When was the last time you made a really bad decision?
I’m not talking about that roadside hotdog on the way home yesterday.
I’m talking about taking a turn which proved so monumentally wrong that you’re still bearing the consequences.
Remind yourself of how you came to that decision. And then let go of it.
Life’s a constant succession of forks in the road and plenty of them lead to tattoo parlours, STD clinics and divorce lawyers.
Question is how to do better next time?
Neuroscience in a nutshell
For a long time philosophers and economists agreed that good decision-making was based on the triumph of reason over emotion.
With advances in neuroscience we now know that emotions play at least as big a role as logic.
While the rational parts of our brain are centred in the frontal lobes, most of our emotional structures are based in the Amygdala, deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe.
People with a damaged Amygdala don’t feel emotions in the same way as others. They struggle to make even the most elementary decisions.
They provide evidence that effective decision-making is impossible without the meaning and motivation we assign to it through our emotional input.
In other words, without accessing our emotions choosing literally becomes impossible.
Maximisers verus Satisficers
American psychologist Barry Schwartz divides decision-makers into two categories, maximisers and satisficers.
Maximisers are perfectionists. They’ll consider every possible alternative imaginable, because they want to be certain that every decision or purchase they make is the best they can possibly make.
Satisficers think differently. They have certain minimum criteria they want to see fulfilled, but they’re quite happy to settle for any option they feel is good enough, even if it’s not necessarily the best option in all respects.
Research shows that satisficers on the whole lead far less stressful lives and are consistently happier than choice maximisers.
Schwartz blames what he calls the curse of discernment, where the maximiser’s rising expectations in life can no longer keep pace with the choices he or she is presented with.
He proposes a simple solution:
“If you’re out to find ‘good enough’, a lot of the pressure is off and the task of choosing something in the sea of limitless choice becomes more manageable.”
So while good enough might not be your best choice, it’ll probably make you the happiest.
Settling for good enough doesn’t necessarily mean settling for the safe option.
As entrepreneur and writer Derek Sivers puts it:
“Every time you’re making a choice, one choice is the safe/comfortable choice, and one choice is the risky/uncomfortable choice. The risky/uncomfortable choice is the one that will teach you the most and make you grow the most, so that’s the one you should choose.”
Even if your choice doesn’t play as well as you’d hoped for, having pushed your skills and capabilities to the next level is a great result in itself.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never return to its old position.” — Oliver Wendell Jones Jr
Below are the thirteen most common reasons I’ve come across in my practice as an online coach for why we end up regretting the decisions we make, and advice on how to do better next time.
1) You gave yourself too many choices
Choice overload leads to choice paralysis.
If you’re a maximiser, the sheer volume of choices means you may no longer be able to do the maths.
So you decide not to choose.
If you’re a satisficer, you get equally worn down.
There are too many options available, so instead of finding out which option fulfils your minimum criteria, you settle for the one that seems easiest.
Overload also makes it more likely you’ll regret your choice later on and encourages you to regret the alternative choices you didn’t make.
Professor Sheena Iyengar at Columbia Business School call this the paradox of choice.
“Adding options to people’s lives can’t help but increasing people’s ideas about how good those options will be. This will produce less satisfaction with the produced results even if those results are good results.”
2) You weren’t in a peak state
With peak state I don’t mean being medicated on margaritas and that mystery bag you found on the dance floor. Unless you enjoy having your face tattooed.
According to author Benjamin Hardy, a peak state is when you’re in a position of growth and flow, a state of passion.
Making decisions outside of a peak state will make your choices weak and small-minded.
The best way to put yourself in such a state is to get out of your routine and spend time in an environment that’s optimal for learning and growth.
Take yourself out to the country side for a couple of days. Spend time in nature, be inspired, meditate and move around.
3) You researched your choices to death
There’s logic in the idea that the more information you have, the better decision you make.
But after you reach a certain threshold, any additional information will only confuse you.
It’s in our nature to try and fill in the information gaps as a way to reduce uncertainty.
Unfortunately this information quest can quickly lead us down some rabbit holes, especially with information so easy to come by.
The process therefore isn’t so much about finding out more information, it’s about finding the right information.
As Psychologist Ron Friedman points out:
“In a world where every click brings the promise of a discovery, we’re all at risk of becoming addicts. The challenge lies in differentiating between questions worth exploring and questions best left unasked.”
4) You over/underestimated your future self
We find it easy to remember who we were ten years ago.
Yet, for some reason we find it much harder to imagine who we might be in ten years’ time. And because we can’t imagine it, we mistakenly think it’s not going to happen.
When we make decisions we follow a process called affective forecasting, where we try and predict how the outcomes of that decision will make us feel in the future.
Trouble is we routinely overestimate the impact of the decisions we’re about to make, no matter whether we think the outcome will be be good or bad.
In the words of Kate Douglas:
“Remember that whatever the future holds, it’ll probably hurt or please you less than you imagine.”
Unless that choice involves late night carbs or a face tattoo.
5) You procrastinated
If you’re an indecisive procrastinator, you’re probably not someone I’d like to go shopping with.
You find it hard to make up your mind because you know that committing to a particular choice leads to the loss of many alternative choices.
You also know there’s social pressure to stick to that choice once you’ve made it.
The anxiety caused by this internal battle makes it tempting not to choose and instead bury your head in the sand a little while longer.
In the end, the only decision you make is to withdraw to the last remaining place where you feel truly safe, Netflix.
