Bad Decisions: 5 Life Rules to Help You Avoid Making Poor Choices

Read time —
9 Minutes
Last updated
May 7, 2024

We all make bad decisions.

We're human. We're imperfect, which means we often make choices we regret.

Our challenge in life is to limit the times we make these poor choices. To do this, we have to use life rules to guide us when it comes to making decisions.

Life rules give us constraints. They give us the chance to limit the impact of our biases and soften the impulsive urges we have to act quickly.

Without constraints, we are prone to making too many decisions. Too many choices create decision fatigue. Mentally, we become too tired to think through our choices. So, we act impulsively and let our biases run free.

The 5 life rules to help you avoid making bad decisions are simple and straightforward:

1. A decision isn’t the outcome

2. Be wary of incomplete information

3. Always sleep on an important decision

4. Don’t let anyone define the problem for you

5. Never decide when you’re unwell, hungry, or in a rush

Each rule serves to stop you from making a bad decision. In our quest to make good decisions, it is often easier to avoid making bad ones first. The theory is by limiting the ways you can make a poor choice, the only way forward is a higher-quality decision.

Let's get into each one in more detail.

This article covers:

1. A Decision isn’t the Outcome

We are prone to confusing decisions with outcomes.

We do this with both good decisions and bad decisions.

A wrong decision isn’t the same thing as a bad outcome. Equally, a good result doesn’t mean you made the right decision.

We are being blinded by outcome bias.

Ask yourself the last time you didn’t get what you wanted and what you’ll likely find is a decision you call bad. Was your choice bad, or is it more likely that the outcome has biased your opinion?

When we call a bad outcome a bad decision we are ignoring what we don't control.

Outcomes are prone to entropy. It is nature's expression of luck, uncertainty and randomness.

Entropy disrupts the most carefully planned outcomes.

Additionally, this known law of thermodynamics reaches beyond the outcomes we experience.

Our experiences guide our future choices. Becoming a better decision-maker means learning from experience.

Without the separation of choice and outcome, our experiences become poor teachers.

For instance, we begin to doubt the control we do have. The control to decide.

We let indecision reign. The cognitive bias in our brains pushes our intuition to act. Our powers to assess and judge information weaken with the blur of choice and result.

When we see the decision as our only input, the quality of our decisions improves.

2. Be Wary of Incomplete Information

Information drives our decisions. It is where every decision begins, and if we're not careful, it is where every bad decision arises.

Our acceptance of incomplete information as complete is how many poor decisions evolve. We treat half-truths, theories, opinions and assumptions as facts. Here, our awareness of this risk of flawed data has to be at its highest.

You'll be thinking this all comes from other people. It doesn't.

Assumptions come from our experiences of previous events. We confuse experiences with base rates and believe them without checking. We build stories from these past beliefs and create theories and ideas that become stone.

That's how strongly we hold onto them.  

The opinion of others only increases the density of the information we're going to make our decision from. We are easily blinded by their experiences, as they share convincing stories.  

Simply put, we have to be high alert for the creep of incomplete information.

As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Incomplete information serves only to weaken our choices.

The path to not fooling yourself begins with critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the process of questioning information before you act on it. It enables you to separate fact from fiction. More questions appear as you push for the truth before deciding.

Being wary of any information is the right way forward

3. Always Sleep on an Important Decision

There are few things that disrupt your ability to concentrate more than a lack of sleep.

It stands to reason tiredness is a driver of bad choices. Sleep allows our mind and body to recharge. When we reduce our time asleep, we reduce our mind's capacity to work correctly.  

Deciding on anything late in the day is a key ingredient for a bad decision.

The more tired we become, the more our emotion affects our judgement. The more likely we are to make irrational choices. This is why it should be a rule to always sleep on an important decision.

Of course, it makes sense to sleep before making a big decision.

But there are other benefits to sleeping before making an important choice.

In the heat of the moment, tunnel vision adds to the likelihood of a bad decision. Sleep changes our place in time. With it, new perspectives arise which give us the opportunity to see our decisions differently.

Changing perspectives is a powerful way to prevent bad decisions.

There is a lot to gain from sleeping on a big decision. It is a simple life rule, bringing with it the benefits of emotional control and new perspectives.

4. Don’t Let Anyone Define the Problem For You

We solve problems by making decisions. Accordingly, the way we go about solving problems matters more than solving the problem.

The first challenge of problem-solving is to know what the problem is.

Everyone wants to help. Managers, colleagues, and others will give you their views of what the problem is.

This creates more issues than you would think it should.

For example, your manager only sees the effect of the problem. Unhappy customers create more calls for the call centre and longer answering times.

In explaining the problem, the boss doesn’t talk about what’s driving the increase in unhappy customers. The only concern is answering the calls quickly.

What often happens is known as firefighting.

More staff are recruited to answer the phones more quickly. Call volumes remain high, but the calls are being answered in a shorter time, so the boss is happy.

That is until he sees his payroll costs increasing!

When you’re tasked with solving a problem, take steps to understand what the problem is.

Identify: Work backwards from the effect to find the cause. Where do things start to go wrong?

Base principles: Understand the fundamental basic elements that form the process at work by asking questions like a child. What are the undeniable facts?

Fix the problem: With the identity of the problem known along with fundamentals, a fix can be produced. Does it need fire-fight support in the short term, or can a permanent fix be applied quickly?

The golden rule of problem-solving is to define the problem for yourself. Chinese whispers only create a false picture.

5. Never Decide When You’re Unwell, Hungry, or in a Rush

Tiredness isn’t the only physical condition where a poor choice is more likely. Illness, hunger and being in a hurry will all cause the same problem.

Important decisions demand clarity of thought.

When you’re ill, your judgement is impaired. Your mind has other battles to fight and can’t devote the attention a decision needs.

The same issue arises with hunger.

When the body issues hunger pains, it is a warning we are about to start operating in a sub-optimal way. Our minds will focus more on resolving this problem than any other decision.

Only fight, flight or freeze decisions will matter more.

Likewise, when we are late and rushing our attention becomes fragmented. We can’t concentrate on the important decision.

With our attention split, we tend to freeze. Our minds are switching between choices of urgency and importance and it stirs our emotions.

Good things rarely happen as a result.

How to Avoid Making Bad Decisions

I want to share with you a valuable lesson I learnt about making poor choices.

It comes in the form of reflection.

Every decision — both good and bad — gives us an opportunity to learn and improve for the next decision we face.  Becoming a better decision-maker means learning from this experience.

Until I took the time to review my past judgements objectively, I wasn't really learning.

History explains our past and shapes our future. Our challenge is not to let the biases of outcome or hindsight teach us myth’s about what we decided to do or not do. The longer time passes, the more our memories falter. Half-truths become truths. Theories become facts as we create legends we might tell our grandchildren.

The problem is they aren't true.

A decision journal can help you overcome this problem.

Until we begin recording our decisions, none of us knows whether we are good at making decisions or not. Only a written record can prevent facts from changing into dreams.

When you reflect on facts, you can ask yourself three questions:

  1. What worked?
  2. What could I have done better?
  3. What would have helped?

These questions focus on you. They don’t expose luck, randomness, or the uncertainty of life we find in outcomes.

Each question asks you to reflect on each aspect of what you did when you made your decision. Armed with the history a journal offers enables you to build on facts.

It is here, we can find the true path away from making bad decisions.

Written by

Darren Matthews
I'm the founder of The Resolve Blog. Through its articles, newsletter, and tools, The Resolve Blog helps you master your decision-making.

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