Disrupting our Defaults

Default settings exist so that we don’t have to make conscious decisions about too many things over and over again. They move choices onto autopilot for us. That’s a very useful thing, as our brains can hold far more in our unconscious zones than in our conscious ones. Making too many decisions is exhausting. (If you’re curious how Obama handled decision fatigue during his presidency, have a look here.)

I imagine you’re reading this thinking, “No kidding.” Life in a pandemic has moved things back out of our unconscious realm into our consciousness, and it’s one of the reasons we’re so tired. (“Can we meet to talk about that?” “Can that event happen in person?” “Should my kids have gone trick or treating after all?”) Our usual default settings can no longer be taken for granted, and it’s happening across many large domains of life at once. Decision fatigue has settled in hard.

In some cases, this disruption is leading to welcome innovations. I’ve heard more than one client describe how they thought working from home wasn’t possible in their industry, but when they had to figure it out, they did, and they suspect a hybrid work model is here to stay. “Having” to facilitate workshops digitally has shifted for me to “getting” to do so, as I’m learning the many advantages of online engagement.

Yet as I read Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here: Black dignity in a world made for whiteness this weekend, I was reminded of how many of my default settings remain not only very much in place but also completely unconscious to me. It’s part of the definition of a default, but this lack of awareness is decidedly unhelpful when those defaults come at others’ expense. Her work reminded me that my oblivion can contribute to someone else’s exhaustion.

As many of us work at doing better, personally and organizationally, at justice, equity, inclusion and reconciliation, unconscious biases are becoming more conscious. That is a very good thing because it’s a precondition for changing them. Yet the need for this work is rising in prominence at a time when our decision load is already feeling heavy for many other reasons. I trust we can find ways to make space for it anyway. I admire the many ways that folks in my network are demonstrating their commitment to doing so. Having the choice not to is privilege, and another example of a default that needs to be disrupted.

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