What to eat, what to wear, who to respond to first, what to prioritize at work — each of us makes hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions each day.
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 have 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 or resentment or erode our well-being? Though there’s no surefire way to never make a mistake, paying attention to signs that we’re en route to bad decisions can help us change course before it’s too late.
Be prepared to step back if you encounter these six major red flags.
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, PhD, 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 says.
Carmichael recommends making a pro and con list about big decisions. Here are some examples: Should I leave this relationship or job? Should I apply to graduate school — and which one? Should I move in with my partner?
Lists can help us get in touch with our fears about what’s in store for us. We can also assess whether the threats we perceive are realistic (this worksheet can help too).
No matter how overblown our apprehensions (your boss might not have it in for you after all, nor is your S.O. cheating), clarifying them helps clue us in to 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.
It’s one thing to be in tune with your feelings. It’s another to let them steer the important decisions in your life, says counselor and couples therapist Melody Li, LMFT.
Emotional reactions are designed to keep us from danger (e.g. jumping out of an oncoming vehicle’s path rather than pausing mid-crosswalk).
But when we’re riled up by frustration, anxiety, hanger (hunger plus anger), and other intense emotions, we may be more likely to hit “send” when we shouldn’t.
We may also 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 our view of the options and our willingness to choose which one is best.
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. A 2019 study found that breathing in a 5-2-7 pattern can lower stress levels and help people make better decisions.
Here’s how to do it:
- Inhale and count to 5.
- Hold your breath for 2 counts.
- Exhale and count to 7.
Repeat this breathing pattern for 2 minutes, and then come back to your decision. Feel better and more clear-headed? We thought so.
A 2006 study found that when people are deprived of Zzz’s, they’re more likely to make decisions that aren’t in their (or others’) best interests, since their brains are too exhausted to adequately compute risk.
According to a 2000 review, too little sleep also limits people’s ability to focus amid competing demands and communicate their wants and needs effectively
A 2015 study found that sleep-deprived folks have a hard time making decisions or revising plans in scenarios with quick, unexpected changes, like an emergency situation.
Trust the wisdom of “sleep on it” and wait until you’re more rested to say yes or no to bigger decisions — as well as temptations.
If you can’t wait overnight to make a decision, maybe a catnap is in order. In a 2018 study, researchers found that daytime napping helped participants process unconscious information. A little snooze helped improve cognition too.
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 that we’re not too proud of our choices — because if we were, wouldn’t we want to share them with those we love most?
Granted, there are exceptions (maybe don’t tell your BFF who just lost her job that you’re considering taking a new one).
But when you find yourself fibbing, ask yourself if you’re doing it to avoid another person calling you out on your choices — if so, that’s a bad sign.
“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 about whether 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 1 week to clarify whether you want to apply to graduate school or change your career.
Take another week 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,” Carmichael adds.
Another way to combat urges to immediately act on impulses is to 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.
For example, 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.
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 remove all uncertainty from our lives. But we can make more informed choices when it comes to the big stuff.
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 can help us make 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.