Taming Decision Remorse

“Hello, my name is Barnaby and I suffer from decision remorse” It is true. My parents can verify this. As a child, I stressed the small decisions and no matter what choice I made I wondered if I should have made the other decision.  Transformer or GI Joe? So much stress.

As an adult, I must admit that I still struggle with this at times. Though I have developed tools to manage this better, it still hovers in the back of my mind. An interesting caveat to this is that when it comes to significant or high stakes decisions I do not suffer this affliction. When I make big decisions I often have all the information I need. I know the stakes and I have a sense of the long term strategic value.  I have systems in place to make these calls. The little things though…not so much.  Why do we change the way we make decisions based on size, scope and impact? It really doesn’t make sense and is one of the things that leads to inconsistent decisions and decision remorse. The thing is…this is normal.

Many of us have frequently been in a situation where we are face to face with an issue that requires us to make a decision. Then, right after making a choice, you begin to question that decision. Was it the right thing to do? Perhaps things would have been better if you had made a different decision?

The fear that you made the “wrong” decision can be quite overwhelming, and left unchecked, harmful to your career. However, many people do not know how to remove this very common fear from their life—that’s what we are going to discuss how to do.

Before anything else, it is necessary to analyze the root of the problem, i.e. the reason that we feel remorse after making a decision. There are several possible reasons, but the major one is the “what if”. These dangerous two words tend to plague people after they have made a decision. They become obsessed with the possible outcomes that could have resulted from a different decision than the one that they chose, and hence they repeatedly imagine “what if” scenarios that may or may not have occurred if they had made a different choice.

To tackle this issue, it is important to understand that not obtaining the specific outcome that you desired is not a good enough reason to second guess your decision. There is no guarantee whatsoever that you would have gotten that outcome from taking a different route—in fact, you might even have ended up worse off.

So, the very first thing you need to do is to nip the “what if” questions in the bud. The “What if?” game can be fun. Marvel comics had a successful comic series that had fun with topics like What if Peter Parker had become the Punisher instead of Spider-Man? In these cases, the “what if” is a creative exercise. It is when this process becomes anxiety driven or is driven by fear that it becomes futile and potentially self-destructive.  The Chopra Center offers many ways to address this, but the two most salient for decision remorse are mindfulness and taming the inner critic. 

Mindfulness is the act of becoming aware of your current ways of thinking and acknowledging the thinking patterns that have become habitual, then decide whether to engage them. Once you have identified your decision-making habits (good and bad), it is easier to become more purposeful in your decision making.  When there is more purpose you will find it easier to consider all the factors (subjective and objective) that could aid you in making the best decision possible. Once you have thought about whether you included all of the factors while making your choice, the next step is to prioritize your criteria. While it is a good idea to keep the advice of other people in mind, having a personal criterion in mind and giving it priority is important. The simplest way to think about this is in terms of desirability. When buying a car, style may matter to you so that is a priority. But how do you define style? Maybe color is part of that.  Colors you love are highly desirable, colors you hate have low desirability. Your criteria should be based off everything that you want to think about before making a decision, as well as the main goals that you wish to achieve from said decision.

This is often where the inner critic becomes involved.  Often, we start criticizing a decision we haven’t even made yet by relying to heavily on the opinions of others. I really want a metallic purple Jeep Wrangler, but I hesitate because my friend has told me it can hurt resale, even though resale is unlikely because I tend to buy and drive a vehicle into the ground.  All other data supports this decision, I love the color, I drive off-road frequently, I have a history of keeping cars for many years, but still I hesitate because one external opinion has fed into my internal critic. It is essential that you, challenge the lies of the internal critic. Ask yourself: Is that really true? Is there evidence to back up that claim? Is that evidence relevant to this specific case? Then move on. The inner critic is a good thing to have because it forces us to reevaluate our decision process but left untamed it is one of the biggest factors in decision delay and decision remorse.

These tools are great for personal decision making and they are also good to keep in mind for business decisions as well. When you apply mindfulness and taming the inner critic to your business decisions you will find that you begin making decisions that are more strategic, more in alignment with your desired business goals, and have less decision remorse.   Your strategic goals and core values will be more in alignment with your strategic actions. Good strategic alignment can make a big difference to the organizational workings of your company, whereas a lack of doing so is one of the major reasons why things go wrong and why people experience decision remorse.

The very last step to eliminating decision remorse is one of the simplest ones, technically, but it is one that a lot of people find themselves unable to do—and that is to redefine what we mean by making “right” decisions.  A lot of people and businesses define decisions as “right” when they obtain an outcome that they deem satisfactory and “wrong” when it is anything otherwise. However, it is important to note that even after obtaining the desired outcome people still experience remorse or wonder if they should have gone about things differently. Everyone needs to accept the fact that a decision cannot be categorized as wrong or right simply by the outcome that it led to. In fact, the only way to define a decision as good is to ensure that it is in line with you and your company’s goals and values and that you took the steps to make the best decision possible with the information available at the time. It is for this very reason that two people that have made the same decision can feel either satisfied or unsatisfied—it all depends on their confidence in the method they used to arrive at their decision.

In summary, the three most important factors in taming decision remorse are:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Reigning in the inner critic
  3. Redefining what is meant by a “right” decision

With those simple steps, all professionals can begin to eliminate decision remorse from their lives for good.

Do you tend to feel decision remorse after you’ve made a big decision?  A small decision? Let us know in the comments..

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