Why we make bad decisions in our 30s and 40s

Every single decision we make – big or small – has a cost.

  • Getting up early costs us morning cuddles with our partner.
  • Staying up late costs us productivity the next day.
  • Eating a doughnut costs us space in our arteries.
  • Taking an overseas job costs us relationships.
  • Giving in to our kids’ whining leads to more whining in the future and costs us our sanity.

Sometimes the cost is worth it. More often it’s not.

When we’re in our twenties, unencumbered and carefree, we can make decisions that have big costs and aren’t worth it. This is called ‘trying and failing’ and is essential for growth. In theory, we learn hard lessons from those failures and don’t make those same mistakes again.

Except, we do make those mistakes again. Because, in our twenties, we can.

In our twenties we have time to:

  • Constantly overcommit.
  • Repeatedly burn out and regenerate.
  • Go deep into completely pointless rabbit holes.

Then we hit our thirties and forties.

We are busy, busy people right in the peak of careers and family commitments. We are also tired, which means we tend to take the most friction-free path available when it comes to making decisions. And that path is paved with the patterns of behaviour we laid down in our twenties. Behaviours like making decisions because:

  • This is what people expect from us.
  • People like us do things like this.
  • We don’t have the energy to deal with the in-the-moment discomfort of saying ‘No’.

The biggest thing these poor choices cost us are time and it becomes a cycle that perpetuates itself because the less time we have, the less able we are to make the choices that give us back that time!

How do we break those patterns we laid down in our twenties?

We need to create some space in our lives so that when we are faced with a decision – big or small – we’re able to ask ourselves, in the moment: What’s the cost?

  • What’s the cost of the kids having extra-curricular activities every weeknight?
  • What’s the cost of taking this promotion?
  • What’s the cost of staying in this job we hate for another year?
  • What’s the cost of training for this marathon?
  • What’s the cost of pursuing this passion project?

To be able to truly consider the cost of things, we need to create space in the moment. My favourite way to do this is to never commit to any request in the moment. Not even a request from my kids for something as simple as ‘Can I have a glass of milk?’.

I say, ‘Let me get back to you.’

Other variants include:

  • ‘I’m not sure of my availability, let me check my diary when I get home and come back to you.’
  • ‘Just give me second to finish what I’m doing right now, and then I’ll have a think about what you just asked.’
  • ‘That sounds like an amazing opportunity. I’d love a day or so to give it my full consideration.’

These phrases break the cycle of always choosing the path of least friction in the moment. Of saying ‘Yes’, to something because you’re addicted to seeing big grins of relief break across people’s faces.

They allow us to walk away from the moment and ask ourselves: What’s the cost?

And it triggers off a positive self-perpetuating cycle.

The more we’re able to make good decisions about how we spend our time, the more time we free up to make good decisions.

This allows our thirties and forties to stop feeling like such a battle against the ‘enemy’ that is time and instead frees us up to live the meaningful, values-driven life we all crave.

(Want more ideas for creating the whitespace you need to make better decisions? Check out these posts on: reducing overwhelm and burnout, learning how to prioritise, and get some direction.)

Comments 14

  1. Great advice Kelly. I know how alluring it is to just say yes to be pleasing. I love the idea of breaking the pattern with “let me get back to you”. On the other hand, by saying No to quickly we could miss out on some wonderful adventures. White space is the key.

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      It’s definitely a fine balance! But I find saying ‘let me get back to you’ on most things means the things that are ‘hell yeah!’ – it’s easier to say yes to those

  2. So I have 9 more years until I can get this right 😉
    But so true. And I have (sometimes) remembered to use “let me get back to you” although the example you gave alerts me to the fact that I probably need to use it sometimes with Mr7 and not just work stuff!

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  3. This was an interesting read as I had both my children by the age of 23. Though not intentional in the beginning, it has led for a simpler life in many ways, as I avoided the crunch of intense parenting and career aspirations colliding. Love the let me get back to you though, still applicable in all things!

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  4. This was so on topic for me today Kelly. I am in my 40s and was feeling guilty after last night giving a ‘let me get back to you response’ to a girlfriend who had automatically assumed I would be up for something and so booked me in for it before checking with me. I had to tell her that I couldn’t say ‘yes’ until I had had a few days to think it through and decide if it was truly something I wanted, or had the time, to commit to.

    My guilt has just melted away and now I feel much happier about my response!

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      Oh Megan – that would have been so hard. Well done to you for doing it! And I am glad my blog post made you feel better about the decision!

  5. Love the script suggestions in relation to taking time to consider the cost, not just say yes all the time without thinking.
    I think once we get into our 30’s & 40’s we are searching more inside ourselves for the answers, rather than in our 20’s searching for outside gratification.

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  6. This is so true. As a parent and teacher, I get asked questions ALL DAY LONG. When I am overwhelmed and overtaxed, I tend to ramp up instead of stepping back. This means that I’m in hyper people pleasing mode, right up until the moment I rebel (classic obliger behavior). I think I’m going to print this post and put it up in my office or bathroom as a reminder to pause, think, and return to questions of all kinds, whether it’s from students or my 6-year-old. Thanks for posting!

    1. Such a pleasure. I think you’d definitely want to keep all your important decision making to first thing in the morning, or the school holidays!

  7. Agree totally, but it’s sometimes so hard to weigh up the “costs” of decisions when it comes down to something like the kids needs (to do more activities!) or mine (for a more simple life). It’s so true though – absolutely everything has a cost. I need to remember this when saying yes to social activities and staying up too late.

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