Every day is full of decisions. Some are simple and have little effect on what happens next or what happens a year from now. Others are so important they can change the direction of our lives forever.
Bad decisions have a way of setting life on a path of difficulty and pain. When we feel the pain early into the journey we are quick to make changes to get back to safety. We change jobs, end relationships, ask forgiveness from God and others.
But how do we get started down those trails of bad decisions and the scars they leave in and on our lives? Is there a way to avoid these pitfalls on our journey?
Pay attention to the signs
Consider making a bad choice the same as ending up in the wrong place on the highway. You find out you’re headed in the wrong direction or somewhere you are not supposed to be, most often because of the road signs you see.
If you go the opposite way into an on- or off-ramp you see a sign that says “WRONG WAY”. Highway signs are placed to let people know if they are going in the right direction, north vs. south and east vs. west. They have the number and a symbol for the type of roadway it is based on the state or province, county, Interstate or Trans-Canada system.
One wrong turn you may not realize from an official “sign” but from your surroundings is when you end up going the wrong way on a one-way street. If all of the cars are parked on both sides of the road, facing the same direction, and they’re pointed at you, you should really turn around.
I love cloverleaf interchanges on the highway, named for their distinctive four-exit design resembling a four-leaf clover. If you end up going the wrong way just take a couple extra loops and you can get where you meant to be.
When you take a long road trip, you often call the person in the front passenger (“shotgun”) seat the Navigator. Before the days of turn-by-turn directions through your radio from your phone, we used maps printed on paper.
In the Liam Neeson movie, The Marksman, he asks a young boy to find him an “atlas” at a gas station. Yeah, those are real things, and I’m not talking about a newer VW model. We depended on those maps. Planned entire trips on them. Highlighted, circled, red-inked them.
The job of the Navigator is to remind you when to turn and what to be on the lookout for. If you’re like me, a Navigator is super helpful. Until they tell you what you are about to miss.
Their voice pitch goes up an octave. Maybe they sound like a car accident is about to happen. Some even grab hold of the driver’s arm. (Oh, never do that, folks.)
As a driver your “fight or flight” instinct kicks in. You want to slam on the brakes, swerve to the side, check the mirrors, hit the gas … all at once. Okay, so maybe I do not tend to have the best reaction when that happens.
But the only thing worse is when the Navigator decides, in the interest of self-preservation, to let the driver keep driving and let them know when they miss something.
At this point the driver is usually more upset at themselves when they react. Are you sure? I was paying attention. Was there a sign? How did I miss that?
How did I get here?
Hindsight is always 20/20, but what if we can set ourselves for success instead of falling on our face and realizing it after? To help us make better choices, take a look at these 5 Reasons We Make Bad Decisions.
1. We are on AUTOPILOT
I have written about driving and living on autopilot several times. I could take a turn leading to work when I want to go straight to drop off my daughter at school. Maybe I take the highway ramp for the West-bound side I used in the morning to take my wife to work instead of driving another 300 feet to the East-bound ramp I need to get to church.
These examples may put me out of my way for a few extra minutes, but they are relatively simple to fix. If I don’t figure it out quick enough while driving down the highway, though, it is going to be at least a twenty minute round trip.
When it comes to decision making, autopilot involves a lot of not paying attention and letting “whatever” happen. Allowing decisions to make themselves will result in a higher than average rate of negative outcomes.
The next two reasons could fall under autopilot because they often lead to it switching on. However, they deserve a review as potential candidates on their own.
2. We are DISTRACTED
What are you thinking about right now? Are you truly reading the words of this post and absorbing them or are you glancing through it with other things on your mind? Distractions are everywhere. Depending on factors like personality, environment, skill set, and mental health, we all handle them differently.
Some distractions come and go with the people around us or the locations we visit in a day. Others continually press on our minds as worries and obligations. The more the distractions get in and take hold, the less likely we are to focus on what is really being asked of the decisions in front of us.
This is one reason some people hate to drive in larger cities. The sheer number of vehicles spread across so many lanes, frequent exits and on-ramps, signs and lights everywhere, carpool and bus lanes, exits on both sides of the road. It can be a lot of input.
Throw in a cheeseburger and fries, your favorite tune on the radio, a child asking questions or a baby crying in the back seat, and your mind can feel like it is going to explode. (My brain hurts just thinking about it.)
