What to do when you make a bad decision

January 25, 2023 | Jarrod Saxton

Anxious Businessman Bad Habit of Nail Biting

There is nothing I hate more than making bad decisions.

How bad the decision is, depends on how big the gap is between what we expect and what we actually get. It can be anything from the meal you order at the restaurant, right through to the house you buy.

My wife once ordered carbonara at a restaurant, and after her first bite, realised there was chili in it. She didn’t expect that (nor liked it), but as we looked at the ingredients on the menu, we saw “chili” right there next to cheese and bacon. On one hand, she should have noticed it on the menu, but on the other hand, who on earth puts chili in carbonara?

This touches on the biggest obstacle to avoiding bad decisions – our brain!

Our brain likes to recognise patterns and assume certain expectations. That’s why you don’t double-check your job description every morning before you start work, why you don’t wake up in the morning worrying about whether or not the sun will rise today, and why you don’t ask if this carbonara, specifically, has chili in it.

In theory, we can all avoid making bad decisions, but in practice, it’s so inefficient and mentally draining! This is the biggest obstacle to avoiding bad decisions. So, if we can’t avoid bad decisions easily, what can we do about them?

How to reverse a bad decision

As one of my mentors recently said, most decisions can be undone.

Carbonara can be sent back to be requested without chili, and unwanted houses can be sold again. There aren’t many truly irreversible decisions. It might require some time or money to reverse the decision, but if the decision is bad enough, it may be worth all the time and money it takes to reverse it!

To undo a bad decision, you need to be ready to remove the friction of undoing the decision for both yourself and others.

Removing the friction for yourself

The friction you experience comes from what’s known as the Sunk Cost fallacy. This is where we have made some form of investment into the decision (time, money, effort…) and to back out now feels like a waste; we want our ROI!

To combat this fallacy, focus on the end goal and the effect you actually want, rather than the process of getting there.  An amusing way to think about the Sunk Cost fallacy is to imagine you’re driving to the beach and accidentally make a wrong turn. Two minutes later you realise you’re driving the wrong way so tell everyone in the car “Change of plans! We are going to commit to this new direction and visit this small town with a corner store and some donkeys! Woohoo”. Now I know you wouldn’t do that, you’d stop and turn around, and get back on track – and that’s exactly what I want you to do every time you come up against the Sunk Cost fallacy; shift your focus from the ‘cost’ to the ‘effect’.

Removing the friction for yourself

The friction others experience usually comes from the benefits others receive from your decision, and they now lose something when you undo the decision. When you talk to these people, they are going to refer back to the past and say something along the lines of “But you said…” or “We already agreed to…” and you get caught in a debate of whether you are “allowed” to undo your decision. That’s a silly debate to get into because you are, of course, allowed to undo any decision you aren’t happy with.

To combat this, firstly let others involved in the decision know, as early as possible, that you have decided to undo your decision. This can demonstrate sincerity and transparency, allow them to make any necessary preparations, and help them reciprocate the good faith you are showing them. Secondly, you can try starting a conversation with “I have changed my mind”, followed by the reasons why. When you lead the conversation with this statement, and they come at you with the “But you said…” or “We already agreed to…” lines, you can simply remind them that you have changed your mind since then. This prevents them from trying to use things you’ve said in the past against you, a bit like updating a document with new information and declaring it as the latest and most accurate document.

How to minimize the cost of irreversible bad decisions

You might find that your decision is irreversible in some sense, or might take some time to undo. If this is the case, you should think about other opportunities and places this bad decision could take you.

Sometimes there are neat little opportunities you can find within bad decisions. For example, I once invested in an online sales and marketing course. Unfortunately, the course was a bit too pushy and ‘salesly’ for my liking, and it would not feel good for me to apply the teachings in my life. But I had already invested in the course, and there were no refunds. I minimized the cost of this bad decision by looking at the course design, which was actually quite well thought out, and I used some of their methods of delivery to help me on a similar project.

I also looked at their strategies and tried to adapt them to something that was better for me, this took more thought but I learned more about sales and marketing by going through that exercise. Doing this can reduce the pressure you might feel from the Sunk Cost fallacy, and give you the feeling of “breaking even” in some way, shape, or form.

So there you have it, how to make bad decisions like a pro

I hope this helps, and if you have made a bad decision recently and are having some difficulty with it, there is no better time to sign up for our Thinking Foundations course, which you can either complete on your own or as part of a cohort of like-minded people, with me personally guide you through the course.

Whatever bad decisions you’ve made, this could be the one decision that makes up for all of it!