Bad Decision? Stress Could Be the Culprit

This past summer, I made a bad decision. Okay, to be more kind, it was a “poor” decision. Once made, I couldn’t change it, and I have lived with the negative consequences ever since.

What was I thinking?

Licking my wounds and practicing self-forgiveness, I decided to take that sour lemon and turn it into an opportunity for “lemonade learning” by diving into “the why” behind the decision. Once I had calmed down a bit, I sensed that the culprit was stress; that I had chosen unwisely because I was stressed out and not thinking in my usual, level-headed manner. Then I went to research the issue and quickly homed in on what appeared to be in play. Ron Carucci, writing for the Harvard Business Review explained:

“As research on decision-making shows, our brains are wired to be more reactionary under stress.  In tough moments, we reach for premature conclusions rather than opening ourselves to more and better options. Faced with less familiar conditions for which our tried-and-true approaches won’t work, we reflexively counter our natural anxiety by narrowing and simplifying our options.” In other words, we become more reactive and far less analytical.

Which was exactly what I had done.

Another finding that seemed right on point was this: when a stressed-out person is faced with a difficult decision, they focus on the potential upsides in their options, as opposed to the downsides. This made me think of a former co-worker who decided to build his dream house in Florida. He focused on the positives of retiring in the “Sunny South” (yes, a proper noun, no less!) while downplaying the reality that he wouldn’t see his close-knit, extended family of 26 children and grandchildren nearly as often. In his case, the impact was so profound that he ended up selling the house and hot footing it back to New Jersey.

But not every decision can be undone.

Make a Better Decision

The average person makes roughly 35,000 decisions a day. It sounds impossible, but when you think about it, deciding to look out the window at any given moment is as much a decision as is parking farther away from the Harris Teeter to get in a few more steps, or accepting that job offer in Timbuktu! The question is: how can we improve our decision-making – particularly when the practical or relational implications are high?


  • Make managing your stress an ongoing priority
  • Avoid making “big” decisions when you are feeling stressed.


  • Create a context for decision-making

You do this by creating some distance, some space. In other words, why not “sleep on it”? Clarity comes from calm, not from impulsivity or overwhelm. It can also help to:

  • Imagine that you are giving a friend advice on how to proceed

We tend to be less emotional when it’s someone else’s decision – which is why this tip is right on target.  Next, consider these two key skills:

  • Get better at identifying likely outcomes
  • Explore the desirability of each likely outcome

Clearly, this requires us to slow down, to nip either-or thinking in the bud, and to temper the tendency to over-emphasize the positive aspects of an outcome. If my friend had done this, he may never have moved to the idyllic Sunny South in the first place, given his focus on family connection. It means pausing to consider the likely less-desirable aspects of a choice.

And finally,

  • Stay true to your values

As I look back on my own decision faux pas, I realize that if I had indeed “slept on it,” and not over-emphasized the positive outcome of the decision I made, I would have chosen otherwise. What about you? What trips you up and how can you incorporate these tips and strategies to improve your decision-making process?


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