What if I made the wrong decision?
We all make many decisions throughout the day, every day. Some decisions are about what we need to do at home, like what to buy at the supermarket or what to have for dinner.
Most of these decisions we can manage without spending too much time thinking about them. If we get the wrong item, or we do not like what we got, it does not take us long to let go of our frustration or disappointment, as they do not have long-term consequences.
Dealing with complex decisions
In hard decisions, the decision-making process can be complex since there are many aspects to consider. Most of the time, the options we may have available do not fully meet our criteria. In addition, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be what we hope for. This is because not all aspects are under our control.
When we know the risk of negative consequences is high, we spend a lot of time thinking about what is the most appropriate option for us. For example, when considering whether to start a degree, what job we want to do, or what city to live in.
There will be some unknown variables, such as how we will feel when working in a different environment or whether the degree we choose is more theory and less practice (or the reverse, depending on our preference).
The outcome is uncertain due to the possibility of other factors influencing it. For example, tiredness after commuting to work or study, which can limit our capacity to work effectively.
So, when deciding we are considering probabilities based on how we imagine things will be. We can focus on the possible benefits and drawbacks, so that on balance, we can identify what option could provide us with a good enough outcome.
However, we need to take into account that there is a risk that what we choose may not provide us with our desired outcome.
So we have to factor in the likelihood of mistakes. We can prepare by asking ourselves: What information or factor have I not considered yet? What if X was not an obstacle, would it change my perspective/preferences? If so, in what way?
Preparing to make important decisions
In order to make an informed decision, we need to pause and create space to think clearly (Parrish, 2023). We require time to regulate our emotions and restore balance to explore and consider our options carefully.
It is essential to restore our energy before making critical decisions so we have the capacity to expand our perspective. When we are tired or stressed, our attention is reduced, and we narrow our focus to only a few options (Ariely, 2008).
When facing critical decisions, we wonder if we should follow our gut feelings. It is important to take our feelings into account, although we need to be aware that assumptions and cognitive biases can influence how we interpret our feelings.
Cognitive biases are predictable thinking patterns that lead to systematic errors when evaluating information during decision-making. To mitigate this, we need to explore different points of view to prevent jumping to conclusions or sticking with the first idea.
Our brain is designed to save energy. When dealing with complex situations, it looks for shortcuts and ways to simplify and speed up the thinking process to arrive at decisions quickly (Kahneman, 2011).
We inherited them from our ancestors, who needed to think fast to survive in a challenging world. These shortcuts can be helpful in some circumstances, but they can have a cost. The ability to recognise these thinking patterns allows us to avoid them in the future.
It can be helpful to ask someone we trust to play devil’s advocate to challenge our assumptions and minimise possible biases. It can help us to a) identify the problem and understand it, and b) consider the options available to us even those we may not want to consider (Kahneman, 2011).
Dealing with setbacks
Even when we take time to consider our decisions, we may have setbacks or unexpected outcomes. We are likely to feel frustrated and our confidence can be affected. We may even question our ability to make smart choices, and doubt our capacity to look after our own wellbeing and that of those we care about.
Keeping in mind that even though the outcome may not be what we hoped for, it does not mean we made a wrong decision. In many cases, hindsight bias affects the way we evaluate our decisions (Kahneman, 2011).
Managing our expectations can be challenging at times. When we think about our decision, we decide based on the information we have available. It can help us to review our options and consider how they are presented: what if we considered them in a different order?
Or, what if we viewed it from a different angle/position? Sometimes we are too focused on the here and now, and do not consider that our preferences could change in the future (Johnson, 2022).
We also need to consider the circumstances we find ourselves in, the goals we have in mind, and how we feel at the time. Once we have decided, we move into a new situation where we learn new things. Making notes of our decision-making process gives us a record to review our decisions in the future.
When we evaluate our decisions retrospectively (hindsight bias), we are doing so when we already know the outcome.
As humans, we are not very adept at forecasting how we will feel in the future. We tend to overestimate how uncomfortable we will feel when things do not work out as we hoped.
Learning to regulate our emotions helps us adjust to change, and develops our strengths to pursue our goals.
Strategies to improve decision-making
Review the decision with an open mind: Are you evaluating the decision based on the outcome? Keep in mind that when we view the decision retrospectively, we are not considering that at the time, we had less information, there was uncertainty and the circumstances were different, and we also were in a different feeling state.
We often have to choose between options that have some advantages and some disadvantages. We can use our record to review our thinking process when we made our decision. Adopting a kind view of ourselves will help to manage the inner critic and allow our problem-solving skills to emerge.
Learn from mistakes: We learn from our experiences as they provide us with a new perspective. By practising self-compassion we can ease the tension and helps to manage feelings of regret.
These situations confront us with our humanity – we are not invincible, we get tired and we are influenced by how we feel in the moment.
Developing our self-awareness helps us acknowledge our actions and be more open to learn. Then, we can plan what we can do differently next time.
Reflect on what matters most: Connect with your values, observing whether things have changed since making the decision. Check how you are feeling and what assumptions these could be based on. Is the option you are considering based on what matters most to you? Write things down to clarify your thinking and notice patterns.
A good enough decision: We often need to make decisions based on imperfect information. Sometimes, we delay deciding expecting certainty to decide. We do not realise that not making a decision is a decision, and it can keep us stuck.
Ask yourself, what is the cost of inaction? Perhaps it is a valid option given the circumstances, or is it because the options available are not offering all you hope for? Consider the options available and focus on the option that on balance would be good enough.
Make notes of the reasons why you chose the option to identify assumptions, process emotions and clarify thinking.
Be your best friend: Making difficult decisions is challenging. Be kind to yourself, as you would treat your best friend. Connect with family and friends, people you trust and who look out for you. We all benefit from supporting each other.
Ariely, D. (2008) Predictably irrational. The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2013) Decisive. How to make better choices in life and work. London: Random House Books.
Johnson, E. J. (2022) the elements of choice. Why the way we decide matters. London: Oneworld Publications.
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking fast and slow. London: Allen Lane.
Klein, G. (1999) Sources of power. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Parrish, S. (2023) Clear thinking. Turning ordinary moments into extraordinary results. London: Cornerstone Press.
Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Russo, J. E. and Schoemaker, P.J.H. (1989) Decision traps. The ten barriers to brilliant decision-making and how to overcome them. New York: Fireside.
Schwartz, B. (2005) The paradox of choice. Why more is less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.