Ringwood Psychology U Turn Road sign

Decision Making: Aussie Traffic Rules

In my previous blog I elaborated on tricky roundabouts and how to exit them. Both the real ones in Croydon and Mooroolbark, as well as the mental knots we often tie ourselves up in. Staying with the traffic theme, I’d like to talk about another wonder in the world of Aussie traffic: the U-turn. I actually find this pretty phenomenal! In no other country where I’ve lived was it so easy to make a U-turn on a fairly big road. In fact – there are even special U-turn lanes (with special turning arrows on the traffic lights!) that can be found on Canterbury road, Maroondah Highway and the likes. Brilliant! No more missing a turn-off and the friendly Google Maps lady telling me “Take the next turn-off in 8 kilometres”!

Just knowing that there is the option of a U-turn makes me ever so much more chilled on the roads. Made a mistake? Missed a turn-off? No dramas – just do a U-turn at the next traffic light. Finding yourself traveling in the opposite direction from where you want to go? No worries – U-turn options ahead!

The concept of the U-turn, i.e. the ability to turn around and change direction, together with a few other strategies, can be extremely helpful when people struggle with decision making. Both with small everyday choices, as well as bigger life decisions like career paths, choosing a partner and whether to have children. People sometimes get stuck in a passive impasse when hovering between different choices. The typical “analysis paralysis” often looks like this:

“What shall I have for breakfast? Now let me think. Yesterday I had eggs and toast, so maybe I shouldn’t have that again today. Weetbix with milk? But then I’ll have to go and check first if the milk is still ok. And if it isn’t, I’ll have to go buy milk which will be annoying before breakfast. Maybe fruit salad. But actually I may want to use the bananas and apples later today as a snack. Maybe the eggs and toast. But actually I only have seed bread, and eggs will go better with white bread. Maybe the Weetbix with milk is still the best option?”

I was probably being a bit facetious with this example. Yet we often do this with “small decisions” (e.g. what to eat, what to wear, how to cut our hair, which shoes to buy) as well as bigger ones (e.g. What course should I study at uni? Where do I want to live? Should I move abroad? Should I change careers?). Then we often get stuck with an acute case of analysis paralysis.    

Some strategies can help us to make our decisions more efficiently:

  • Sometimes the good ol’ writing down a list of pros and cons can be helpful.
  • Remember that a long list on one side, and a short list on the other, does not necessarily mean that your choice will be easy. Sometimes even one thing on the “pro side” can outweigh 10 things on the “con side”. If you are mathematically inclined, weighting the various pros in terms of relative importance can be helpful.

    • If you are less mathematical and more intuitive (like me!) the concept of “gut feeling” can really help us.

    Some questions to help us discern what our gut feeling says are the following:

    If I wake you up in the middle of the night and I ask you what you want while you are still half asleep, what would you answer?

    If I have you flick a coin (heads meaning yes and tails meaning no), would you be ok to take the coin’s verdict if it lands on heads? Or would you say “let’s play the best out of three!”? If the latter, you know your gut feeling prefers tails, i.e. a “no”.

    If I force you to make the decision (say, choice A), how would you feel? Satisfied? Relieved? Still troubled? We often get a message from our “gut” if we play out choices A, B, C etc and see what we feel if we do a mock run of making a decision.

    • Scaling the size of the decision often helps.

    For example: a big decision requires a lot of thought, research and planning (e.g. what career you’d like to pursue, which house you want to buy). A medium decision should logically require less. A relatively small choice (such as what to wear or eat) even less. So when you start putting TOO much importance on the choice of what shoes to buy, whilst saying to yourself that this is a make-or-break decision. You need to cut the problem down by reminding yourself that the shoes you buy today, will probably not have the power to make or break your career, your friendships and so forth. Humour is key here. Rather than telling yourself off in a stern voice “for making a mountain of a mole’s hill”. It is ever so much better to have a good old chuckle at how your mind has sneakily tried to trick you into believing something small was something big.

    • The fabulous u-turn principle often takes the bite of decision making in a beautiful way.

    If you make a choice, you can always choose differently again. You can always change direction. I have tried to think of examples where this is NOT the case and I could only come up with one: once you have a child, you cannot choose not to have the child. Selling a property might be another one. This is often a highly comforting principle to people who choose to live abroad or emigrate: there is always the option of choosing to move again, or move back, in future. Almost no decision is necessarily forever.  

    • Often looking for “News of Difference”

    When people get stuck in a mind-set where they see themselves as being poor decision makers (“I am really bad at this!)” it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Often looking for “news of difference” within the context of narrative therapy, can be helpful to create a more balanced view of the self, a view that allows for more flexibility and flow. Have a think: can you find any examples of times when you DID make decisions fairly well? Is there any evidence that you might not be AS bad with choosing as you tell yourself you are? We can often draw strength from our past stories to help us write our current chapters with a little more confidence.

    • Another strategy taken from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is to make a distinction between “I cannot make this choice” and “I am having the thought that I cannot make this choice”.

    See what happens? Immediately, just by changing the language, we empower the person and dis-empower the problem. I am not “fused” with the thought anymore, I can recognise it for what it is – a thought. And I know that all thoughts are not equally true. If I have the thought “I will cause an accident if I try driving a car”, I know that the mere fact of THINKING the thought does not necessarily make it true. Thus – we do not have to listen to and believe every single thought that pops into our heads. We can step away from the omnipotence of the thought a little bit. Just by saying “I’m having the thought that I cannot make decisions” rather than a singular “I cannot make decisions”.   

    • Lastly, it is often helpful to know that by not choosing, you are actually choosing.

    If I cannot decide between 2 holiday destinations, get stuck in analysis paralysis and book neither, I am actually choosing NOT to go on holiday. By eternally tossing up and comparing driving schools and never contacting one to make an appointment, I am actively choosing NOT to learn how to drive. By wasting 10 minutes stuck between choosing Weetbix, eggs or fruit salad, I will run out of time, and eventually actively choose NOT to eat breakfast because I have to dash to work. This realisation often opens our minds to help us make those decisions (whether big or small), because not making them throws us back to a worse default choice (not going on holiday, not learning how to drive, not having breakfast).

    So: fasten the seat belts and get moving in the direction you want with your small, medium and big choices!

    Lindie Oppermann
    Felix & Sage Psychology

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