Why You Keep Making Bad Decisions

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Between 1999 and 2005, Lance Armstrong won seven consecutive Tour de France titles. Many consider the accomplishment one of the most iconic feats in sports history. But, others weren’t convinced. Armstrong’s performances seemed too good to be true.

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For years, Armstrong successfully denied a list of doping allegations. But by 2010, a federal investigation of Armstrong began after former teammate Floyd Landis accused him of cheating. Two years later, in 2012, the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) charged Armstrong with doping.

It wasn’t until 2013 that Armstrong told the truth. During an interview with Oprah, the cyclist said he used performance-enhancing drugs to win all seven Tour de France championships.

In the end, Armstrong was stripped of his titles. He received a lifetime ban from professional cycling and lost an estimated $150 million in future endorsement income. 1 To make matters worse, Armstrong had to pay the US government $5 million to settle a civil lawsuit.

While Armstrong’s story is extreme, it’s a textbook example of what can happen when you consistently make bad decisions.

In Armstrong’s case, he descended from the ranks of an American hero to nothing more than a fraud. His decisions had a devastating effect on his career, legacy, and reputation.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to identify when you’re making bad decisions. For this reason, you can easily get trapped in a cycle of repeating the same mistakes.

In this article, I want to help you break that cycle. I’ll begin by explaining why people make bad decisions. Then, I’ll share some ideas that can help you make better decisions.

Quality Of Life vs. Decisions Graph
Quality Of Life vs. Decisions Graph

6 Reasons Why You Keep Making Bad Decisions

Here are six reasons that might explain why you’re making poor decisions.

1. You’re Fueled By Greed

We all have a natural desire to succeed. This inclination motivates us to stay alive, create meaningful relationships, and build successful careers.

While the desire to succeed is helpful in appropriate doses, it can also get you into trouble.

Greedy people develop an excessive and uncontrolled desire for success. As a result, they go to great lengths for personal gain and often make poor decisions along the way.

Armstrong’s story perfectly illustrates this point. His extreme desire for success, fame, and money influenced him to spend an entire career lying and cheating.

Here are three signs that might indicate that you are fueled by greed.

  1. You’re never satisfied
  2. You believe you deserve more than others
  3. You justify breaking the rules to get what you want

2. Bad Decisions Feel Good

Our ancestors were threatened by predators, starvation, and illness for millions of years. As a result, one of their biggest daily challenges was staying alive.

For this reason, your brain evolved to reward you for performing behaviors that increase your odds of short-term survival. This explains why eating, sleeping, and social connection are so enjoyable.

When we still lived in caves, this reward system worked well. If you didn’t know when you’d get your next meal, it made sense to overeat when given the opportunity. But, in our modern-day society, many behaviors that provide short-term rewards can be harmful.

For example, many of us can overeat every day. And, because doing so feels good, many do. But, as you know, consistently overeating will harm your health and cause you to gain weight.

So, if you find yourself continually chasing the high of short-term rewards, you might be making bad decisions.

3. You’re Not Thinking

Logical thinking is hard work. That’s because it’s time-consuming and often requires detailed analysis. For this reason, many people avoid it.

Instead, people make snap decisions based on instinct and intuition. For example, many make financial investments based on a hunch, not research.

When you live life this way, you open yourself up to thinking errors known as cognitive biases. Our tendency to follow the crowd is an example of a cognitive bias known as the bandwagon effect.

In some ways, the bandwagon effect is helpful. For example, suppose millions of people who follow a particular diet have a lower risk of heart disease. In that case, it’s probably a good idea to follow the crowd.

But, the bandwagon effect can also be harmful. For instance, assume money is tight, but you feel inclined to buy a new car because your peers are doing it. In this case, following the crowd is a bad idea because it threatens your financial security.

If it feels like your decisions continually come back to bite you, there’s a good chance that you’re acting without thinking.

4. Your Ego Is Holding You Back

People who have an overinflated ego have a hard time admitting their mistakes. That’s because those who suffer from egotism never want to be wrong. As a result, they lose their ability to learn from failure. If you have this problem, you’ll likely make the same mistakes repeatedly.

For example, consider the entrepreneur who continues to sink money into a failing business. Or the lung cancer patient who continues smoking.

If it feels like you keep making the same mistakes, there’s a good chance your ego is holding you back.

Accountability vs. Ego Graph
Accountability vs. Ego Graph

5. Uncertainty Is Making You Indecisive

Not making a decision can be just as problematic as making a bad decision. When you’re indecisive, you continually do nothing. As a result, you stay stuck in place.

Indecisive people are typically afraid of uncertainty. For example, a would-be entrepreneur never starts a business because it might fail. Or, a would-be lover never commits to a relationship because they might get hurt.

If the fear of the unknown prevents you from doing something important, chances are uncertainty is making you indecisive.

6. Sometimes Good Decisions Are Painful

Assume you’re single, lonely, and want nothing more than to be in a relationship. You go on a first date, and it goes ok, but you notice some red flags. Then, a week later, you get asked out on a second date.

