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How to Make Better Decisions in Stressful Situations Through Creativity

Making smart decisions can be hard in the best of times—pro/con lists, hours of Googling, talking to everyone you know who might have an opinion on the subject, etc. But add in some stress, and decision making gets even harder.

Stress produces cortisol (aka the stress hormone), which actually reduces our ability to think things through in logical ways. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to make decisions based on instinct, habit, or imitation, rather than on potential consequences or logical outcomes. 

What does all this mean? It means that if you want to be able to make better decisions in stressful situations, you’re going to have to use some creativity to overcome those default settings.

Here are a few things to try.


Brainstorming is inherently creative, requiring you to not only pay attention to your thoughts, but also to make note of them. During a brainstorming session, there are no right or wrong answers—there’s just what’s in your head. 

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”

Linus Pauling

Brainstorming can help you use your creativity to make better decisions in stressful situations in a couple of ways. First of all, it brings you into the present as you focus on your thoughts. This helps calm feelings of anxiety and stress. Moreover, brainstorming can help you discover solutions to your problem you might not have thought of before. Trying to decide between two options? What if there’s a third option you haven’t even thought of yet? Your brainstorming session might be just what you need to pull the best decision out of thin air. Tip: Keep your brainstorming structured, don’t go forever. Timebox a session to thirty minutes, see what you can create, as much as you can create, within the box and then assess what was created.

Skip to the end

We talk a lot about “beginning with the end in mind” here at Design.org, mostly because we really believe in it. When you start at the end and draw backwards, you’re better able to see how each step you take can take you where you want to go. 

This creative exercise can help you escape the stress and get back into a more logical thought process. If you’re not sure what you want or need to do next, start by envisioning where you want to end up, and work backwards to think of the steps you need to take to get there. Ultimately, you’ll connect the dots from your end vision to where you are now, and your decision will become a whole lot clearer.

Reframe the problem

Sometimes, we think and rethink our problems so many times that they become ingrained in our heads with a set-in-stone perspective or setup. But most decisions we have to make can be reframed and approached from a different direction, which might make the decision a little clearer.

Let’s say you’re trying to make a decision about whether or not to go through with a medical procedure. Your doctor tells you that for 20% of patients, the procedure doesn’t work as it’s supposed to. At first, it might be hard to focus on anything but that number, but if you reframe that statistic and realize that the procedure does work for 80% of patients, your decision might be easier.

The perspective with which you approach a stressful problem can make all the difference. Use creative thinking to reframe the information, and you’ll likely feel more confident in your decision.

Give yourself advice

What would you say to a friend who was facing the same decision you’re facing? Use creative thinking to pretend like you’re giving advice to your best friend—someone you can be open and honest with, no matter what.

This can help lower the stress of a situation by removing you personally from the equation. What if the stakes you’re facing weren’t actually going to affect you, but were going to affect someone you care about? How would that feel different?

Take this one step further by turning it into a two-way conversation. What would your friend say in response to your advice? What counter arguments would they present? Use that information to help you see the problem through new eyes. This will probably be a new type of conversation, remember to enjoy it, laugh at yourself and have fun!

Invite flow

Flow is an intensely creative state. When you’re in flow, your work becomes easy, time becomes meaningless, and you’re able to be completely focused on something you love doing.

Flow is enjoyable and effortless. In other words, it’s not at all stressful. In fact, getting into a state of flow might be able to help you work through your stress so that you can make better decisions. 

Getting into flow is more of an art than a science: sometimes, you check all the boxes for everything that “should” get you into flow, and you still don’t quite get there. But there are some things you can do to invite flow, including:

  • Do work you love
  • Minimize distractions
  • Work at the right time
  • Work for the right amount of time
  • Increase challenge and/or skill
  • Practice

(We go over each of these “keys to flow” in this post: The Keys to Flow and How to Find Your Focus.)

After spending some time in a flow state, you’ll feel less stressed, more creative, and more capable of making a smart decision. 

Remember your values

Ultimately, the best decisions are the ones that align with your personal values. If you make decisions this way, not only will decision making be easier, but you’ll be less likely to regret your decision later. 

If you haven’t explicitly defined your personal values, that’s a great creative exercise to try. (You can check out our Unleashing Your Inner Dragon manifesto for some inspiration for a list of values that matter.) If you already have a list of your values, review it when you’re facing a stressful situation. Your values can help you feel more grounded and more confident in your decisions. 

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Distract yourself

While this might fall under the category of creative doing rather than creative thinking, it’s still worth mentioning. Engaging in a distracting, creative activity, such as drawing, coloring, knitting, playing an instrument, dancing, or even walking outside in nature, can help reduce your stress so that you can make a more clear-headed decision. 

Try not to think about the problem you’re facing, and get wrapped up in your creative work. You’ll return to the problem later and will be able to see it with fresh eyes. Not only that, but your brain will likely continue to work on the problem subconsciously, possibly presenting you with new potential solutions when you come back to it. Sometimes, the best way to tackle a problem is to ignore it for a while. 

Learning to make good decisions is an important skill for anyone to have, but learning to use your creativity to make good decisions in stressful situations can be absolutely vital. Leverage your creative thinking skills to help you break through your stress and make better decisions, no matter how stressed you’re feeling, and you’ll unlock a powerful skill that will serve you well in hard times.  

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