5 proven strategies for making better decisions in stressful moments

To craft better crisis messaging, bolster your emotional resilience and stay cool when the heat is on, follow this data-backed guidance from two distinguished psychologists.


The tensions of 2020 have taken a toll on leaders and workers alike.

The pandemic, business and financial uncertainties, and burgeoning social unrest have disrupted how we work, how we connect with friends and family, and our personal sense of security, safety, and health.

These crises present a unique challenge to communicators and leaders: How can we make decisions—ones that could make or break our business—when we’re consumed by what’s around us?

One answer has emerged from leaders at the epicenter of the COVID crisis: skilled medical practitioners, who regularly make life-or-death decisions for the people in front of them.

How do they keep their focus and decision-making sharp?

It starts with metacognition

We recently spoke with Dr. Jerome Groopman, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s chief of experimental medicine and Harvard Medical School’s Recanati Chair of Medicine, and Dr. Pamela Hartzband, an attending physician at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Division of Endocrinology, to ask: “How do you do it?”

“Pam developed a simple procedure when she was an intern in medical school many years back,” Groopman told us. “To her, it was like a game she played to stay sharp. She asked herself, ‘What if that other doctor who made the diagnosis is wrong? What else could it possibly be? What am I basing my decisions on?’”

By taking herself off automatic pilot and carefully analyzing her decisions, Hartzband became aware of her own thinking, a process known as metacognition.

Groopman and Hartzband found that these metacognitive “thinking rules” do more than foster self-awareness; they reveal bias and increase the accuracy of diagnoses. As a result, the duo introduced courses at Harvard Medical School to teach medical school students and physicians these crucial practices.

The best news? Their approach isn’t limited to medicine; it can be easily adopted in any environment.

Why metacognition is essential during a crisis

Metacognition helps you reduce—and track—errors in your thinking. It directs you onto thoughtful, more realistic paths and facilitates critical thinking, which puts you more in control.

During a crisis, if you notice thoughts or emotions that aren’t helpful, flag them and alter them. If you find yourself rushing to make a decision, take a step back and slow down your thinking. By regularly monitoring yourself, you’ll stay away from knee-jerk reactions and irrational thinking, regardless of what’s happening in the world around you.

Here are five ways to start:

1. Name the mental steps that led to your decision. How did you reach your decision? If you can’t list the steps that led to a decision, be suspicious of it.

Always question how you make your decisions. Ask yourself: “What have I missed? Was my starting point sound? What if my decisions have been based on bad information? How else could I approach this issue?”

2. Recognize past misjudgments and mistakes—and learn from them. Don’t bury your past mistakes. Incorporating hard-earned lessons into your current thinking will only improve your decision-making.

3. Be self-aware and open. Are you open to learning? Are you receptive to others’ ideas? Are you an active listener? Ask yourself:

  • What’s my style of thinking?
  • What’s my personality type?
  • What are my biases?
  • Do I avoid asking questions because I want to be viewed as competent?
  • Do my thinking process and personality influence how I assess situations?

4. Slow down. Experienced decision-makers in high-stress environments all emphasize one thing: slow down. Take the time you need to make accurate decisions, even if other people or events are rushing you.

5. Don’t fall for shortcuts. Are you relying on computer algorithms, preset protocols, or attractive charts that lay out easy solutions? Are you favoring efficiency over accuracy? Don’t rely on others to do your deciding for you or accept their conclusions too readily.

The bottom line: The next time you sense something happening around you—or within you—that feels reactive, rushed, or not right, don’t ignore it and reflexively press on.

Instead, exercise the discipline to stop. Pay attention to that signal. If you’re on a path that doesn’t seem right, stop and get off. Choose a better path or create a new one. When you do, others will follow your lead.

Paul Napper, Psy.D., and Anthony Rao, Ph.D., work with organizations worldwide to help leaders and employees adapt during times of crisis and uncertainty. Dr. Napper is the founder of Performance Psychology, a Boston-based management psychology consultancy. Dr. Rao is a cognitive-behavioral therapist who was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

They are the authors of The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms. Learn more at PowerOfAgency.com.


No Responses to “5 proven strategies for making better decisions in stressful moments”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    A different approach that successful PR warriors may favor: focus not on “your decision” but on “the public interest.”

    When your goal is to win support from scores of millions of Americans, judge which they will care about more–(a) your “style of thinking” and your “personality type” or (b) how a coming Washington decision will enrich or injure the public.

    In the coming battle between antibusiness activists and politicians against Google, Facebook, Amazon and other corporate leaders–and against America’s allies worldwide–what can win for the good guys more than introspection is extroversion, themes like GOOGLE’S PROTECTIVE POWER TO HELP THE PUBLIC or HOW OUR ARAB ALLIES CAN SAVE AMERICAN LIVES.

    An easy-to-make but common PR blunder is for a company to plead “what we deserve for the public to consider.” What works better is “what the public deserves for politicians to consider.” This could bring more safety in Washington for big companies plus NATO-style protection for America’s allies.

    When advocates have ties to Harvard, Yale or Stanford, it shows they have high intelligence that deserves respect. But when an emotionally stirring appeal is made for a decision that will benefit the public, the public may respond with not just respect but massive public support for the beneficial public choice.

    The way to win is by showing how the public can win.

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