Can you remember that last bad decision you made?
Nothing life altering or catastrophic, but simply a poor choice that would later lead into you feeling guilty or even regretful.
For me, the last bad decision I made was getting Chinese food as one of my last meals before I left the country. It was subpar Chinese food at best, and as it turns out, there are multiple Chinese food restaurants in the country that I’m now living in.
In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a disastrous choice. But nevertheless, why did I make it?
Well, I was hungry and tired. I didn’t feel like making any dinner and I knew that this would be one of my last meals before I leave the country. I’ve had decent experiences with Chinese in the past and delivery was free. In that moment it seemed like the best option. That version of Derek, made the best decision he was capable of making.
But was that really the best version of me? Or was I actually lacking my full mental capacity?
We’ve all made bad decisions and made simple choices that would lead to us later regretting what we did.
Everyone has had a moment where they ate something they shouldn’t have, yelled at a teammate over something pointless, texted an ex late in the evening, or skipped out on an extra rep because our body was feeling fatigued.
But here’s the problem. In the moment, they all seemed like the right choice. And it’s not until the dust has settled that the regret starts to sink in; which can happen immediately or sometimes weeks after the bad decision is made. But eventually, we will recognize that we did something we shouldn’t have done.
We kick ourselves for the stupid thing we did, vow to be stronger, to make better decisions next time, and to not lose sight of why our small decisions matter most.
Then, two more weeks roll on by and you find yourself making the exact same or similar bad decision. Nothing has changed except for the fact that you now feel dumber, weaker, and more useless than before. The negative self-talk starts to develop and you simply begin to assume that “this is just who I am, so why bother changing”. But that would be the biggest mistake of all.
The Power of HALT
Before you head down that spiral of self-defeat, take a moment to consider that maybe there is more going on than you may realize. Take a second to ask yourself if maybe you are on the right track, but just need a little help in the right direction. And maybe just maybe, you might need to look for other possibilities as to why you and everyone else on the planet make bad decisions.
Dr. Judson Brewer is a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and habits. Not only has he been able to help people break addiction from bad habits, but he has also helped people find ways to start and maintain new good habits. And of the many things he discusses, HALT is one of them.
HALT stands for Hungry, Anger, Lonely, Tired. And more importantly, this acronym is a warning sign for the impending possibility of making a bad decision. Our brains are wired as such, that when we enter one or more of these emotional or physical states the prefrontal cortex goes offline. And as was mentioned in a previous article, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain which allows us to see outside of our current environment. It gives us the ability to pull from the past as well as look into the future. It can be both helpful allowing us to learn and create but has the possibility to cause us a great amount of unnecessary fear over things which have not yet happened.
But when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, our ability to step into the past or future is drastically reduced. And as a result, we forget about the promises we made to ourselves, the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and the future selves we are aiming to become.
Poor choices will ensue and regret will follow. Because our body has a strong desire to survive, when we enter a HALT state, our brain decides what matters most – not our conscious.
Avoiding more bad choices
The answer to this universal problem is simple, but the actions required for a success are a bit more tedious.
You have to be proactive.
And what that looks like will take 3 steps:
If you are going to attempt to limit the number of poor choices you make you must first recognize why they exist. Remembering the HALT acronym is a great start. But more importantly, you should take the time to notice when you reach these specific states. You have to be a student of your own behaviour. When do you get hungry and eat something you shouldn’t? What triggers you into losing your cool under pressure? How many hours of sleep did you get last night? Were you feeling tired at practice this week?
Once you recognize and identify the triggers that have the possibility of leading into you making a bad choice, plan ahead on how to overcome them. If you are noticing that you always get a sugar craving around 11am, bring an apple with you every morning. If you find that on the days where you spend your whole afternoon playing videos games are also the days when you are the angriest, perhaps consider playing less aggressive games. By always having a plan on how to deal with each HALT state before you get out of control, you give yourself a fighting chance of making a good choice without the help of your prefrontal cortex. And if you do this often enough a new habit will start to form. And you will begin to crave the good feeling that comes with good decisions, as opposed to the short-lasting burst of dopamine or serotonin that comes from bad decisions.
There will be days where you will screw up. You will be weak and make a bad decision. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. If you recognize yourself falling prey to a HALT state, take a moment to note how you feel. Does screaming at the rookie really make you feel more superior or better about yourself? Does eating a box of cookies actually give you enough energy to compete as a high-level athlete? Will drinking yourself silly do anything to change the fact that you just got dumped? NO!
You might not be able to stop yourself in that moment, but chances are much higher that you will revert back to step #2 and plan ahead for next time.
I’ve said this many times before, but there is no single blueprint for success. I cannot guarantee that learning about HALT will inform you on how to make better decisions in the future. At the end of the day, the choice to be a better version of yourself rest in your hands.