Do unmade decisions cause you stress?

Do Choices Cause Stress?
Decision Time, or is it?

At the last Lean Software Meetup, Jeffrey Fredrick quoted a line in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done book that stuck in my mind: “Decisions not made cause stress.” As someone who has been on and off the GTD wagon for the last 4 years, this made sense to me.  And yet and as one who practices Lean thinking, this has been causing me some degree of a dilemma, as a core Lean principle is deferring commitment. Maybe you can help me sort this out.

The idea of Allen’s book is that there are many open loops in your life.  You may have 503 email messages laying in your inbox, a garage full of boxes from your last move, a shoe box full of story cards from last week’s user story workshop, (and my personal favorite) a large heap of easel pad paper with multiple facilitation sessions worth of stuff.  What causes you stress is not that you have this stuff out there, but that you haven’t decided what you want to do with it. In GTD lingo, it’s “unprocessed stuff”. Each time your mind “reminds you” about this stuff, it causes you stress, because you haven’t decided what you are going to do it.  Like rubbing a cancer sore in your mouth, it causes a little bit of psychologically resistance each time your mind passes over this stuff. You’re mind says: “You need to decide what to do with your mountain of junk in your garage.”

Once you recognize this as a source of stress, then Allen advocates making executive decisions about this stuff so that you can live more flexibly and responsively to new input. There is a process of capturing and making decisions in handy flowchart that appeals to my inner geek. More than just putting more systems in my life than are necessary, it generally makes things better for me. This is especially true for me given my tempermant.

Four years ago, I was a stressed knowledge worker. I had a high volume of incoming stuff that caused me a lot of angst. I adopted GTD and things improved. What gives?

Personality Typing, such as Myer’s Briggs, gives some insight. As a type Perceiving (INTP), I tend to be more comfortable when options are open.  Those who are Judging temperments (not judgemental) tend to feel comfortable right after a decision is made. I recall a recent example where a colleague of mine who I suspect is a J, was very tense before a decision was made on the CMS decision of choice. When the decision was made, he was very relaxed, congenial.  So, it may be that for the types J, they are stressed at unmade decisions. Those with personality preferences P, like me, are stressed when I’m forced to make a decision, which causes me to put things off.

Therefore, as a P, Allen’s book represented a light at the end of a tunnel for me.  Suddenly I was making decisions about my voicemail messages, my overflowing inbox and personal life with ease, before it got too late. While this was a little unnatural, that dentist appointment was scheduled, the conference booked, the retrospective occurred without a hitch, my mother was phoned and happy. And much of my angst over email was no longer plaguing me, thanks to inbox zero. I was generally getting more of the administrivia done in less time than I used to so I could focus on the stuff I loved.

Are you committing too early?

OK. So this has generally been a net benefit for me personally. But what about this the lean notion of deferring commitment, last responsible moment, real options, etc? This concept is essentially the idea that it’s unwise to close off an option early, because options have value. Like a pilot who is flying to Ohare during a snowstorm from Seattle.  She knows that the last responsible moment is when she is over Denver. Deciding early to divert to Detroit is unwise, because things may clear up. Your passengers would value making their other connections. But deciding after Denver would be unwise, “the last irresponsible moment” because you are committed to one action or the other. Options have value and exercising them early causes you to loose potential value.

Does GTD and the habit of deciding before you have to, cause me to make poor decisions in the here and now for the benefit of feeling less stress, when I could be better off delaying those decisions when I had more information? Does this occur in boardrooms all across the US where management make decisions because of the generally accepted principle of “no decision is worse than indecision.” Or in teams for that instance, where we make decisions on API’s, languages and databases too early, because having an unmade decision was causing our management britches to get in a bundle. What’s a girl to do?

One faint glimmer that comes to me is the idea in Allen’s flowchart again. Not all decisions are the same. There are the 2 minute actions that you can quickly dispose of, like a “thanks” email or a “Yes, I will be home for dinner”. And there are those things you can delegate (either up or down). Taking a moment to decide that you don’t have to decide is a net benefit. And what about those decisions that may not be appropriate to make now? The important thing, he advises, is for these decisions to be deferred in calendars, tickler files or other trusted systems so they can be evaluated at the appropriate time. This could be done for conference deadlines, dinner plans, or deadlines to place orders for hardware for your new load balancer. As long as you will be certain to revisit that decision at that time, and your information is correct on when you need to revisit the decision, this type of thinking could reduce stress and simultaneously defer commitment, enabling you to make decisions when you have the most information.

Will this cause you to lower your anxiety about unmade decisions? Maybe, maybe not, depending on your temperament on the P/J scale. Will it cause me to justify my natural tendency to delay what I need to do, aka the student syndrome, cauing me more long term stress? I think that as long as you give yourself a reasonable buffer and use your trusted systems to remind you when you have to decide (whether it is a physical tickler file, or an iphone alert, or a google calendar event), it shouldn’t.

What do you think? Have you had a situation where you had less stress and made better decisions by deferring commitment? Or have you had a situation where it paid to make decisions early, before the last responsible moment?

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3 Responses to Do unmade decisions cause you stress?

  1. Kourosh says:

    I think you’re spot on in terms of the tickler as being useful to trigger when you need to make a decision. Another scenario though would be that you are waiting for additional information. In this case you could consider a “waiting for …” context to defer until that information is received.

  2. Ed says:

    Thanks Kourosh. I agree, having a waiting for task is very helpful when someone says “I’ll get back to you.” One practice that has helped me is adding the date when I will follow up with them in the text of my “waiting for” task, in case they forget to get back. Then I’ll catch this in my weekly review (assuming I’m not slacking on that. ^_^)

  3. I think the stress depends on the type of unmade decision. Things like emails in your inbox … absolutely cause low-grade stress. Things like framework decisions … not as much.

    With email, you have all available information needed to delete/delegate/respond/defer or do. And by not choosing one, the stress starts. YOU are the only one that can make the call, and you aren’t. With things like a framework decision (or any other project-related decision) there might be some stress, but I think it is easier to not own the stress. IE, _we_ have not decided on a framework yet; the _business_ hasn’t gotten the requirements to us yet; etc. It simply isn’t time yet to make the call. OTOH, you might have a manager that isn’t keen on waiting, in which case there is stress (YOU don’t have the requirements, because YOU didn’t follow up with the business; etc.) Though I would put the source of that stress on the manager – not on the principle of deferring the decision to the last moment.

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