Harmful Life-Changing Decisions You Don’t Know You’re Making

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The television show My 600-lb Life tells the stories of morbidly obese people working to regain control of their lives. At more than 600 pounds, guests on the show face serious medical problems. In the worst cases, individuals are trapped in bed, no longer strong enough to move their ever-expanding bodies.

The question most first-time viewers ask is, “how does someone become 600 pounds?.” While the long answer is probably an endless list of psychological problems, the short answer is rather simple. Someone becomes 600 pounds by making one poor choice—eating too much—many times over.

The problem with many poor decisions is that their effects aren’t immediately apparent. Unfortunately, this problem can lead you to unknowingly make the same bad decision for years. Then, only when it’s too late do you realize your mistake.

In this article, I’ll show you how to identify harmful behaviors. Then, I’ll give you a framework for making decisions that will help you build a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

Watch the video version of this article or scroll to continue reading.

Every Decision Is Life-Changing

Life-changing decisions are often thought of as large one-time decisions that have an immediate and obvious effect on your life. Where you go to college, who you marry, and deciding whether or not to have children are examples of immediate and obvious life-changing decisions.

Because the effects of small one-time decisions are often insignificant, we often believe they’re not important. But, when combined with the power of consistency, small decisions can be just as life-changing as large decisions.

For example, a lifetime of wise financial decisions will lead to a comfortable retirement. A lifetime of poor financial decisions will not.

The important thing to recognize is that every decision you make is shaping your life in some way.

Impact vs. Type Of Decision Graph—Life-Changing Decisions
Impact vs. Type Of Decision Graph

The Endless Fork In The Road

At every moment, you’re standing at a fork in the road with a decision to make. You can choose a positive behavior that moves you toward the life you want. Or, you can choose a negative behavior that takes you away from the life you want. 1

The Endless Fork In The Road—Life-Changing Decisions
The Endless Fork In The Road

Here’s an example. Assume you want to start your own business. In that case, spending your free time building a business is an example of positive behavior. In contrast, spending your free time partying is an example of negative behavior.

I’m not suggesting that partying is always a negative behavior. Partying is a negative behavior in this example because it takes you away from starting a business. But, if your goal in life is to enjoy your free time having fun with friends, then partying is a positive behavior.

I’m also not trying to make you feel like your life is a never-ending stressful decision. Instead, I’m simply trying to explain the importance of your decisions.

It’s More Than Physical

This concept also applies to your beliefs or what could be considered mental actions. Beliefs are powerful because they tend to influence your behavior. Let me explain.

Suppose you want to get ahead in your career, but you believe you’re unworthy. This belief is unhelpful because it influences you to choose behaviors that take you away from the life you want. For instance, you’re unlikely to apply for a new job or ask for a raise if you feel unworthy.

In contrast, believing that you are worthy is helpful because it influences you to choose behaviors that take you toward the life you want. With this belief, applying for a new job or asking for a raise feels like the right thing to do.

Why We Behave In Negative Ways

From a purely logical point of view, it’s hard to understand why someone behaves in ways that take them away from the life they want. The following four reasons explain why.

1. You Don’t Realize You Have A Choice

The first decade or more of our lives are primarily controlled by our parents. The rules for eating, sleeping, and playing are made for us. Typically, a set of consequences enforce those rules.

At some point, we transition from a “do what I’m told” life to an “I have a choice” life. While this transition comes easily to some, other people struggle with the sudden lack of structure.

For this reason, many follow the herd. People go to college, get a job, and start a family not necessarily because they want to but because they feel they’re supposed to.

2. You Feel Pressured

In addition to doing things because we think we are supposed to do, we often do things because we feel we have to. When this happens, fear and guilt are commonly at play.

For example, someone might want to drop out of medical school. However, they continue because they fear disappointing their parents and feel guilty about wasting their parent’s money.

Or, someone might maintain an unhealthy relationship with an alcoholic father because they fear disappointing their mother and feel guilty about turning their back on their family.

3. Your Beliefs Are Inaccurate

At times, you might think you’re doing the right thing when in reality, you’re doing the wrong thing. This problem occurs when you have inaccurate beliefs.