If you feel overwhelmed or you cannot focus on where you are going, what are the odds you will miss your turn? How comfortable will you be if a correction is required?
3. We are TIRED
A number of years ago we lived in Massachusetts and would drive up to New Brunswick to visit my in-laws. On one of those trips I noticed a unique sign on I-95 while driving through Maine. It warned how driving tired was equivalent to driving drunk.
Life can be exhausting. In our age we have forgotten the importance of rest, separating work and home life, to simply be or to be comfortable in quiet.
Sure, I am introvert and these are things I work at for my own sanity. All this really means is I am more inclined to recognize the need for them compared to those with a different personality. But we all need time to unplug, recharge and focus, and one or two weeks a year is not sufficient.
When we are tired we choose easy paths. We follow signs with bright lights and pretty pictures instead of looking for the route details. We listen to the loudest voices screaming for our attention instead of hearing the gentle, intimate whisper. We choose a small investment to stop and get going again as fast as possible instead of investing a little more to have a true experience or receive the greatest results. We settle for the closest stops instead of the better or best ones.
4. We see UNEXPECTED SIGNAGE
Have you ever made a wrong turn and then found yourself confused by the signs you saw? That can’t be right, we think. But the signage isn’t wrong. We made the mistake.
When we are unsure about where we are and where the road we are on is headed, the next step is not to keep going until we figure it out.
If you consider yourself to be a fairly knowledgeable, intelligent, problem-solving person, this is hard for you to swallow. We hear and accept the lie telling us if we think hard enough we can solve our problems.
But we keep spending our way deeper into debt. We continue to hurt other people because we were hurt. We jump from job to job in search of significance and fulfillment. We feed our addictions even though we want to be free from them.
“The road goes ever on and on” (J.R.R. Tolkien). We cannot just keep going the wrong way and expect to have an epiphany that will get us back where we meant to be. We must stop. Evaluate. Ask for directions. Get some “repairs” looked after. And when we start back on the road we must start fresh on the right side of the road.
5. We encounter HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS
When Paul was in prison on his way to Rome, the ship he was on had to decide whether to sit out the winter weather at Crete or press on to some other port closer to their destination. The Bible records him saying, “Men, I can see that this voyage is headed toward disaster“ (Acts 27:10, CSB).
The captain and ship owner wanted to move forward, and the ship set off to get a little further around the island. Just as they thought their plan was a success a storm swept them up. After spending the next fourteen days in a storm they ran the ship aground, floated to land on debris, and spent three months on the island of Malta before they could continue on to Rome (see Acts 27-28).
Back to driving, consider some hazardous road conditions: snow, ice, thunderstorms with heavy rain and hail, hurricanes. We may think our vehicle has the right equipment and we have enough experience and nerve to make it happen. By the grace of God we make it through. But what if something happens and we don’t?
There are times when we should not be driving. The weather can get to the point where continuing through the conditions is more dangerous than not getting to your desired destination at the required time.
There are also times in our lives when we should not make certain decisions, even seemingly insignificant ones. Big events, high stress, loss, forced changes. We should first determine if we are in a frame of mind to properly consider outcomes or look forward to consequences.
Paul wrote to the Romans how he was “eager” to be with them and preach the Gospel there (Romans 1:15). He actually started the journey by appealing his imprisonment to Caesar, giving him a free ticket straight to Rome, albeit as a prisoner. If anyone wanted to get things moving, you would think it was him.
Despite his zeal and expectation Paul understood how dangerous travel can be in the winter. It was wise to stop and wait for better conditions. In the same way, we should recognize when it is wise to put off decisions until a better time. There is zero shame in realizing we should be cautious about moving too quickly, avoiding a shipwreck in our own journey.
The story of our lives is not predetermined in the way we sometimes think (read this post for more thoughts on that). Though what we will do is known, it is not a fate that chases us. We truly choose each path we take, or at the very least allow surrounding forces to sweep us onto roads we would not choose for ourselves.
These five reasons we make bad choices are all avoidable. Not one of them is more powerful than we are. We can make fewer and fewer bad decisions if we determine to be alert and mindful about choices at hand.
Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk – not as unwise people but as wise – making the most of the time, because the days are evil. (Ephesians 5:14-6, CSB)