Always set yourself a deadline for when a decision needs to be made if you want to avoid ending up in procrastination hell.
6) You didn’t pass the buck
Most economies are fixated on the idea that plenty of choice must be a good thing.
It only takes a trip to any US diner to experience the opposite.
As a European, having to choose between ten different fries is deeply distressing, and so is the over the top friendly waitress.
Even if I enjoy the fries I chose after long deliberation, the thought of not having chosen the best fries causes stress.
Here’s a tip.
The moment you realise you’re unable to obtain the right information or knowledge in order to make a choice, is the moment you delegate it to someone who can.
So if you can’t tell a Maalbec from a Merlot, let your dinner date pick the wine.
And if he takes you to a US diner, always choose the Disco Fries.
7) You weren’t systematic
Satisficers take note: Always. Do. Your. Homework.
That homework involves having a logical and structured process in place to guide your decision-making.
Without a system, you’ll struggle to think of all the necessary factors before you come to a decision.
By being systematic you create an environment where you can explore all options, either on your own or as part of a team.
From decision-making trees to paired analyses, there are plenty of helpful tools and techniques available online that’ll help you identify and rank your options.
8) You were all brain and no gut
Various studies have shown that when we feel happy we’re more likely to be blinded by optimism and the attractiveness of a choice.
Feelings of sadness or slight melancholy on the other hand encourage a rather more systematic and realistic look at your options.
As a rule of thumb:
For small decisions always give more weight to rational arguments; for complex decisions give more weight to your emotions.
Take note of your physiology.
If you feel your body expanding when visualising the likely outcome of a particular choice, that’s a good sign.
If you feel your body contracts when visualising the outcome, then that’s usually a bad omen.
9) You were all gut and no brain
Personal development 1.0 has brainwashed you to always trust your gut.
There are literally hundreds of psychological biases that lead you to making decisions in a blinkered and illogical way.
Here are the most common ones to watch out for when making decisions:
Wishful thinking: a tendency to be over-optimistic so you overestimate favourable or pleasing outcomes. ‘He has zero experience, but I’m sure he’ll learn on the job.’
Anchoring: basing your final decision on information you gained very early on in the process even if that information turns out to be irrelevant. Often this happens when you’re under significant time pressure to make a decision. (both candidates are equally qualified, but this one had a firmer handshake)
Halo effect: where your overall impression of a person (he’s really hot) impacts your impression about individual traits of that person (he’ll make a great addition to my team).
Gambler’s fallacy: you expect past events to influence the future. You assume that because you’ve been successful or unsuccessful in your previous five business decisions, the same will happen this time. (I’m usually able to tell straight away if someone’s going to be a good fit in my team)
Listen to your gut like you’d listen to the advice of your slightly prejudiced aunt.
Pickled from life and too many G&Ts. But she means well bless her.
10) You didn’t play devil’s advocate
Maybe your past careful and skilful decisions-making earned you a reputation as a great judge and choice expert.
But often as you get more confident, you start relying more on gut feeling than on solid analysis.
This is where sloppiness and errors of judgment start slipping in.
Confirmation bias means you choose to look only at evidence that confirms your existing beliefs or theories. In other words, you get cocky.
Don’t just rely on past experience and information which confirms how right you are.
Actively seek out information that proves how wrong you might be about your preferred option.
11) You didn’t get an outsider’s opinion
Colleagues, family, friends and mentors can have great insights and information that help you make better choices.
It’s useful getting others on board early, especially if you depend on them to implement your decisions.
If you’re not keen on involving anyone else, or you don’t have access to anyone, apply the technique of trusting the crowd within.
Visualise how you would advise a close friend if they presented you with the same scenario and the same options.
In psychology this is known as dialectical bootstrapping.
It helps you to step outside your vantage point and to think a little more broad-minded.
12) You thought there was only one right decision
For a maximiser this is a tough nut to crack.
Author Susan Jeffers suggests switching from a no-win mindset to a no-lose mindset.
Instead of questioning whether you made the right decision, a no-lose mindset means reminding yourself that whatever choice you made, it was a good one.
After you made your decision, you let go of your expectation and your image of how things are ‘supposed’ to go.
Even if that choice turns out not so well later on, trust you can handle the consequences, and trust you can handle them well.
13) You didn’t pull the plug in time
Plenty of big decisions involve serious financial and emotional investment.
These sunk costs often make it impossible for us to walk away, despite mounting evidence that the decision is harming us.
After all, you put in all the hard labour, and cutting your losses now would mean accepting defeat publicly.
You become so fixated on your choice that you’re not willing to recognise when you need to change course, or when it’s time to choose something different altogether.
How do you know when to pull the plug?
As Seth Godin says in his book The Dip, the best way to find out whether you’ve reached a dead end is to ask yourself:
“Is this a project that is going to respond to my guts, effort and investment?”
If it’s a yes, then commit and invest. If it’s a no, then get the hell out.
There’s no such thing as the right choice. Some choices are better than others, so focus on making a decision that’s good enough.
When considering your options, find a balance between being systematic and being emotional. Remember:
Limit your choices
Only make decisions when you’re in a peak state
Focus on finding the right information to help you decide
Don’t overestimate the impact of your decision
Delegate decision-making to an expert
Check in with your emotions
Beware of psychological bias
Seek information that proves how wrong you are
Ask for advice
Move from a no-win mindset to a no-lose mindset
Beware of sunk costs
Call to action
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