The older I get, the more reflective I become as the years accumulate; memories multiply and I find myself wondering how time can possibly go by so quickly. Looking at life from this 30,000 foot perspective reveals an immutable “truth bomb” I’ve tried, like many parents, to instill in my children.

The quality of your life = the quality of your decisions.

Stephen Covey famously wrote, “You are not a product of your circumstances, you are a product of your decisions.” How true! Think of the impact a few key decisions can have in shaping outcomes — for a person,  company, community or nation. Then, consider some of the poor, “What were they thinking?!” decisions in history, as shared in a recent Lead to Win podcast episode with Michael Hyatt:

  • Napoleon’s decision to sell the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. for a fire sale price of 22 cents an acre.
  • Decca Records’ decision in 1962 to decline on signing the Beatles to a recording contract. Their conclusion: “4 piece bands with guitars are a thing of the past.”
  • Western Union’s decision in 1876 to tell Alexander Graham Bell to “keep his electric toy” — which turned into the telephone.
  • Richard Nixon’s decision to cover up the Watergate Hotel break-in, which, together with the Vietnam war, forever altered Americans’ trust in their government.

While these are noteworthy examples, poor decision making is not limited to major historical blunders. For example, in an earlier post, I shared research from Scranton University which found that 40% of all New Year’s resolutions are broken before the end of January. Relationally, nearly half of all marriage decisions end in divorce. And despite volumes of books and articles on the impact of diet on health, 70% of Americans die every year from chronic, preventable, life-style related diseases.

Why, despite so much knowledge, wisdom, and expert advice from so many sources, do we consistently make so many costly, regrettable decisions?  Here are three key reasons to consider:

1. Confirmation Bias. Defined as the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that refutes them, research at Stanford University in the late 1970’s discovered that, even when presented with information that falsifies their beliefs, people will manipulate the facts to conform to their preconceived opinions. We see this everywhere: In sports (watch how opposing fans react to penalties in football… even in little league) and certainly in politics, where both sides use identical data to support their completely opposing position (the recent Supreme Court nomination hearings are a prime example). It explains why articles that extoll the benefits of coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate are so popular: When we really want something to be true–in work and in life–we magnify all the evidence to support it… and pretty much disregard the rest.

2. Either-Or Thinking. In their excellent book, DecisiveStanford professors Chip and Dan Heath refer to the tendency to force “one or the other” decisions as narrow framing. It’s classic binary thinking–and it can undermine our effectiveness. Here’s how the Heath brothers describe it:

“We ask ourselves, ‘Should I break up with my partner or not?’ instead of, ‘What are the ways I could make this relationship better?’ We ask ourselves, ‘Should I buy this new car or not?’ instead of ‘What’s the best way I could spend some money to make my family better off?”

When I think of how often I tend to narrow my options to just a few alternatives verses broadening my thinking, I realize how easy it is to choose good over best.

3. Overconfidence. Here’s some interesting research cited in Decisive: “…when doctors reckoned themselves ‘completely certain’ about a diagnosis, they were wrong 40% of the time. When a group of students made estimates that they believed had only a 1% chance of being wrong, they were actually wrong 27% of the time.” In other words, we tend to have way too much confidence in our own projections.

Have you fallen victim to these decision-making pitfalls? Although I’ve made some great choices as I reflect on my life–my decision to marry my amazing wife, put my faith in Jesus Christ, and partner with my two brothers in business are three biggies that come to mind–there are other big decisions I have regrets about, like my sloppy approach to college selection during my senior year in high school. My parents were almost completely uninvolved (hard to imagine today, but pretty common back then) and I had no sense of urgency or appreciation for the weight of my decision. So other than applying to Princeton University as a long shot (I didn’t get in), my only other consideration was a small liberal arts college 150 miles from my home that had recruited me to play football. I had never heard of the college, and after one weekend visit during the winter, I committed without investigating any other college. Not one. And although I had a generally positive experience in both academics and sports, after more than 35 years, I still deeply regret that I never considered the numerous other options available to me.

So the next time you’re faced with a significant decision, take time to consider our culture’s penchant for blunders:

  • Coke’s decision to change its formula.
  • NBC and CBS’s decision to pass on Monday Night Football.
  • Kodak’s decision, after inventing the digital camera, to largely ignore it.

Take careful note of the three decision-making landmines mentioned above by investing more time, energy, and perspective in the process.

Are there major life decisions you still have regrets about? Have you used these experiences to guide and improve your future decision making? I’d love to hear from you.