Why Do We Keep Making Bad Decisions?
“Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;
love her, and she will watch over you.” Proverbs 4:6
I am sure you have asked yourself many times why you keep making the same bad choice over and over again. I know I have! Recently, this happened to me; my schedule was so busy, and my husband and I had little time to rest. As a result, what was a very little issue on a phone call with someone we know turned into an explosive fight because of our bad assumptions and decisions. However, we eventually calmed down and analyzed the root causes of our choices, and how we could learn from the situation in order to avoid making the same wrong decisions over and over again.
In this week’s blog and podcast, I discuss the four main reasons we make bad decisions, how to stop making these decisions, how to become a proactive decision maker and how to re-train your brain to make better choices. There are two main parts to this process: first, understanding how to be a proactive decision-maker, and, second, recognizing the conditions under which bad decisions are generally made.
Let’s talk about being a proactive decision maker first:
We are thinking beings. As we think, we feel, and as we feel, we choose. We are literally doing this every 10 seconds in response to an incoming stream of signals from our environment. The signals are from people, discussions, social media, relationships, work, texts, calls emails, the news–life in general. This thinking, feeling and choosing response is our mind-in-action. It is filtered through the complexity of our own experiences—our stored memories. These memories move into the conscious mind in response to these signals of life, influencing our perceptions and worldview. They therefore need to be analyzed in a deliberate and intentional way to see if the perspective they provide is healthy or toxic.
We literally need to train ourselves to observe our thinking and feeling (in response to incoming information) and analyze them objectively before making a decision, otherwise we can fall prey to reactive and potentially harmful choices. This deliberate, intentional, self-regulative way of thinking is proactive, and the good news is that our brains will respond in a very healthy way if we practice doing this on a regular basis. In fact, when we do this we become smarter and wiser!
Part of this process is what I call “mental autopsy”: we examine our past bad decisions, deciding what our triggers were, what was wrong with how we reacted, what perspectives dominated our thinking, feeling and choosing, and how we can learn from these situations and react better in the future. Doing a mental-autopsy on past bad decisions will help prevent you from making the same mistakes again!
This kind of decision-making is very different to reactive decision-making, which is “shooting from the hip” and impulsive. You don’t analyze or learn from your mistakes, which can lead to a pattern of wrong decisions. This is what happened in my fight with my husband—we made assumptions because we did not take the time to examine our perceptions and our thinking, feeling and choosing. We let our emotions get the better of us, which made the situation worse! Indeed, making a decision on assumptions is one of the major reasons we make wrong decisions! It is always vital to ask yourself if what you are thinking is based on fact or based on your own assumptions, which are often mistaken.
So, how can you do this in your life? We have as humans the ability to stand back and observe our own thinking, feeling and choosing and existing upcoming memories, as well as the perspectives they provide, and weigh this all up and decide if it’s good for us—this is called our Multiple Perspective Advantage (MPA for short, which I discuss in my book Switch On Your Brain). As you do this, you become an objective observer, disassociating yourself from the situation you are in, almost as though you are helping someone else evaluate their thinking, feeling, choosing and perspective. In this way, you can analyze the pros and cons of how you are viewing a particular situation, and what the best next steps are.
Now, let’s review the conditions under which it is so easy to make a bad decision:
1. Making decisions when tired: the brain has limited energy and needs recharging. We do this through lifestyle choices like good nutrition and exercise, but, even more so, with good mind-management techniques. Our mind is infinite and tireless; our brains are finite and get tired. When tired, chemicals don’t flow like they should and the internal networks of the brain can get stuck or over-fire. This is akin to driving through a storm with broken wind screen wipers, which is what happened in the fight with my husband.
It is therefore so important that we take regular mental health breaks in the day in the form of “thinker moments”, where we daydream for a few moments to a few minutes – I recommend a minute or so every hour. These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to reboot and heal by letting your mind wander and daydream, which increases your clarity of thought and organizes the networks of your brain, rather than just letting toxic mindsets build up in the brain.
Also, make sure you take a decent break midday, control the number of hours you work in a day (as much as possible), take mental vacations by watching your favorite TV show or reading a good novel, and avoid burnout by listening to the emotional and physical warning signals your body send you.
2. Extreme emotions: emotions are physically represented in the brain as chemicals, which are often called “molecules of emotion”. They are attached to information that is vibrating in the protein tree-like memory structures of the brain. We create emotions as we think; if our thinking is chaotic, the thought trees in the brain are chaotic. These are like trees being blown in a bad storm, which can create brain damage and lead to bad choices because we won’t be thinking clearly.
When you find yourself in this kind of situation, it is best to do some breathing exercises, which dissipates cortisol and calms down your nervous system. You should also acknowledge out loud how you feel; differentiate, label and write your emotions down. Additionally, you can do a very simple physical exercise like tapping your feet, standing up and walking around for a few seconds, rotating your head, stretching or yawn to shift your focus from your own chaotic thinking and help calm you down. It is also important to let people know when you are feeling extreme emotions and cannot mentally make a decision right now—don’t try hide or suppress how you feel, as this will make things worse!
3. Distractions: these can lead to cognitive multitasking, which affects the flow of quantum and electromagnetic energy throughout our brain circuitry. This, in turn, can reduce intelligence in the moment…just when you need it to make a good decision! We need to recognize that although we as humans can do busy well, we also need to learn how to compartmentalize our tasks.
This doesn’t mean you have to slow down. Rather, you just have to get organized by saying things to yourself like “I can’t finish this now but will as soon as I am done sorting this problem…” or “I will make a note of where I am in this document and what I was thinking, so I can pick up here later…”. You can also tell people who need your attention to give you the time to finish what you are doing—don’t just be a “yes man”! This will help you compartmentalize, keeping things tidy in your mind and helping you prioritize what needs attention and what can wait. It’s a choice you have to make to not allow distractions to interrupt your flow. Remember, you control the distractions, the distractions don’t control you!
4. Too many choices at once: these are like too many surges of energy all hitting the brain at once, and can make you feel overwhelmed and stressed out. In many cases, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, or impulse choices that you will later regret.
The solution: take the time to sort out your thinking and your choices. You can do this by breathing in and out deeply, imagining holding up a shield around your mind, and then slowly focusing on each choice (one at a time) by writing them down as you speak out loud. Next, prioritize the top 2-3 options and toss the rest; force yourself to not look back at the other options, reminding yourself that even if you made the wrong decision, you learned something! Finally, set a deadline for making a decision.