I’m pretty sad this week and isolating due to having covid. I thought I’d try to have something positive come out of that, and write up a blog post I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while.
I wanted to share my positive experience with setting ‘policies’ for myself. They’re basically heuristics I use to avoid having to make as many decisions (particular about things that are somewhat stressful). I got the idea, and suggestions for ways to implement it, from Brenton Mayer (thank you!).
What are personal policies?
There are various classes of decisions I make periodically, for which I’d like to have an answer in advance rather than deciding in individual cases. Those are the kinds of cases in which I try to make a ‘policy decision’ going forward.
This is the kind of thing we do all the time for particular types of actions. For example, someone might decide to be a vegetarian. From then, they no longer consider in each individual instance whether they should eat some dish with meat in, they’ve made a blanket rule not to do so in any individual case.
There are a number of things like ‘being a vegetarian’ which we’re used to. We’re less likely to make up our own of these ‘rules I plan to live by’. A way we might frame it when we do is as ‘getting into a habit’. I sometimes prefer the framing of ‘policy’ in that it’s instantaneous (whereas something can’t really be a habit until you’ve done it a few times) and it sounds like a clear decision you’re acting on.
A way I like to think of this is: For tricky repeating decisions, make them only once.
Having said that, for long run policies, it’s likely you’ll want to have periodic re-examinations of them to check you still endorse them. I keep a list of my policies, both to make them easier to remember and to come back and re-evaluate them.
Use cases and benefits
Make faster decisions
Having a policy for some type of decision means you don’t have to spend time making a decision in each specific case.
One of my friends has the policy of always running for a train if there’s one she wants to be on which looks about to leave. This is the kind of situation where we’re often unsure what to do - is it impossible to make the train however fast I am? Do I have plenty of time because it’s not about to leave? Time spent dithering increases the chance you miss the train even if you then choose to run for it. So having made the decision in advance means over the long run you’ll catch more trains than you otherwise would have. (And given the downside is basically some extra cardio, this seems easily worth it.)
Make better decisions
More thoughtful decisions: Even aside from cases where you don’t have enough time to think much about a decision (like catching a train), it’s worth putting more time into a blanket policy than an individual decision. Rather than half-thinking through a type of decision a number of times, you might act better if you make a careful/thorough decision once and then act on that repeatedly (When the decisions are relevantly similar.).
More objective decisions: In some cases, individual decision points are emotionally laden in a way that will bias your decision. In cases like that, you might make a more objective decision in advance than you would in the moment. For example, you might find it hard not to donate to a charity that’s raising money on the street if you have to decide whether to do that on the spur of the moment. You might feel your decision will be more objective if you think beforehand about the circumstances under which you do and don’t want to donate to charities when you pass fundraisers for them (eg yes for particular interventions, no for others).
Help from others: I often find it easier to make decisions in discussion with another person. Typically people aren’t that keen on getting phone calls at random times about small decisions you’re making right now. Whereas they’re often quite on board with helping you figure out some ongoing policy.
For policies where the decisions are going to feel hard in the moment, I sometimes figure out with a second person their take on why the policy decision is the right one. The idea is to find a framing that allows the decision I endorse to be easier in the moment. Sometimes that’s just writing down that the second person agrees with the policy. Sometimes it’s something more specific. For example, I find it pretty hard to send rejection emails. A piece of language I have in a doc for myself on this is “If the whole point is to help applicants do good, it seems like it’s breaking the implicit contract with them to do things that reduce the good I’m / they’re doing”.
Being able to rely on your future self: Sometimes having a policy about decisions I’ll need to make in future helps me make better decisions now. I recently realised I should have the policy of ‘if I’m going to do some minor medical procedure I expect to hurt (eg smear test), I should take plenty of pain meds in advance, including codeine’. I’ve typically ended up putting off booking things I think might hurt because it’s aversive to book them knowing that will trigger them happening. And I’ve prevaricated on how much to take pain meds on the day because if I take codeine I’ll be less clear headed for work afterwards. Having made the decision in advance that I’ll take extra pain meds, I’m expecting to find it easier to book them on time. That seems worth it to me.
Probably the biggest benefit I get from having policies is reducing stress in decision making. I have a tendency to want to optimise everything I do, and therefore to angst over every decision. It’s often decidedly less stressful overall to make a hard decision once and then stick to it. That’s so even in some cases where the initial decision of ‘I’ll do x in every instance’ is harder to make than ‘I’ll do x just this once’.
An example that’s been particularly useful for me was thinking about how much and when to work. A year or so ago I ended up caught in a negative cycle around how much I felt I should work. I had a picture in my head that being a good mother meant spending my whole weekend with my son. But then I kept not getting as much work done as I wanted to during the week, and therefore deciding to make late notice childcare arrangements at the weekend I didn’t feel good about. I felt like I was always doing a bad job as a mother and also not helping the world as much as I wanted.
The way that situation eventually got fixed was that I sat down with a friend/colleague to make a weekly plan I actually endorsed. It felt really aversive to do that, because I basically had the views that ‘good mothers don’t work at weekends’ and also ‘I ought to work more than 5 days a week’. I didn’t want to look at the fact that I was going to fail at at least one of those. But doing it alongside Brenton made that feel less bad.