For example, a husband might believe that buying his wife gifts will make her happy even though she’d prefer quality time. Unknowingly, he doubles down on buying her gifts and has the opposite effect he hopes to have.

This problem is especially troubling because we tend to feel highly motivated to take action when we believe we are doing the right thing.

4. Doing The Wrong Thing Feels Good

Many negative behaviors deliver short-term rewards. For instance, the rewards of overspending, being lazy, or eating a piece of cake are available immediately.

In contrast, plenty of positive behaviors deliver long-term rewards. The benefits of diet and exercise, starting a business, or investing in a 401k are available only after months, years, or decades of consistent effort. In the moment, these behaviors offer little value.

Because rewards are pleasurable, many people seek immediate gratification. As a result, they choose short-term rewards over long-term rewards.

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How To Make Positive Life-Changing Decisions

Here are five ideas that can help you make better decisions.

1. Ask Yourself What You Want

This idea might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people go through life without ever asking themselves what they want from it. Many don’t realize they have a choice. They go through life letting fear and guilt convince them that they should and have to do certain things.

You encounter one big problem when you don’t ask yourself what you want from life. You have nowhere to aim. And, without clearly defined goals and values, you have no way of evaluating your behavior.

In contrast, with clearly defined goals and values, you can quickly determine if your behavior is positive or negative. To do this, you assess whether your behavior takes you towards your goals and values or away from them.

Knowing this, here are two ideas you can use to better define what you want from life.

1. Don’t worry about what other people want. So many people do things because they feel pressured by their parents, spouse, or society. When asking yourself what you want from life, imagine a world where you don’t feel pressured or judged by other people.

In that world, what would you do differently? What interests would you follow? How would you earn a living? And what relationships would you have?

Then, without ignoring the restrictions of the real world, do your best to build the closest version of that life.

2. Imagine your funeral. This idea might sound grim, but it’s a great exercise for helping you live a meaningful life.

To perform this exercise, ask yourself how you want to be remembered at your funeral.

Next, ask yourself the following question. If you continue living life as you are, will your funeral turn out the way you want? If not, figure out what actions you need to take to rewrite a better ending.

2. Stay In Touch With Reality

Many people say things like “anything is possible” or “you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.” While I understand the underlying message in these statements, they can set you up for disappointment if you lose your sense of reality.

For example, if you are 11 years old, naturally athletic, and hard-working, striving to play professional basketball in the NBA is a lofty but reasonable goal.

In contrast, if you are 42 years old, athletically challenged, and lazy, aiming to play professional basketball in the NBA will leave you feeling like a failure. That’s because no amount of effort will produce the outcome you want. As a result, you’ll feel perpetually disappointed.

Expected Outcome & Satisfaction Graph
Expected Outcome & Satisfaction Graph

The solution to this problem is to set realistic goals. Here are two ideas that will help you set realistic goals.

1. Consider your current position. When considering your current position, it’s important to remember two things.

First, there will be times in life when you need more time. For instance, if you’re 23 years old and just landed your first job at a Fortune 100 company, don’t expect to become the CEO in six months.

Second, there will be times in life when your window of opportunity has already passed. For example, assume you are 55 and join a competitive swim team for the first time. In this case, setting the goal of swimming at the Olympics is unrealistic. That’s because you missed the decades of training required to make it to that level.

2. Consider your circumstances. Sometimes, our circumstances limit what is possible for us to achieve.

If you are trapped in a communist country, it’s pointless to hold on to the dream of starting your own business. Similarly, there is no point in trying to have a loving relationship with someone who doesn’t want the same thing.

3. Make A Plan

Imagine if you had to drive from Los Angeles to New York City without directions. You’d encounter many forks in the road, and inevitably you’d make poor choices that would send you off course. However, when you have directions, you have a plan that guides you every step of the way.

The same can be said for building the life you want. Many people know what they want from life, but they have no idea how to get there. As a result, they randomly stumble through life, never getting closer to the goal.

To fix this problem, build a plan. Between you and any goal is a series of small steps. To figure out what those steps are, do some research, ask for advice, and learn through experience.

4. Let Your Values Be Your Guide

One of the best ways to live a fulfilling life that you can be proud of is to live a life guided by values. When you live a life guided by values, you have a set of principles to advise you at every fork in the road. Here are two examples.

