5 Thinking Tools & How We Used them to Make Our COVID School Decision

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown me how convenient my life used to be. Shopping, social gatherings, and school starting for my kids were relatively simple situations to plan for.

Now, life decisions are much more difficult. I’ve talked with many people who are struggling with issues related to work, school for kids, and differing expectations for social interactions with extended family and friends. Some of these decisions are interrelated, and that brings increased complexity when discussing details and evaluating options.

I’m grateful for my professional experience at Atomic Object and the years of living our Teach and Learn value mantra. The experiences I’ve had in product development, team building, and business have equipped me with thinking tools that have helped my family navigate complexity and make hard decisions during this pandemic.

This post highlights a few thinking tools that you can use to make hard decisions. I’ll share how my family made a hard decision about school for our kids so you can see a concrete example of how we applied the thinking tools.

Decision-Making Principles

There are four high-level principles I’ve observed my family applying as we approached any hard decision.

Plan Ahead

I’ve found it beneficial to plan ahead earlier than I used to. The extra time allows for in-depth discussions and consideration. If necessary, it also allowed us to discuss the decisions with others who may have different expectations and concerns, or who may be practicing different social behaviors.

We made a general decision about school for our kids in early July, well before our school district announced any specific options in late July.

Dedicate Time

Before the pandemic, we could make most decisions at the margins of our days through brief conversations. But discussions during the pandemic feel more like work-oriented planning meetings. We’ve found them to be more effective when we dedicate an hour or two during a time when everyone is rested and focused. Some decisions we’ve made have taken several, multi-hour discussions over the course of a week or more.

Evenings and weekends now often have significant time dedicated to managing things we used to take for granted.

Be Flexible

As this pandemic unfolded in March, Elaine Ezekiel gave me the great metaphorical advice to “surf with bent knees.” I loved the metaphor; it illustrates that:

  • We aren’t going to cut through the upcoming waves of life on our own terms. We will need to read the water, see the upcoming waves, and ride the waves to the best of ability.
  • We need to be flexible, ready to adjust and change quickly. We can’t be rigid in our expectations and get thrown off the board when specific details don’t go as planned.

Take One Thing at a Time

We’ve found that interrelated decisions are the most difficult and that complexity and difficulty increase when the future is uncertain and many details are unknown. The interplay between work and school is a perfect example. (For context, my wife Averil was just leaving her part-time, in-person healthcare job in July. Our kids Samantha and Caroline were going into second grade and kindergarten.)

Our ineffective approach of discussing an interwoven set of details went something like this:

Averil: Should we do in-person school for the kids so I can have the option to do in-person work?

Me: Maybe, but will school social distancing practices be safe? Will you be worried about the safety of an in-person healthcare job?

Averil: Should I wait to find a new job so I can manage a remote school option for our kids? Or maybe I should seek a remote healthcare job?

Me: We don’t know if our school district will even offer a remote school option. Are we comfortable with the kids going to school in person if that is our only option? If we do have a remote option, will our kids be able to self-manage some of their learning?

We soon realized that just talking through the details wasn’t going to help us see the big picture and make effective decisions.

To reduce complexity, we decided to list and prioritize our hard decisions and take them one at a time without considering how one decision could affect another. We accepted our process would likely be non-linear and result in us tuning prior decisions as we worked through our prioritized list.

We prioritized Averil’s career first and then moved on to make a decision about school for our kids. For each decision, we used the thinking tools outlined below.

Thinking Tools

For our hard decisions, we found benefit in applying the following process and thinking tools:

  1. Identify Goals and Principles
  2. List Constraints and Resources
  3. Choose a High-level Scenario
  4. List and Consider Options
  5. Decide

Using these tools (in the order listed) allowed us to get out of the details and first lay a foundation of what really mattered to us. We were able to consider what we valued, what we had the capacity to do, what the future might hold, and what high-level options we could exercise. This top-down approach helped us feel we were achieving our goals even if the specifics weren’t ideal.

1. Identify Goals and Principles

Identifying our goals and principles allowed us to clearly see what we valued most and agree on how to evaluate options.

Our high-level goals for school were:

  • Avoid getting COVID-19 until we are vaccinated. (This has been a top family goal in all areas of consideration.)
  • Be able to continue education for our kids in some form.
  • Preserve the ability for our kids to return to their school for in-person education in the future.

