I've always said that the benchmark for making the best decisions is to make the decision that you will be proud to have made. Yet we all make bad decisions. Sometimes they are well-calculated and thoughtful decisions that just lead to a bad outcome. I'm OK with those decisions because they were made with whatever information was available at the time. But the ones we all regret are the rash and impulsive decisions that were made in the turmoil of an emotional tempest.
I can't promise you a 100 percent formula for avoiding those heat of the moment decisions, but I can help you to make fewer of them.
Your Two Brains
Each of us has two brains, it's what scientists sometimes call System One and System Two. System One is the marvelously fast emotional part of our brain that has been wired with a few basic lines code that are intended to keep us safe and out of harm's way. It reacts instantly when threatened. It's what allowed us to survive in the hostile world of our cave dwelling ancestors. System One does not deliberate, consult, or rationalize. It simply acts.
System Two is that very deliberate and rational part of our brain that weighs the odds, analyzes risk, looks for evidence, and makes calculated, well-thought-out decisions.
We all inhabit both of these states numerous times during each day. And often, the two systems are at odds with each other. For example, a panic attack occurs when System One is triggered by some threat and immediately kicks us into overdrive and survival mode--what's called fight or flight. Our fear instincts take over, even though the threat is anything but apparent. System Two then tries to understand the threat and comes up with nothing. We end up terrified without knowing why, which in turn only escalates System One's drive to get us out of the situation.
What does this have to do with business? Well, think of all the times that System One has commandeered one of your decisions. You make a quick and rash choice which you soon regret. System Two tells you that the choice was downright ridiculous and that you should have known better. In the absence of the threat, you are now convinced that you've learned your lesson never to repeat it. System One isn't even listening at this point. It doesn't need to. In fact, it can't. Because System One is only active when you are in crisis mode. Like a piece of code, it's wired to act, not learn.
And then what happens?
Oops, I Did It Again!
Oh, you know all too well the answer to that. You find yourself in the same or a similar situation and System One wakes up, happily oblivious to whatever insights System Two had garnered, and you repeat the same pattern of events. And the cycle repeats. And wow, are you pissed!
So, are we enslaved to System One? Only if we refuse to recognize it. Again, think of System One as though it were a very simple set of rules that have been hardcoded to jump in whenever a threat or a particular pattern is present. Kind of like newer cars with proximity radar that triggers the brakes if a pedestrian jumps out in front of the car.
You likely know what triggers System One to wake up. It may be a particular co-worker, a personal relationship, or a pattern of activities that always precedes it, like lack of sleep, hunger, anger, loneliness, conflict, hormonal imbalance. Your threats and triggers will be specific to you and your life experiences.
Now, I'm not going to ask you to delve into why System One responds to these particular triggers. That's useful information and it helps in developing greater self-awareness, but it doesn't help to shut down System One; you can't shut it down.
I'm also not going to ask you to rely just on System Two, because wiping out System One, which you can't do anyway, would dull your ability to act when a real threat is present. Also, don't confuse the reactionary mode of System One with the benefits of spontaneity, which is not a fear-based response. In addition, when you're in a real crisis, you want your senses to be at their sharpest. What you don't want is to be making decisions based only on fear, dread, anger, or any other sense of having to act in the absence of a clear and present danger.
Instead, I'm going to suggest that you ask yourself a few simple questions whenever you find yourself in a state of heightened anxiety or fear.
Who's in Control?
First ask, "Which System is in control right now?"
If what you're feeling is an impulse to act because something terrible but unknown is going to occur, then you're most likely being driven by System One.
The other thing I haven't told you is that System One has no sense of time. It needs to react now, not in a few seconds, hours, or days, NOW! System Two is all about time. It measures the risks and benefits of responding now versus later, and will always try to buy more time to make a better decision.
Second, ask, "Is the threat one that will persist, increase, or diminish, and over what time frame?"
The time element is critical here because what we ultimately need to do in order for System One to let go of its grip is to assign a time-to-react to the threat.
Once time becomes part of how System One sizes up the threat, you will have the advantage of being able to ride out the storm until you can make a better decision.
Effectively, what you're doing by taking this approach is creating a path of communication between Systems One and Two. With that in place, you can both accept that a threat or a trigger is present while also giving yourself license to respond to it in the best possible way.
A caution here. System One doesn't like silence. It is looking for constant environmental clues about the threat's presence and magnitude. If you simply try to tell it to shut up and take a back seat, your anxiety and need to take action will only increase. Your objective is not to ignore System One but to help inform it about the actual threat in an accurate way. Remember that System One is just a few lines of code. If you feed it the right information, the code will eventually determine that there is no threat. If you ignore it, the code will do what it's been programmed to do: react!
The bottom line is that being aware of these two very different systems, opening up a channel of communication between them, and introducing the element of time-to-react will lead you to make decisions that you'll be able to look back on with the confidence and pride of having made the right decision.
For more information on the System One and System Two framework, take a look at Daniel Gardner's book, The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain