Some of these choices have larger consequences than others. For starters: Who we choose to surround ourselves with, where we live, and what career we pursue can have a huge impact on our health and happiness. And if more than a few of those decisions turned out to be less than wise in hindsight, then congratulations: You’re not a robot. (Let’s discuss that e-mail you sent your ex after two glasses of wine another time.)
How do we avoid making choices that invite regret, resentment, or erode our well-being? Though there’s no surefire way to never make a mistake, paying attention to signs we’re en route to bad decisions can help us switch course before it’s too late. Be prepared to step back if you encounter these six major red flags.
6 Red Flags
1. Your gut is telling you "no."
Our instincts aren’t always on target, but if you’ve got a funny feeling about a request someone’s made or the risks inherent in embracing a new opportunity, process these feelings before proceeding, says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. “We’re less likely to feel secure with our choices when we haven’t resolved our own internal conflicts about them.”
Carmichael recommends making a pro and con list about big decisions (think: Should I leave this job or relationship? Should I apply to graduate school—and which one? Should I move in with my partner?). This can help us get in touch with our fears about what’s in store for us and assess whether the threats we perceive are actually realistic (this worksheet can help too).
No matter how overblown our apprehensions (your boss might not have it in for you after all, nor might your S.O. be cheating), clarifying them helps clue us into who we are and what we need, Carmichael says. Tuning into—and accepting—hard-to-feel emotions like anxiety or dread also helps us feel more grounded, an essential component of making wise choices wherever you are in your life. The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review. Hofmann, S., et al. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2010 Apr; 78(2): 169–183.
2. You're super emotional.
It’s one thing to be in tune with your feelings. It’s another to let them steer the course of important decisions in your life, says counselor and couples therapist Melody Li, LMFTA. When we’re riled up by anger, anxiety, and other intense emotions, we’re more likely to hit “send” when we shouldn’t, give in to immediate gratification, or shun people and situations we would be better off embracing simply because we perceive them as threats. (Feeling blue can also cloud what we see as our options and our willingness to choose which one is best. Decision-Making and Depressive Symptomatology. Leykin, Y., et al. Cognit Ther Res. 2011 Aug; 35(4): 333–341.)
Though emotional reactions are designed to keep us from danger (e.g., jumping out of an oncoming vehicle’s path rather than pausing mid-crosswalk) we’re better off cooling down before making longer-term commitments or choices that impact important relationships, Li says. Lower the intensity of judgment-clouding feelings by taking a few deep breaths: Just five minutes of mindful inhaling and exhaling triggers your body’s relaxation response. Immediate effect of slow pace bhastrika pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate. Pramanik T, Sharma HO, Mishra S. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 2009, Jun.;15(3):1557-7708.
3. You're totally exhausted.
When deprived of adequate zzzs, we’re more likely to opt for things that aren’t in our own (or others’) best interest, since our brains are too exhausted to adequately compute risk. Too little sleep also limits our ability to focus, revise plans, and communicate our wants and needs effectively. Add hanger to the mix, and your ability to problem-solve, pay attention, and recall facts gets even worse.
Trust the wisdom of “sleep on it” and wait ‘til you’re more rested to say yes or no to bigger decisions—as well as temptations. A session of overnight mulling allows our unconscious to weigh in, which, research shows, can lead to more satisfying and good-for-us choices.
4. You're not telling the whole truth.
Keeping info about a decision you're about to make secret from others could be a sign you aren’t totally OK with it. “Lying is often a sign someone hasn’t fully accepted his or her situation,” Li says. It may also indicate we’re not too proud of our choices—because if we were, wouldn’t we want to share it with those we love most?
Granted, there are exceptions (maybe don’t tell your BFF who just lost her job how you're considering taking a new one). But when you find yourself fibbing, ask yourself if you’re doing so to avoid another person calling you out on your choices—if so, that's a bad sign.
5. You're moving too quickly.
“The urge to get something over with is often a sign something’s off-keel,” says Gina Ryan, an anxiety coach and mindful eating expert. Yes, we live in an age where instant responses are par for the course. But when we make a decision without taking time to process whether it’s something we actually want, we’re only inviting further confusion and unrest into our lives.
“It takes practice to break the habit of responding right away, but it really is just a habit,” Ryan says. Break it by requesting more time to think if someone’s pressuring you. (A simple “Let me think on that and get back to you” usually does the trick.)
The bigger the decision, the more time this might take, Carmichael adds. For example, set aside one week to clarify whether you want to apply to graduate school or change your career, another to research what program or field aligns with your interests, and another to factor in deadlines. “The sense of immediacy is good in a way, because it helps us to not get stuck in indecision—we just want to harness and manage it,” she adds.
Ask yourself, 'How would I feel about said decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now?'
Another way to combat urges to immediately act on impulses? Deploy the 10/10/10 rule, popularized by business writer Suzy Welch: Ask yourself, "How would I feel about said decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now?"
Keeping the future in mind helps you resist the allure of short-term rewards that don’t lead to lasting satisfaction, Carmichael explains—such as staying involved with someone who makes you feel insecure because you don’t want to feel lonely, or accepting a promotion without considering how it’ll limit quality time with friends and family.
6. You haven't talked it through.
If you're basing your decision only on unchecked assumptions, you may not have enough facts to make an informed choice or a contingency plan if things don’t pan out perfectly. To avoid this sneaky trap, “identify three people you trust; come up with three-to-five questions related to the decision you’re stumped with; then set up a phone call, cocktail, or lunch date with them to gain their input,” Carmichael says.
Even if you don’t follow their advice to a T, she says, viewing your future through others’ lenses helps you discover solutions you may never have come up with by yourself.
We can’t eradicate uncertainty. But we can make more informed choices when it comes to the big stuff in our lives. Considering the consequences of particular courses of action, weighing the pros and cons of major changes, consulting others, and gaining distance from our own biases and emotions helps make for the healthiest decisions. And even if life doesn’t pan out as you planned, Carmichael reminds us, approaching big choices in a mindful, self-caring manner allows us to pivot (rather than panic) when reality bites back.