There is nothing more annoying than making bad decisions.
Good decision-making comes from a combination of factors. We have instincts to gauge the risk that comes from our sense of whether to fight/flight/freeze. Of course, we can also accurately assess the information we have using mental models. Our cognitive biases can help us – or distract us – depending on our mental state.
These are just a few of the tools that help us make good decisions.
Just as good decisions come from our ability to think, so bad decisions originate here too.
It is this fact which frustrates so many of us when we make bad decisions. We can gauge risk, assess information logically, and check whether our biases are leading us astray. Of course, throw in factors such as a lack of time, pressure from others, and an outcome that feels too good to be true, and our judgement fails us.
So, this leads us to three questions.
- What is a bad decision?
- Why do we make bad decisions?
- How can we avoid making bad decisions?
What is a bad decision?
A bad decision is when you decide to go against your senses and decide to do something you know you probably shouldn’t. A simple example is when faced with eating an apple over a slice of chocolate cake. Most of us will choose the sweet-tasting brown sponge with icing over the apple.
What we perceive as common sense goes out the window as our biases delight in showering us with reasons to offset doing something we know is not good for us. You only live once; the cake isn’t that unhealthy; you’re not going to gain 10lbs from one slice of cake, and so on.
We’ve all been there as we ignore logical thought and do the wrong thing.
Eating a slice of cake is one thing, but bad decisions can manifest themselves in difficult situations. Stories of affairs, theft, and even murder come when we ignore our intuition, for what are often temporary feelings.
Our emotions take control, leaving our judgement trailing behind.
What isn’t a bad decision?
Of course, a bad decision isn’t the same as a bad outcome.
Deciding is the process of consideration, which means a bad decision is how you make your decision.
A bad outcome is independent of your choice. If it starts raining when shopping in town, then this is a bad outcome if you don’t like getting wet. The decision you took to go shopping without a coat could be seen as a bad decision if you didn’t check the weather forecast before leaving.
Bad decisions are hard to see because the line between the choice and the outcome becomes blurred in our minds. But let’s be clear. A bad decision isn’t a bad outcome.
A bad decision is when you decide to go against your senses and decide to do something you know you probably shouldn’t.
Why do we make bad decisions?
Understanding what a bad decision is, helps us begin to understand why we make bad decisions. We’re all born and develop instincts to assess risk. Our judgements on whether we should fight, take flight, or freeze come from genes inherited and developed over thousands of generations.
The same learnings have developed mental models; patterns of thought which explain how the world works. Patterns of thought enable us to identify fundamental truths through first principles thinking. They also allow us to explore the effects after the decision, called second-order effects. Then you have inversion, the process of asking the opposite to solve problems.
But what makes us ignore these principles of decision-making?
Four common factors lead us to make bad decisions; these include:
- Being unaware
- Ignoring past lessons
- Solving the wrong problem
- Using incomplete information
Being self-aware means recognising your mental state. When we are unaware, we allow external sources to affect our mental state. Thus, when making decisions without awareness, we let emotions, tiredness, hunger, time pressures, and our environment affect us.
These feelings are temporary, but we often allow them to influence our desire to be logical.
Ignoring past lessons
Experience gives us far more than we realise.
We repeat past mistakes, which leads to a bad decision. Ignorance and arrogance mean we lack humility, thus failing to accept we were wrong the first time. We blame others; or circumstance; rather than accept we made a mistake.
This happens far more than we might realise.
Solving the wrong problem
We react quickly when things go wrong. Our sense of protection turns us into mini firefighters as we look to fix the problem. Often, we apply a sticky plaster when surgery is needed.
We solve the wrong problem.
Using incomplete information
Every decision requires us to assess information and use it to make a more informed choice. The problem is that often information can be incomplete, and we assume it’s correct.
We only become aware of incomplete information after the decision.
How can we avoid making bad decisions?
We now understand what a bad decision is, and we can also see why we make bad decisions. Now we have a great starting point to begin thinking about how we can avoid making bad decisions.
Reflecting on why we make bad decisions shows we make poor choices when we ignore our sense of judgement. To prevent us from being unaware or ignoring past lesson or using incomplete information we need some rules.
Rules are principles that define behaviours we should either do or not do. Putting rules in place enables us to define some non-negotiable behaviours. These can prevent us from making bad decisions.
5 rules to avoid making bad decisions.
- Don’t make important decisions when you’re emotional, tired, hungry, distracted, or in a hurry.
- Don’t let anyone define the problem for you.
- Get your information as near to the source as you can.
- Always ask, what do I know to be true? Filter out incomplete information.
- Reflect on your decision to learn what worked and what didn’t.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. Don’t make important decisions when you’re emotional, tired, hungry, distracted, or in a hurry.
Our minds at their weakest when they are trying to manage some deficiency. It doesn’t matter whether it’s hunger, tiredness, feeling emotional, or being in a hurry, the impact is always the same. We become impulsive; we don’t consider all the information correctly and we allow our cognitive biases to influence our thoughts.
Rule: Don’t make important decisions when you’re emotional, tired, hungry, distracted, or in a hurry.
2. Don’t let anyone define the problem for you.
Bad decisions come from when we don’t solve the right problem. This comes when we accept opinions over facts. In problem-solving, it means not getting to the root cause. Understanding the problem means defining it so you can explain it to yourself.
Rule: Don’t let anyone define the problem for you.
3. Get your information as near to the source as you can.
Chinese whispers lead us astray in much the same way the butterfly effect works. Information from the source, or as near as you can get to it, reduces the impact of the butterfly effect.
Rule: Get your information from as near to the source as you can.
4. Always ask, what do I know to be true? Filter out incomplete information.
Questions are our fluff filter. Great questions catch the impurities of incomplete information and enable us to check assumptions we might have previously made.
What do I know to be true? Asking this simple, but in-depth question forces us to question everything before us. Are our assumptions correct? Do we understand the fundamental truths of the decision we face? What isn’t true?
We can answer all these questions by asking this one question.
Rule: Always ask, what do I know to be true? Filter out incomplete information.
5. Reflect on your decision to learn what worked and what didn’t.
Reflection is a key component to learning, although it is sadly underused. By taking the time to review your choices, you open the door to giving yourself an honest assessment of your past decisions. Regardless of whether they are good decisions or bad decisions, you can learn from them.
We don’t do this enough. None of us knows whether we are good at making decisions or not, primarily because we don’t keep a decision journal. Doing this can take your reflection up another level.
Rule: Reflect on your decision to learn what worked and what didn’t.
We all make bad decisions. It doesn’t matter who you are; the slip into impulsive, biased driven actions which go against rational and logical thoughts affects us all. No one is perfect, which is why – even with the tips from this article – you will still make bad decisions.
But you can minimise their frequency.
You can set yourself decision-making principles. Rules give you a chance of avoiding the opportunity of a bad decision. These five rules outlined above give you principles to help you avoid making bad decisions.
Principles can do that for you.
The one last point to make is this; we all want to make good decisions. We put a lot of emphasis on this but rarely consider the opposite. Inversion asks how we can avoid bad decisions. It brings a different approach, but one which can certainly improve your decisions.