We identified the following principles:

  • Take personal responsibility to navigate and create options for education during the pandemic.
  • Be willing to trade convenience and free time for reduced health risk.
  • Seek to reduce complexity, uncertainty, and volatility.
  • Seek to increase influence and control over health risks and safety.
  • Select the best option for school and then figure out how to make life work around the school decision. Don’t select a school option based on what works best with our current life schedule.

2. List Constraints and Resources

Listing constraints and resources helped us later identify options. We identified the following constraints:

  • I was going to continue working my full-time job.
  • Averil wanted to preserve flexibility to find a part-time telehealth job.

The above constraints were a little bit in conflict with our fifth principle, but we thought we’d let these time constraints influence our decision.

We identified the following resources:

  • Our willingness to invest our time and interest in teaching our kids
  • Averil’s current time availability, due to being in between jobs
  • Schedule flexibility in my job: the ability to move work into evenings and weekends
  • Family, friends, and neighbors we could collaborate with
  • An extended family home in a different, low-density school district

3. Choose a High-Level Scenarios

Outlining high-level scenarios allowed us to explore and align on how we believed the future would play out. With all of the uncertainty and lack of details, we knew it was impossible to accurately predict the future, but we could agree on a likely future, plan accordingly, and know we would need to surf with bent knees.

We considered the following high-level scenarios related to how COVID-19 could affect school options:

  • COVID-19 doesn’t significantly spread during the fall and winter. In-person school runs in fairly smoothly. Learning may be challenging due to safety protocols having a negative impact on social connections, happiness, and sense of safety for kids.
  • COVID-19 cases rise significantly, and in-person school falls back to synchronous, virtual learning for periods of time. The kids may feel unsafe due to volatility, and learning may be more difficult due to learning format changes. Our schedules and parental responsibilities may suddenly change.

We agreed to plan around scenario two.

4. List and Consider Options

Averil and I were planning ahead without full knowledge of available options or their related details, so we speculated on likely options. We also identified options we could create if our school district didn’t offer options we liked.

We identified the following options:

  • In-person learning or some type of in-person/virtual hybrid offered by our school district
  • In-person learning offered in our extended family’s low-density school district
  • Full virtual, synchronous learning offered by our school district
  • Full virtual, asynchronous learning offered by our school district
  • Full virtual, asynchronous learning offered by another provider
  • Home school as parents
  • Home school collaboratively with a few neighbors

We listed the pros and cons of these options based on how they played against our goals, principles, constraints, resources, and scenario. This made the hard decision easier.

5. Decide

We made the decision to pursue a fully virtual, asynchronous school option because this option will remain the most consistent no matter what happens with COVID-19. A stable school schedule would provide a foundation for us to build our work schedules around. To us, the time cost of being learning coaches was worth the benefit of a stable schedule.

We then waited one month for our school district to announce their learning options. We hoped our school district would offer what we wanted. If not, we were prepared to search for another provider.

Luckily, our school district did provide a full virtual, asynchronous learning option. We attended some informational Zoom calls to confirm that the option was truly a flexible and asynchronous model. Then we registered for it as soon as possible.

We made a conscious decision to stay out of the details we couldn’t control or that weren’t as impactful to our goals and principles. For instance, we decided to not consider if:

  • The kids were going to get the best education they can this year.
  • A teacher from the kids’ traditional, in-person school would be teaching on the virtual platform.
  • We or the kids would personally like their teachers.
  • The user interface of the learning platform would be easy to understand.
  • Our kids would be a little sad missing in-person school.

Ignoring the detailed considerations above freed us from rumination and second-guessing our core decision.

Gratitude for Good Enough

Prior to the pandemic, we were accustomed to convenience and being able to optimize details to our preferred level of good, better, or best. We’ve worked to accept that now many decisions just need to be good enough and help us achieve our high-level goals.

We’ve also focused on being grateful for any options and resources we have and giving help to others who are struggling during this time.

In short, we’ve found it’s helpful to:

  • Focus on what matters most.
  • Accept that optimizing will likely be an exercise in frustration.
  • Be grateful for what we have.
  • Be patient, kind, and helpful to others.

I wish you the best with all of your hard decisions and hope these thinking tools offer you some benefit.