The vicious circle of bad decision-making

If you follow this blog, you know that I was sick already twice this year. There is no doubt that my exhaustion has something to do with it, just like having a baby in daycare1. I cannot escape the latter – getting sick at daycare is indeed a rite of passage – but I have to work on fixing the former; being too feeble is not helping indeed. A good start would be to bring healthy life habits back into my life (see Time management: a balanced life). In particular, I have realized, during my investigations on time management, that cutting exercise from my schedule and reducing my sleep time – just to create more time for work – was a very bad decision.

“What exactly is my point here?”

Before answering this, let me share an excerpt from a previous post…

I eventually get sick. I didn’t take any sick days. Too many things to do, no time to be sick! Of course, it gets worse. I barely managed to finish the week, at the cost of my CogitActive evening work time. I spend my weekend in bed with a fever, hoping that I will be able to go to work the following Monday. I did – even though I was still sick and very weak; the perfect mix to make my week a little more vomit- and flu-ridden. Not surprisingly, I caught something else, something nasty.

… and highlight one part in particular:

Too many things to do, no time to be sick!

Because I had no choice, I didn’t take any sick days. Now, who did say “I had no choice”. I was not under duress! I deliberately make a decision – a gamble should I say – not to take a sick day. Why? As already alluded, I took a risk, with the potential of a positive outcome. Our choices are often constrained by many requirements and/or objectives, and this is what this post will be about: bad choices made under pressure.

Back to my sickness example

This sounds counter-productive but hey if you’re really sick, you have to take time off in order to recover. Most people try to push through and keep on working which can actually make things worse.Choncé Maddox

I wrote a full post about what I should have done instead (see Time management: what if you are sick?); yet, I did gamble again. I could have (learned my lesson and) taken a day off and gone back to work the next day being more recharged – choice 1: lose 1 working day (safe). Missing a day of work was however too costly, and I decided to push through – choice 2: don’t lose any day (hoping to go through) or ??? (risky). I lose! What could have been a simple cold get worse and I had to face another gamble…

Although the situation was the same – I could not afford to lose a day of work – the cost of the gamble had increased. It generally takes 3-5 days to recover from a severe cold – if you take some rest, along with the proper medications – option 1: 3-5 sick days (safe). Of course, if you try to push through – option 2: 0 sick day – not only you will not be very productive at work, but also you can face serious complications (risky). I lose again! I struggled through every single day – not to mention my inefficiency – and collapse every evening (instead of working on CogitActive or just spending time with my family). I also had to be bedridden over the weekends, and for what? Two weeks later, I am still sick. If I do the math, to save 3-5 days of work, I have wasted two weeks (including weekends) of CogitActive work, and I didn’t achieve much during my working days anyway. I would have done a lot more (during this same period) even if I remove five sick days!

“I went through this a few weeks ago, so why did I repeat the same mistake?”
“Because of my lack of time and my never-ending to-do list – not to mention the many deadlines at work!”

As alluded to above, I deliberately took the two aforementioned bad decisions – nobody else but I force me to work that much. This is what I would call an “internal” (or self-imposed) pressure.

Another type of pressure

Now, sometimes the pressure is not self-imposed. Since that fateful summer of 2020, I have started to experience this kind of pressure and the resulting bad decisions2. Again, it’s about taking risky decisions under pressure, but the kind of risk I would have never taken before! So, why now? Why would I decide to do things that I know are wrong? Things I would have refused to do not so long ago. I even pride myself on not taking these paths.

“Why this change in my risk-based decision-making?”

All right reserved

I will not dare to cover this fascinating topic of neuroeconomics in a single post, but let me share this fact about risk-taking behavior:

Animals generally avoid risk when resources are plentiful, but adopt riskier strategies when resources are scarce.

Back to my initial statement: our choices are often constrained by many requirements and/or objectives. What about the lack of job security (combined with a dependent family) to name but one! Ironically, those (forced) choices did not improve my productivity, quite the contrary, they resulted in a huge amount of wasted time.

“So, why do I not stand against?”

As I said, I used to pride myself on not taking these bad decisions – even under pressure. This time, however, the stakes were way too high (see above) and I had no choice but to accept the gambles. The start of an explanation might be found in a concept in risk-based decision-making called loss aversion. Without going into details, let me just say that people would rather take a risk to avoid loss than take an equivalent risk to gain something of equivalent value. Needless to mention that I lose, again.

Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.Mark Twain

1 I have read somewhere that Children who are in daycare get frequent upper respiratory tract infections – six to eight infections each year indeed – among other nasty things. So, given my current condition (i.e. extremely weak due to exhaustion), I can count on getting sick again during this challenging first year. ^
2 I have two specific examples in mind, but I cannot share them in this blog for obvious reasons. ^

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