Life Hack: 3 Ways to Resist Cookies and Make the Right Decisions

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.




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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…




2. Imperatives


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…




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3. Habits


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!

  • Anonymous

    One tip that I have used successfully is to make decisions in advance.  If I’m meeting people for lunch at someplace like the Cheesecake Factory, I might hop online and look at the menu before going.  Many places provide more nutrition information online than in their printed menu so you can make an educated decision.  More importantly, though, making decisions in advance removes some of the emotional element to the decision.  If you tell yourself “I am going to the gym at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow” it is a much easier decision to make than it would be the next morning when you are getting out of bed.

    The one tricky part of this is not allowing yourself to override your decisions.  If 6:00 a.m. rolls around and you say, “I’m too tired.  I’m going back to bed.” then you’ve lost the benefit. 

    Pretend that the you that sets schedules is your boss.  Act like you have no choice when you get up at 6:00 a.m. and think to yourself instead, “This is really hard.  Next time we have a scheduling meeting I’m going to ask that this be moved to 6:30.”  It sounds silly, but it works.  Then, of course, when you are emotionally removed again you can deny your request to adjust the schedule.  :-)

    • Zane the Experimenter

      Great advice! This is a trick employed by stock market investors as well, in order to (as you said) remove the emotional element. Indeed, the impulse decision seems to be the part that really causes the trouble. Any way that we can find to reduce the power of this impulse could be of assistance.

      And you are very right about believing that the schedule is your boss :) It is the same reason that so many people are so productive at the last moment, right before a deadline. When the imperative exists, the decision is removed.

  • Anonymous

    But wouldn’t you get tired of eating the same meals over and over?

    • Zane the Experimenter

      A lot of people think so at first, and I can see why. Tim Ferriss even addresses it in his book some (and makes a good case to point out that most people have a lot less variety in their meals than they think they do), but I’ll give my response here…

      Personally, I tend to buy a limited set of foods and cook with them until I run out. Then I rinse wash and repeat with different foods. I get variety in my meals, but the shifts happen more like every 4-5 days instead of every single meal being totally different. Neither is every meal exactly the same – for example, I might buy only chicken as meat one time, so any meat dish will be common to the others in that it has chicken. However I have enough experience cooking that I can think of dozens of healthy ways to cook chicken easily. I feel this is better – I always use every last scrap of my food because I plan and buy for a few days instead of getting everything that looks good. My experience doing grocery shopping is my creativity/planning time where I figure out how to make dishes for the next few days that make the best use of what I have. In my example with Morocco I did, indeed, make a VERY limited set of dishes in order to better control my food intake all the more precisely. Even then, though, I didn’t really get bored by it. After a few days I stopped expecting my food to entertain me and just appreciated that it tasted good.

      However, frankly, if you are looking for your meals as a sort of “entertainment,” then you may want to shift your mental approach. I like going out to dinner or having picnics as much as anybody… but I find that when I think of food as entertainment in this way I have a tendency to overeat. Planning out meals before hand and eating predictable quantities seems to work better because it turns eating into an activity that is another part of my routine, rather than some grand and indulgent affair.

      So, to answer your question: I have rarely gotten tired of my meals with this strategy, and if I ever did I simply changed it up the next time I went to the store ;)

  • Dr. David Orman

    One of the biggest errors is the “21 days to make a habit” myth. It is not true, but rather based on comments/observations from Dr. M. Maltz in his work with plastic surgery patients. If you research, you will find that it takes 65-70 days to make or break a habit.

    In addition, there is able evidence to suggest that we really cannot break a habit, rather, we replace an old one with a new one.

    I have done and plan on doing more Webinars about this subject.

    • Zane Claes

      You’re right that the “21 days” is largely a myth. This post is several years old, and I’d refer you instead to my more recent post(s) on the matter:

      That said, I still think that the 21 days is a nice benchmark. Even if it is not strictly scientific in the sense that you “magically” have the habit after 21 days, it is a good bar to achieve. For someone looking to change a habit, getting to the 21 day mark is a much more reasonable goal than the daunting task of “changing this thing forever.” And once the mark is passed, I would submit that passing the bar of Activation Energy has moved the task into one where it is significantly easier to continue.

      • Dr. David Orman

        I respectfully disagree. 21 days is a prescription for long term failure. Having worked with many patients, I have noted this repeatedly. 2 months is the bare minimum for long term success. This is the make or break point for any long term success.

        • Zane Claes

          Well, my comment wasn’t aimed at any specific time period, per se: as far as I’m concerned, 21 days or 2 months are both magic numbers because, as your accurately pointed out, habits are not broken but diligently replaced over time. Moreover, even when “replaced,” the old habit actually still remains (as Duhigg points out in his book). My point was merely to say that it’s cognitively easier to focus on stepped goals, which remind us to take it a day at a time and enforce new habits in the place of old ones. I would suspect that we’re looking at the standard asymptotic curve of human learning: there will never be a point of complete and true replacement, but a continuous conscious move towards that goal.

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