Why We Make Bad Decisions

We live in a world that is abundant with choices. This is a good thing; it gives us the power to do what we set our minds to. 

It also means we often choose the wrong thing: We choose cookies over broccoli, parties over sleep, cute shoes over snow boots. Especially on Friday nights, we choose “comfort foods” and Netflix.

We KNOW these decisions are not going to benefit our long-term health and wellness (have you ever heard anyone brag about his or her success on the Tim Hortons Diet?) but we make them anyway. Why? Do we hate ourselves? Of course not! We just get tired of making decisions.

Our parents called this decision-making capacity “willpower”: the ability to make tough decisions and stick to them. But as Dan Ariely of Duke University writes in “Understanding Ego Depletion,“ we have limited reserves of willpower. We have all experienced this phenomenon: once, twice, three times, we can stick to our plan, get up early, go for a walk, and pack lunch. But by Friday, we’re calling Cheetos breakfast.

Decision fatigue is a new idea, but it’s very real. We make more decisions than our ancestors ever did: They got up at six because the cows were hungry. They ate oatmeal for breakfast because there weren’t any eggs. They bought one gift for Christmas because everyone did. Life was simpler. 

The dudes under the most pressure in the business world usually take steps to limit the number of decisions they have to make each day. Steve Jobs wore the same outfit and ate the same breakfast every day. If he’d dipped into the well of willpower when choosing his cereal, that would leave less in the pool for later when the BIG decisions came up. 

So how do we save our willpower to use when it matters most? Through habits.

Good habits reduce the number of choices we have to make because they become automatic:

Waking up at the same time every day.

Eating the same breakfast every day.

Going to the gym at the same time every day.

Letting someone else choose our workouts.

If you’re starting to exercise more or fixing your diet after a rough couple of weeks, do everything you can to minimize the decisions you have to make. Do a six-week challenge and follow directions. Show up to a CrossFit class. Make your meals on Sunday, when you’re fresh and rested. Follow someone else’s plan for you until the habits are entrenched. Protect your ego and save your willpower for dealing with life’s tricky situations.

If you make a habit of showing up for class or preparing healthy food on Sundays, you have that many fewer decisions to make throughout the week. No overthinking is necessary. 

Inspiration provided by Chris Cooper:

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