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When You Should Never Make a Decision

Stop making decisions you regret

I did a terrible thing to a friend of mine. I stole her idea. Because this is something I pride myself on never doing and I harshly judge those who do, I set out to discover why I had such a terrible lapse in judgment.

After discounting any subconscious fears or desires, I realized I made the decision at the wrong time of day and under the worst of circumstances. I was stressed about not being able to complete a project on time, irritated with a colleague for not completely fulfilling a promise, and under pressure to send in a title of a talk I was going to give. To top it off, it was the worst time of day to make a snap decision…

It was late afternoon.

I found some research that explained to me why I made such an egregious error. I don’t share these findings as an excuse. I decided to write this as a blog to help other well-intentioned people avoid making bad and thoughtless decisions.

After profusely apologizing and replacing her idea with something else, I read this by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, “People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.”[i] Kahneman goes on to explain how cognitive overload and physical depletion impair our self-control. We make stupid choices. We hurt ourselves and others. We act uncharacteristically.

Then, after we make the poor decision, we instantly rationalize our behavior, giving ourselves and others a good reason we acted so poorly. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says our brains don’t like us saying, “I don’t know why I did that.”[ii] Instead, we make up ad hoc answers to fit the situation even when it is clear we know better and our reasons are big, fat fabrications.

Then I read a short piece by Nessa Bryce in the March issue of Scientific American Mind.[iii] She cited a series of studies done at Harvard University and the University of Utah that found that our moral compass is much more accurate in the morning when we have more energy than later in the day.

So here are my tips for when you are facing an important decision, whether it is to make a purchase, send a sensitive email, or announce your brilliant idea:

  1. Sleep on it. Then make your decision tomorrow morning.
  2. Write your decision on a piece of paper and stash it away without implementing it. Look at it later if it is still early, or tomorrow or in a few days if you can. Pull out the paper after you fully wake up and feel refreshed in the morning. Then decide what to do.
  3. Ask yourself where the idea you want to implement came from. Sometimes considering the source gives you objectivity.
  4. If you have to make an important decision in the moment, find someone you trust who has your best interest at heart. Lay out the pros and cons. Start your conversation with, “I really don’t know if what I want to do is the best choice.” Saying “I don’t know” slows down the automatic processing, giving you a chance to think things through.

Choose the best time to make decisions, when you are full of energy and not overwhelmed with other things to do. You will have less choices to regret.

[i] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October, 2011, page 41.

[ii] Michael Gazzaniga, Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. HarperCollins, November, 2011, page 83.

[iii] Nessa Bryce, “People are More Moral in the Morning.” Scientific American Mind, Mar 1, 2014, page 18.

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