Making decisions you regret

Everyday we each make between 2,000 and 10,000 decisions. 

Most of these are carried out automatically and effortlessly without us even realising. This ‘fast’ mode of thinking is always in gear and acts like an impulsive, unconscious reflex. 

When we’re faced with trickier tasks, we call on a more deliberate and logical approach. This ‘slow’ mode is the bit you think of as you: the thoughtful, purposeful, calculating voice in your head. 

All seems to be in order then. We’ve evolved with two modes of thinking which work together to ensure we’re as efficient and effective as possible. 

The reality, however, is that our fast and slow modes are in a near-constant state of conflict. 

The sheer effort needed to repeatedly engage our slow, deliberate mode of thinking in situations of ambiguity and stress means it’s prone to cracking under the strain. 

Instead of acting as a reliable enforcer of rational thought and logic, it can become overwhelmed and dominated by our automatic, unconscious impulses, all-the-while naively believing that it’s still in charge. 

So what can we do about it?

Hectic professional and personal lives mean our decision-making is subjected to these conflicts more often than many of us realise.

So whilst we might feel disappointed in ourselves when reflecting on past actions or decisions that didn’t truly represent what we thought or felt, acknowledging the existence of such conflicts gives us hope.

The two scenarios described in the sections below should help to reassure you that:

  • The reasons why our decision-making is sometimes compromised in workplace situations are perfectly explanable from a behavourial perspective – that you may have said or done things that you later regret does not make you weak or deficient
  • It is possible, with practice, to recognise and control these situations in the future

We’ve all been in those periods where it feels like things are getting increasingly out of control, desperately trying to keep up with tasks and deadlines that seem to come at us with relentless speed.

The longer we’re in these periods, the less time and energy we have to engage our thoughtful, rational selves.

It’s no surprise then that in these situations we become increasingly reliant upon snap-judgement and impulsive thinking in order to cope and get through it all.

As a result, our vigour for offering challenge and empathy to others is diminished, supporting the status quo becomes increasingly attractive and we aren’t able to give the best of ourselves to our decision-making.

Whilst the relentless stress and exhaustion may set off a few warning lights signalling that all might not be well, we know that in practice we cannot simply slam on the brakes.

Faced with a reality of client deadlines and other work commitments, many of us will resign ourselves to our current out-of-control state and just hope that at some point soon it starts to ease off.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Thinking of the act of putting on the brakes as a 3-stage process – rather than a one-off emergency stop – will help you regain control and get back to making decisions reflective of what you really think and feel:

  1. Contain: your first aim is to not let the current situation get any worse. This means: i) standing firm in not taking on any new urgent tasks; and ii) reaching out to your line manager and colleagues, and being honest that things feel out-of-control
  2. Contract: as each job within your current workload is completed, try not to replace it with an equally pressing new task. This way, commitments and stress levels should slowly start to come down over time.
  3. Sustain: Commit to treating your emotional wellbeing needs as an ever-present, not just something to ‘fix’ in times of stress and overload. Remind yourself of what it is that makes you come alive in your work and home life, and refocus on following a path that’s guided by the positive emotions that come from this.

Here we’re thinking about situations in which we suddenly feel under intense pressure for a short period, perhaps only a few minutes. 

Think, being cornered by a very task-focused boss who wants quick answers on a project even though you’ve barely started, or, being put on-the-spot to give your view on an issue in a meeting room full of more senior colleagues who’ve already expressed their opinions. 

In these situations, our slow, deliberate mode of thinking becomes distracted by what we see as the more immediate pressing concern – escaping the feeling of heightened anxiety as quickly as possible by telling others what they want to hear. 

Although our deliberate, rational-selves know we’re not yet in a position to give any answers on that project, or that, on balance, we probably disagree with our bosses’ views on this particular issue, our impulsive-selves leap-frog our panicked slow mode, and come to rescue us from our anxious state. 

To better cope with this, we need to learn to recognise when this might be about to happen by using the sudden increased stress levels as a choice signal.

At the signal, imagine you’re at a junction faced with a choice between two routes.

Route A looks smooth and comfortable, and you’re instinctively steered in that direction. But taking this route – by telling others what they want to hear – will lead to missed opportunities to contribute the best of yourself, with subsequent frustration and regret. Route A will not take you where you want to go.

Route B looks bumpy and less attractive to begin with. Despite this, it is route B that will get you to where your clients would want you to be; a place where you’re using your unique talents to fuel curiosity, challenge and diverse thinking.

If, like most of us, you’ve been in a situation where you’ve taken Route A, use the emotions you felt when reflecting about that event to reinforce the attractiveness of Route B next time you’re at the junction.

Then take a deep breath and let the rational, thoughtful you re-take control.

Although it might not feel like it at the time, your colleagues and clients will respect you more at the journey’s end.

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