To someone looking at this situation from the outside, this seems like an easy decision to make. Because there were red flags, declining the date seems like the obvious thing to do.

But, from the inside, this decision isn’t so clear. That’s because saying no to the second date guarantees you’ll remain single and lonely. This is a case where you get punished for making the right decision.

Unfortunately, this is where most people slip up. By agreeing to the second date, they finally get to stop feeling lonely. And, because this reward is so enticing, they choose to look past the red flags.

But don’t kid yourself. Dating someone who isn’t a good fit to avoid feeling lonely is settling. And, while settling might end your short-term pain, it can create far greater long-term problems.

Good decisions that lead to short-term pain are often characterized by a “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” feeling. So, if you feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, take special note of your decisions.

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How To Make Better Decisions

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

1. End Greed With Empathy

As we saw with Armstrong, greedy people have an excessive desire for personal gain, even when it comes at the expense of others. Research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak helps to explain why.

Zak’s work suggests that greedy people do not care about others as most people do. 2 Thankfully, you can become more compassionate by developing empathy—the ability to understand and share other people’s feelings.

You can become more empathetic by resisting the urge to stereotype. To do that, make a conscious effort to get to know someone instead of presuming you know everything about them. That might involve asking questions, putting yourself in their shoes, or talking with others who know them well.

Compassion vs. Empathy Graph
Compassion vs. Empathy Graph

2. Focus On Long-Term Rewards

It’s natural to want to feel good in the moment. But, as you’ve learned, chasing short-term rewards can lead to long-term problems. You can overcome this issue by learning to focus on long-term rewards. Here are two examples.

To increase your odds of saying no to the short-term reward of watching TV, focus on the long-term reward of learning for 30 minutes per day.

Likewise, suppose you’re struggling with feeling lonely. You can increase your odds of saying no to a date with the wrong person by focusing on the long-term reward of being available when the right person comes along.

3. Walk Around The Poop

I studied martial arts for years as a child. Our Grand Master taught me a lesson about decision-making that I’ll never forget. He used the following analogy to make his point.

If you walk down the sidewalk and encounter dog poop, you have two options. You can walk through it, or you can walk around it. When you decide to walk through it, you’re creating an unnecessary problem. But, when you choose to walk around it, you eliminate the problem altogether.

Here are a few examples of problems that can be avoided.

You can avoid an unnecessary fight by walking away instead of engaging. You get to keep your job when you respond rather than react to a difficult customer. And you avoid most financial problems when you stop spending carelessly and instead stick to a budget.

You Can Avoid Many Bad Decisions
You Can Prevent Many Problems By Deciding To Avoid Them

4. Drop The Ego

Nobody likes to be wrong, but failure is one of the best educators. You become wiser when you’re humble enough to accept your mistakes and learn from them. As a result, you increase your odds of finding future success.

If you have a hard time accepting failure, try the following idea.

When you fail, focus on what the failure can teach you instead of concentrating on what it says about your reputation. When you do this, you shift your focus towards moving forward and away from criticizing yourself.

5. Develop A Failure Plan

To develop a failure plan, you begin by thinking about what could go wrong. Then, you decide what you’ll do if it does.

Building a failure plan is helpful for two reasons. First, thinking through what could go wrong helps you build a better initial plan. And second, it prevents you from being indecisive. That’s because a failure plan prepares you to take immediate action when you encounter a problem.

Here’s an example failure plan.

Assume you’re moving to a new city to get a fresh start. In this case, a failure plan might look like this.

  1. If I haven’t found a good job within the first month, I’ll find a temporary job that can pay the bills. Then, I’ll attend two industry conferences and hire a head hunter.
  2. If I haven’t made any good friends in the first three months, I’ll join an exercise class and go to one meet-up per week.
  3. If, after one year, I’m still unsuccessful, I’ll make plans to move back home or try a new city.

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

You can take the ideas in this article too far if you obsessively worry about every decision you make. To prevent perfectionism, remember that most bad decisions become problematic only when you consistently repeat them.

So if you make a bad decision, don’t panic. Chances are, you’ll be ok if you learn from your mistake and apply that lesson moving forward.

In A Nutshell

  • Consistently making bad decisions harms your life.
  • You might be making bad decisions if (1) you’re fueled by greed, (2) you’re chasing the high of short-term rewards, (3) you’re not thinking, (4) your ego is holding you back, (5) uncertainty is making you indecisive, and (6) you’re avoiding the consequences of a good decision.
  • You can make better decisions by (1) ending greed with empathy, (2) focusing on long-term rewards, (3) walking around the poop, (4) dropping your ego, and (5) developing a failure plan.
  • You may have taken the ideas in this article too far if you obsessively worry about every decision you make.
  • To prevent yourself from becoming a perfectionist, remember that you can correct most bad decisions if you (1) learn a lesson and (2) apply that lesson moving forward.

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. Patrick Rishe. Armstrong Will Lose $150 Million in Future Earnings After Nike And Other Sponsors Dump Him. Forbes.com. (October 18, 2012).
  2. David Levine. Why greed may offer an evolutionary advantage. LATimes.com. (July 6, 2013).


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