Why It’s Hard to Make Good Choices

by Michael Plank

We live in a magical world of possibility, which means we are offered hundreds, maybe thousands, of choices every day.

It’s maybe no surprise then that with all those opportunities, we choose things that later we have second thoughts about: we choose wine instead of water, social media instead of sleep, dopamine hits from buying things we don’t need, and especially on the weekends “comfort foods” and binge-watching.

We KNOW there are better decisions out there. Nobody’s confused about whether broccoli or Doritos do a better job supporting their health and fitness goals. And despite what you might see in catchy memes and quotes, it’s not like we just make bad decisions because “we don’t care about ourselves enough.” We’re just tired of making decisions.

“Willpower” is something that we know is connected to decision-making, but it’s not as simple as just having more of it. Dan Ariely of Duke University writes in “Understanding Ego Depletion,“ that we have limited reserves of willpower and we use them up all the time. After rest on the weekend, our stores are pretty high so on Monday we might get up early and prep our meals and go for a walk and hit the gym. But by Friday, we’re driving through Dunkin Donuts for breakfast, McDonald’s for lunch, and ordering pizza at home with the family for dinner.

Decision fatigue is something we’ve maybe only just begun to hear about, but it’s very real. We make more decisions than our ancestors ever did: Our grandparents got up at dawn because it was time to milk the cows. They green beans with dinner because nothing else in the garden was ready. They bought one gift for Christmas because that’s all anyone ever got. And they were probably happier for it.

A lot of high performers go out of their way 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 his willpower bucket when he opened his shirt drawer, that would leave less in the pool for later when the BIG decisions came up.

How do we avoid draining our willpower reserve every day? Habits.

Waking up at the same time every day.

Eating breakfast at the same time every day.

Going to the gym at the same time every day.

Letting someone else choose our workouts.

I try to shift as many small decisions off my plate as possible. And then when I do make a decision, I try to make it and move on quickly. Second guessing is exhausting. And a lot of times it can be better to make fast decisions and correct small errors down the line than to hem and haw for hours (or days).

If you’re changing your nutrition or fitness, or getting back into things after a rough couple of weeks, try to eliminate as many necessary decisions as possible. Hire a nutrition coach and follow their directions. Show up to a CrossFit class and do what the coach tells you. Plan your meals on Sunday when you’re well rested. Find someone who knows how to do what you want to do and hire them to make a plan for you. Follow that plan until your new habits are easy.

Here’s the secret: 9 times out of 10, done is better than perfect. The thing you do is way better than the thing you don’t do. Your workouts don’t have to be the best workouts ever. Your plan doesn’t have to be unique and original. You don’t need to spend 19 days of research. I’ve worked with nutrition coaches, fitness coaches, and business coaches. They tell me what to do, how to do it, and then that’s what I do. And then it frees me up to make much better decisions outside of fitness and business.

-Inspired by Chris Cooper of Catalyst Fitness