How To Recover From A Poor Decision

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Bad decisions linger like an unwanted dinner guest who doesn’t know when to make a graceful exit. Some bad decisions are easy to reverse; others can be difficult.

There are two reasons we stick with unproductive decisions. There is one action you can take to limit the damage, but it is time-sensitive.

Let’s start with the basics. What is a poor decision? I define it as such: a decision that fails to serve us or injures us in some way.

After a morning out with my son, I decided to take him out for lunch. It was an unknown area, so I did a quick search on my phone. I found a suitable restaurant ten minutes away. There was a catch. To reach this restaurant, we’d have to navigate a traffic circle, one of the worst decisions in the history of modern road design.

It took twenty minutes to get there because I couldn’t figure out which turn was the third exit. I figured it out after a few attempts. I almost hit another car because one of us was didn’t know who had the right-of-way. Every time I drive through one of these monstrosities, I make a mistake.

“Was that the second or third exit. Shit, I lost count.”
“Who has the right of way here?”

Why We Stick With Poor Decisions

We reach a point where we realize our decision failed to turn out as we had hoped. We either reverse course, or we stick it out.

Traffic circles were once considered interesting design, but have since lost their popularity. These were poor decisions made many years ago. We’re now stuck with many of those circles because redesigning these intersections is deemed too costly. Plus, most people who regularly drive through the circle have adapted to it. It’s only visitors, unfamiliar with the pattern that notice the difficulty.

Many other unfortunate decisions follow the same arc. But we usually come to a crossroads of some sort. We reach a point where we realize our decision failed to turn out as we had hoped. We either reverse course, or we stick it out.

Sticking it out is comfortable in the short term but often destructive in the long-term

I Can’t Believe I Wasted All This Time

Changing direction is scary, but also exciting. It’s a fresh start, a new beginning. Sticking it out is comfortable in the short term but often destructive in the long-term. When we stick it out, we adapt to the situation, even if it fails to satisfy us. We then realize, sometimes many years later, that we’ve wasted years in a role, relationship or situation that did not serve us.

I’ve experienced both situations. At twenty-two years old, I wanted to escape from my hometown in suburban New York. NYC was too expensive on my meager salary, so I decided to pack up and move to Las Vegas. I worked at a casino for almost twelve months. I decided it wasn’t for me, and moved back east. Had I stayed another year, I might have grown more comfortable with the situation. I also would have had more invested in my job and location.

I stayed in the hotel business for three more years, working at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. I hated the hotel business. Only a genuine people person could thrive in that environment — not a hardcore introvert. I stuck it out for three years hoping it would improve for me. I received well-meaning but terrible advice: give it time. You’ll settle into things.

I didn’t. I was still young and still single with no responsibilities to anyone but myself. I quit and found a new career.

The Scourge Of Sunk Cost

That was December of 1999. It’s been harder for me to change course on life decisions, especially career-related decisions. I’ve become more complacent. I’m now responsible for others. I’ve allowed a few bad choices to linger until I’ve adapted. I’ve worked jobs that I didn’t love but grew accustomed to doing. I’ve stuck with them because they’ve paid well. Do you recognize this self-talk?

“It’s good for me. I’m good at it. Why give up all those gains?”
“I’ve put in so much time, effort and energy? Do I want to start over in another career? (Replace career with a relationship, living situation, friendship, fill in the blank)

Excuses like these represent a common flaw in human reasoning: sunk cost fallacy.

Here’s a paraphrase of the definition.
Reasoning that further or continued investment in a choice is warranted because you fear the loss of resources and time you’ve already invested. This type of thinking fails to consider the overall losses involved in further or continued investment.

Here’s an example. Let’s suppose you go to school to become a lawyer. You spend three years in law school, and then you spend the next five years as a lawyer. After eight years of misery, you decide you hate it. But you refuse to leave the profession. Why? Because you’ve already invested eight years of your life. If you leave the profession, it all goes to waste. You decide to stick with it, so you don’t lose your earlier investment. Of course, staying the course ensures continued unhappiness, but the fear of losing what you’ve already spent has more significant influence over the decision.
Sunk-cost reasoning plus adaptation to the situation makes it harder to change.

I blame many poor decisions on the sunk cost phenomenon. Choosing the wrong job isn’t so bad if you leave after a month. The problem is much worse if you stay with it for ten years.

The power of sunk-cost reasoning plus the adaptation to the situation makes it harder to change.

Reversing Bad Decisions

In situations where I’ve succeeded in changing, there has been one common thread. The decision to change occurred when sunk cost draw was minimal and I hadn’t yet adapted to the unhappiness. I hadn’t yet found a way to accept it.

Most of us have become accustomed to the consequences of at least one lousy life decisions whether it be a career, relationship, living situation, investment, or any other category with life-changing potential. The longer we wait to address the problem, the more difficult it is to overcome sunk-cost reasoning and adaptation to our circumstance.

What if you’re already too deep into sunk cost or have adapted to the unhappiness of a poor choice?

I wish I had a better answer for you. I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Maybe this story will awaken awareness of an unfortunate life choice. It’s brought awareness to me. Sometimes, that’s enough.