I ended up making a plan that involved working typically 5 and a half days a week, with flexibility to go up to 6 and down to 5. That included realising that I needed my views to be coherent, and thinking about what the concrete details of each week should look like and how to make that work in a way that my husband, son and I all felt good about. Having made a specific plan makes me feel less guilty to Leo about working on Saturday and less guilty to the world about not working on Sunday, because I know I made a long term policy decision that took everyone into consideration.
This ‘reducing stress’ benefit to setting policies will probably be biggest for people who tend to feel anxiety and/or be perfectionist. In some ways the idea is similar to the worry time technique, in which a person allots a time per day as ‘worry time’, and pushes off worries at other times to then. Rather than continuously asking yourself something like ‘should I work harder today’, you make one decision ‘I’ll work x hours per day’ and don’t think further about it until your next policy re-evaluation point.
Examples of policies
I thought it would be useful to share a few more of the policies I have or have had to give some colour on the types of situations in which this can be useful. I’d rather not get into debates about whether individual of them seem reasonable. I think people will have pretty different intuitions about the object level policies, and a reason for having them is that I think the decisions are non-straight forward and stressful to make.
Gratitude journaling: Filling in a gratitude journal can feel like procrastinating, or being selfish, when there’s a lot going on. I realised that I was fairly unreliable at filling it in, and worse at doing so when I wasn’t feeling that good. I talked through with my someone how sensible it seemed to do this reliably each day. Taking some time to think through the benefits I seem to get from it and how much time it costs me made it feel more like doing it daily was sensible rather than selfish. And having a second person share their view on this seeming reasonable felt validating.
Transport: I periodically go to San Francisco / Berkeley. I spent a longish while each time using ubers and feeling guilty about not trying out the subway. I once or twice used the subway, and found it kind of stressful. I put ‘figure out what I endorse about how to get around SF/Berkeley’ on my list of things to answer during my yearly personal review. When I reviewed it, I decided I should was willing to bear the extra cost of using uber whenever I’m there rather than trying to get into the habit of using a different transport system I find kind of confusing and unsafe feeling. I’ve ended up feeling glad not to worry everytime I take a journey there about which I should use.
Pain killers: A friend of mine has the policy ‘If I think ‘should I take an ibuprofen?’, then I take one’. They found they were systematically taking pain killers less often than they endorsed through forgetting, or wondering whether they ‘really needed to’, or not wanting to get out of bed at night. They find having this policy helps actually spur them to action.
Communal policies: My household (I imagine like most!) had various policies in place during covid. I liked that I didn’t need to think about ‘what’s the risk of doing x and is that worth it?’ but could just follow policies like ‘stay x far away from people’ or ‘use a bathroom only if no-one outside the household has used it for at least y long’.
Avoiding anxiety: I tend to find it stressful not to get the types of food I’m used to, particularly if there are other sources of stress around too. For example, I am pretty caffeine addicted but I find it stressful to drink coffee black or with non-dairy milk. I used to sometimes go to events and skip out on coffee (leading to headache) or try to drink black coffee (usually didn’t end up drinking it), and then feel generally guilty about being so difficult. Now my policy to avoid relying on an event for providing my morning caffeine - I carry caffeine tablets, and have given myself permission to buy coffee from a cafe before events.
Taking holiday: It feels hard to know how much is the right amount of holiday to take. My current written policy on this is: “If I really want a holiday and I have holiday days left, I'll take a holiday, and not think at the object level whether I theoretically could continue / go back to being motivated without one.” This might sound kind of vacuous rather than action guiding. But I have actually found having the policy useful. It originated from a time I wanted to visit some friends during the pandemic, but to do so I’d have had to pull Leo out of nursery for two weeks beforehand to isolate, and it felt hard to justify to myself so much time away from helping others. I think the appropriate attitude for me to have in that and other cases though was that I want to be living a happy and sustainable life alongside helping others, rather than agonising over every individual case. So I took the trip, and wrote down a policy for the future.
Two more habits
Here are two additional habits which aren’t that much like policies, but which I get a lot out of and so wanted to share.
Mitigating anxiety: At times when I get anxious, I’m typically not very sensible about steps to take to become calmer and happier. For that reason, I have a checklist of things to do if I’m feeling particularly anxious. That makes it as easy as possible to remember all the basic things that might help. (Eg Have I had the right amount of food? Of caffeine? Should I call someone - such as x, y or z? Should I sit quietly listening to music?)
Savouring: I have an Anki deck devoted to memories I want to savour. I’ve been really enjoying having this. I’ve added photos of people I care about / events I enjoyed, and screenshots of nice things people said in emails/slack. I’ve also taken photos of cards I particularly appreciated and of objects that reminded me of good times (partly so I don’t have to make space to keep all those physical things). I add things periodically to the deck. I typically go through it after going through the facts I want to memorise in anki. I love being periodically reminded of lovely moments I might otherwise forget, and being prompted to spend extra time savouring my favourite parts of life.