Stages of personal decision making

It’s a bit like the Kübler-Ross “Stages of Grief“. It appears I always go through a sequence like this:

  1. Dissonance. Something is unpleasant, unsatisfactory, and somehow feels wrong. It usually appears as a background feeling, without conscious reflection. But if it keeps happening, the conscious mind sooner or later notices, and we become aware of the dissonance between how we thought the world is or ought to be, and how it actually is.
  2. Pondering the problem. Now that we know something isn’t right and it keeps happening, we ponder the shape and form of the problem. Lots of observation happens in this phase, and often surprising insights pop up, as the shape of the problem usually turns out to be different than originally thought.
  3. Entertaining alternatives. The mind has progressed to the point where it knows there’s a problem it should do something about, but it has not made the decision to actually do. Instead, it lightheartedly throws around ideas for what it could do, but isn’t serious about it. (I used to say: “If all fails, I could always become a bartender in the Caribbean.”) We are merely “entertaining” alternatives, secretly hoping that the problem will go away and we don’t need to get serious.
  4. Evaluating alternatives. But the problem is still there, and something needs to be done, so at some point, we get serious. This is where things can get scary. “Darn, I really need to solve X, but that means I either need to do Y or Z, and I’m not ready for that.” Depending on the size of the decision to be made, this phase can go on for a long time, while we are very stressed out.
  5. The right course becomes clear, often by default because all other ideas have been discarded. Lots of pondering has been done, lots of ideas were considered, and the front runner is now clearly known to be better than the alternatives. If the decision is about something difficult, we may hate this “best” choice that we have, but in our heart of hearts we know it has to be done sooner or later. The big challenge here is to gather enough energy to actually take the plunge. This phase may also go on for a long time.
  6. Committed. For difficult decisions, this may only happen when the downsides of further procrastinating have become so large that taking the plunge does not look so bad any more, in comparison. This is the time of peak adrenaline. Often anxiety comes from the fear of reaction by others when they hear about our decision. But this phase can also come with a huge relief because finally, the cognitive dissonance is resolved. Certainly, making the change takes a lot of work and energy.
  7. Getting comfortable in new circumstances. Life has changed, and we do something different. This may take some while to get used to.

I think this model applies to a lot of circumstances. I certainly have gone through all of those phases a number of times in my life when big decisions needed to be made. There are some other models for decision making out there, but they skip over the emotionally difficult steps to actual commitment and so, for me at least, are of limited use. Of course there can also be detours from this linear model, such as making a decision that actually turns out to not solve the problem as well as thought, or straightforward denial that a problem exists or certain key features of the problem.

Arguably, we are currently going through those stages collectively on the subject of climate change: some of us are further along the process than others. For example, you can put your favorite politicians into specific stages — mostly early ones.

I hope to apply this model to better understand myself, and others, and acknowledge the specific struggles each of us goes through given the stage we are at with any specific problem.

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