discussed this level of decision-making already and offered some solutions. But you can’t just watch pigeons strutting around carefully looking for handouts, nor play a game, or work on a hobby all day. Some time or another you’ve got to go to work, or get a meal, or stop the kids from squabbling, or shop for groceries, or . . . or all the other things in your life where you’ve got to make a lot of decisions that involve some, or a lot, of potential for stressing your brain—and blood pressure, plus many other bodily parts and functions. What to do?

OK. Control means figuring out who and what is involved in the control decision and then prioritizing their importance. Instantly demanding, in-your-face, decisions depend on safety, time available, and assessment of why it’s important. For example, your kids squabbling out of control rate high on safety and time; that’s why we develop quick responses like “Go to your room” or “Sit in a corner” to gain more time and come up with the next decision. Assessment of what and when is also why we make shopping lists, have alarm clocks to wake up timely, a calendar on the wall or on our phone, etc. All of these are ways to relieve decision pressure and stress so we can be in more control of our daily lives.

The formation of habits is a control mechanism to help do this too; the more we can turn decisions over to the autopilot in our brains, the easier life can be. That’s what neurological learning pathways in the brain do—turn on the cruise control. Unfortunately, when brain damage through physical trauma, disease, or aging occurs, simple decisions become very stressful or impossible because the habit trick of control is no longer available. Habit formation and maintenance is really important.

So, form good habits, as your mom or dad repeatedly warned you. Of course, they were right. And you can consciously set about doing this by making yourself do things in a set pattern repeatedly, again and again, until it just becomes automatic routine. Or get in the habit of making lists so you don’t have to worry about forgetting something. That leaves more room in your mind for the potentially more stressful decisions.

One thing that some people say helps them cope with these necessary daily decisions is that they are good multi-taskers. They juggle the demands of several activities and decisions at the same time, splitting their attention from one to the other.

However, competent research has pretty conclusively shown the result to be that they do less well on the individual tasks and decisions that way than if they had handled them more sequentially. Which makes sense: if the goal is to reduce stress, how does piling up the decision-making requirements one on top of the other reduce it? It makes more sense to resolve each one before moving on to the next. The termination of exposure to decision-making is what relieves stress, so finish them off one at a time and enjoy the relief.

Of course, you can’t always completely finish control situations that way. Therefore, you decide how far you can get to a resolution of the situation and then leave it. That is your short-term decision, but it’s still a decision, and you can get it out of your mind and turn to the next control situation and small decision. That’s what we’re doing when we send the kids to their room—it’s a short-term decision so we can get back to that burning pot on the stove. Or it’s what we do when we explain about some possible conflicts instead of giving an on-the-spot answer to a friend’s surprise plan to do something together. It’s buying time, time to get away from major decision-making and reducing stress. Even on a momentary basis, time away from stress overall is important.

So, compartmentalizing rather than attempting multi-tasking is a good technique for control and decision-making. After you’ve resolve things as far as you can and have decided to leave it at that, as I said, then get it out of your mind. How? Turn your attention to something else, preferably less important and even simply distracting (physical activity or watching, as discussed previously). The point is to leave it so your brain can process the information you already gave it, unconsciously.

This is exactly what we do when we sleep. Our brain does its thing to sort, consolidate, and network the memory elements we gave it during the day. That’s its job. If it doesn’t have the opportunity for that to happen, pretty soon we get tired, headaches, and stressed out. That’s the brain’s way of telling us to ease up and give it some time to do its job.

You really can help your brain by very briefly making a conscious effort to summarize the matter in your mind and making a short-term clear decision about where that control issue stands, and then very consciously and completely focusing on what’s next. It’s like talking to your brain and giving it instructions, and it can work. In fact, when you think about it, that’s what mindfulness is all about. You turn from one source of input into your brain and then focus your attention on another, then on another—giving each your full attention to each one, as much as possible. It’s you consciously controlling what’s going to your brain and giving it the time to do its job.

OK, a little divergence into self-help there. But it does point out that besides extensive vacations or watching ants forage and grass grow, there are techniques which can aid in reducing daily stress in more involved control situations. And in this time of Covis-19 restricting our access to many of the usual preferred opportunities for diversion and relief from stress, we have to rely on those that are more easily under our control, such as mindfulness or simple physical and watching activities.

There are tons of resources available on how to do stress reduction, from work-related issues to kid control to meal planning—some very helpful and others not so much. Select out the gems that work for you and ignore the rest. The section on Utility in the last part of my book summarizes some of the factors in control which can be practically useful for the reader.

To wrap this up, I’ve tried to point out that by reducing a control situation to its basic elements of who and what is making the situation stressful and why it’s stressful, we are provided with a way to figure out how to reduce that stress. And the primary way to do that is to reduce exposure to stress by trying to spend more time doing physical activities and watching other parts of life over which you have no control but are relaxing to do. Then of course, a big reduction of psychological stress can come from simply avoiding assaults by news and solicitations, which demand your time and attention.

Taken together, we can be more in control of our health and time to spend as we wish, which is what we all want to have. Right?

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