You might aim to achieve financial freedom but only through legal, fair, and safe means. Or, you might aim to have a happy marriage but only with the expectation that you and your partner are honest, committed, and monogamous.

To get guidance from your values, ask yourself one simple question. Does behaving this way help me become the person I want to be? If the answer is yes, keep doing what you’re doing. But, if not, choose better behavior.

5. Remember There’s More Than One Way To Bake A Cake

There are certain things in life that we have to do. For example, unless you want to be homeless, you need to earn enough money to put a roof over your head.

Unfortunately, these “have to” scenarios can lead you to believe you don’t have a choice. As a result, you make decisions that keep you unhappy—like working a job you hate.

Thankfully, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to bake a cake. So, if you need to pay the bills but hate your job, get another job. Or, if you need to get in shape but hate the idea of going to a gym, find a more enjoyable way to burn some calories.

How To Overcome Problems When Following This Advice

Some people believe we all have a single purpose to discover and pursue. In doing so, we will feel happy and fulfilled.

While I’m sure some people throughout history have devoted themselves to a single fulfilling purpose, I think this idea is bad advice for most people. Here’s why.

People who are unable to discover their purpose often feel aimless. As a result, they do nothing.

The truth is, for most of us, life isn’t about a single purpose but instead a series of significant chapters.

A complete human life progresses through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and retirement. During that time, you might pass through grade school, college, and multiple careers. You may also progress from being a child to a parent and then a grandparent. Or go from single to dating to married.

When you look back, there’s a good chance you’ll find some significance in every chapter of your life.

So, if you feel stuck because you can’t find your purpose, let go of the idea that you exist for one reason. Instead, focus on following interests. Here’s why.

Following your interests is beneficial for two reasons. First, following interests promotes action. Instead of feeling stuck in place because you can’t find your purpose, following interests keeps you moving forward because it encourages you to try many things.

Second, following interests helps you discover things you would not find without taking action. For example, you might want to start a business but have no idea what business to start. In this case, choosing to read about other successful companies is better than doing nothing because it might spark a new idea.

How To Know When You’ve Taken These Ideas Too Far

Here are three signs that you’ve taken the ideas in this article too far.

1. You’re obsessing over every action you take. Don’t expect yourself only to take positive actions for the rest of your life. That’s completely unrealistic. Everyone has off days and makes mistakes.

The main goal is to choose behaviors that take you toward the life you want as often as possible.

2. You’re being too rigid. Sometimes what appears to be negative behavior might actually be positive behavior.

For example, I mentioned that spending your free time partying is negative behavior if you want to start a business. This statement is true if you consistently choose negative behavior.

But, if you’re feeling stressed after weeks of 15-hour days, taking a night off to party with friends might be the best action you can take.

3. You justify harmful behavior. If achieving the life you want means hurting yourself or others, I think it’s time to go back to the drawing board. There are many ways to live a happy and fulfilling life without harming yourself or others.

In A Nutshell

Here are the key takeaways from this article.

  • Small decisions made consistently can be just as powerful as large one-time decisions.
  • Every behavior shapes your life in some way.
  • There are two types of behaviors: (1) behaviors that take you towards the life you want, and (2) behaviors that take you away from the life you want.
  • You behave in negative ways because (1) you don’t realize you have a choice, (2) you feel pressured, (3) your beliefs are inaccurate, and (4) doing the wrong thing feels good.
  • To choose positive behaviors, (1) ask yourself what you want, (2) stay in touch with reality, (3) make a plan, (4) let your values guide you, and (5) remember there’s more than one way to bake a cake.
  • Follow interests instead of searching for a single purpose.
  • You’ve taken the concepts in this article too far if (1) you’re obsessing over every action you take, (2) you’re being too rigid, and (3) you justify harmful behavior.

Books That Influenced This Article

The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book after clicking one of the links, I will receive a commission.

ACT Made Simple
Book | Kindle

Atomic Habits
Book | Audiobook | Kindle

Book | Audiobook | Kindle

  1. A big thanks to Russ Harris for introducing me to this concept.


Chris Thornham 80/20 Financial Planner
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