We all know what the right decisions are, as well as what the wrong decisions or “cookies” in our life are. The list of things we each intend to do is a long one: eat healthy, exercise, study and work hard, etc. What fascinates me is why we so often do not do these things, even though every logical bone in our bodies tells us we should. It turns out there have been some pretty interesting studies done on this topic, which gives us a very solid starting point to improve upon. In yesterday’s podcast I discussed the basics of these principles, but here is the expanded version.
Left: can you resist the cookies in life? We have a tradition every Christmas to bake huge batches of cookies; here are the results from last year.
One of the most valuable pieces of research I have run across thus far goes by the name “ego depletion.” It a nutshell, it means that our self control diminishes each time we exercise restraint.
The studies done by Baumeister et all illustrate this point well. In one such study, the researchers broke the subjects into two groups. Both groups were presented with a choice between cookies and vegetables, but the second group was told that they had to resist the cookies. Then both groups were presented with a subsequent task that involved perseverance and determination. The group that was forced to resist the cookies gave up significantly more quickly.
We are all faced with proverbial cookies each day – so how do we resist them without experiencing this ego depletion and thus hurting future tasks? I have come up with a few ways that work well for me.
1. Choice Limitation
The purpose of this tactic is to make one big decision to exercise restraint that prevents the need for future decisions. To continue with the cookie analogy, this is the practice of making better choices at the supermarket. If you shop for food for the whole week and only buy healthy things, then you have limited your choices for the rest of the week. By making just one good decision, you have removed potentially dozens of temptations throughout the rest of the week.
Another example would be to uninstall time-wasting software (like games). Again, the single decision to uninstall the software means there is no longer a tempting icon sitting on the desktop of your computer. Of course, when you are really craving a cookie (or game) you may be tempted to go to the bakery (or reinstall the software), so more techniques are required…
Obviously, if you are allergic to cookies you will not be eating any. In fact, one of the most in-shape people I know is a pastry chef who is allergic to flour. Setting this sort of situation up for yourself is a bit trickier (I have yet to learn how to willfully contract an allergy). Usually the best imperatives come from sources beyond our control. They need to be set up in such a way that there is no temptation – simply a task that needs to be accomplished, no questions asked.
My use of language bubbles is an example of how to implement an imperative. Goals (like losing weight and thus avoiding cookies) do work, though they are weak imperatives because they still require that you resist temptation. Still, each additional element makes the decision easier and thus the temptation easier to resist. But there is still one more trick we can employ…
Habits are insanely powerful. Once you have passed the 21 days required to form a habit, your mind will be able to continue the action essentially without needing to make a conscious decision. Productivity guru Tim Ferriss suggests, for example, that one of the best ways to eat healthy is to make the same set of meals over and over again. I accidentally discovered this for myself when living in Morocco – I created a basic shopping list and stuck to it each time I went to the supermarket and made the same exact meals each time I cooked. I lost 10 lbs in 5 weeks without any drop in productivity or mental strain (more on this another time).
These are each, fundamentally, ways to remove the choice itself from the equation. By doing so it is possible to avoid the catalyst for the ego depletion all together. In doing so we give ourselves the best opportunity possible to make the right decisions where it counts.
Do you have any other effective tips for making better decisions? Any other research I should know about? Have you successfully implemented anything here? Let me know below!