Overcoming the Tyranny of Choice

Habits and the Higher Self

Last week, we delved into the topic of living on “autopilot,” and I argued that putting your health and wellness routines on “repeat” is the opposite of mindless living.

In fact, we’re already on autopilot, for better or for worse, and as I wrote last week:

We think we’re being conscious and intentional, but the reality is that our lives – our decisions, our thoughts, and our behaviors – follow familiar, predictable grooves that we have essentially programmed into our brains through repetition and socialization. We don’t always like the results of our lifestyle, but it’s difficult to re-program this swift type of thinking and decision-making.

This is especially true of food and exercise decisions. Most of our choices are automatic, fast, and almost pre-determined, and change is hard.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-winning psychologist who specializes in behavioral economics, explains this phenomenon elegantly in his 2011 best-seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow. He calls the swift, automatic, stereotypic brain “System 1,” and the insightful, analytical, effortful brain “System 2.”

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman reflects:

A general ‘law of least effort’ applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

What Kahneman calls “acquisition of skill” can translate into any domain, like playing the piano or learning to type, but in this case, we’re talking about building the skills of health and wellness habits. This could include automatically making better food choices on a consistent basis, or developing an exercise habit that becomes enjoyable.

Also, let’s pause for just a moment to deconstruct Kahneman’s use of the word “laziness.” In this case, Kahneman isn’t equating physical laziness with bad habits. Instead, he is simply pointing out that it is human nature to take the path of least resistance, regardless of the quality, or consequences, of your habits.

  • If your eating and exercise habits are poor, it is the path of least resistance to continue those behaviors, even if they present dire consequences to your health.
  • On the flip side, if your eating and exercise habits consistently support your health, it is the path of least resistance to continue those behaviors, even though they seem like they take more effort. Physically, it may be more effort, but cognitively – surprisingly – it’s not.

This is why my clients often find, after several months, that it feels more like a “normal” day when they exercise, than when they do not.

This is the key to success – moving conscious, effortful, motivation-oriented behaviors from System 2 to System 1. 

For our purposes, I’m going to adjust the language of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calling System 1 “habits” and System 2 “your higher self.”

You set yourself up for long-term success when you engineer your autopilot choices (your habits) to automatically reflect the values and goals of your higher self.

But if you’re muttering to yourself, “Easier said than done,” you’re right!

“Considerable and Goal-Directed Effort”

Last week, I quoted a study on reducing implicit biases:

In the words of one of the researchers on the study: ‘Such change is likely only after the application of considerable goal-directed effort over time.'”

Changing your habits – your fast, automatic thinking and behaviors – takes time and effort.

In other words, your higher self’s motivation to change must be sufficient to overcome the challenge of change. 

(Check out last week’s blog post to learn how to “plug in” to this kind of motivation through self-interviewing.)

While there are no shortcuts to the self-reflection, self-insight, and gut inspiration that it takes to motivate major change to thought and behavior patterns, I (along with the researchers in the study) also understand the power of context.

Improving the contexts (the situations you put yourself in) will yield short-term benefits that can buoy your efforts as you allow your higher self to internalize your new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting around food and exercise.

As Daniel Kahneman says of System 2, it fatigues easily and needs breaks. In other words, your higher self can get drained by being “on guard” all the time, and needs System 1 – your habits – to take over most of the time. This is where engineering and optimizing your life environments can give System 2 that all-important break, and give System 1 practice at success. 

In other words, environments that allow easy success can create proxy habits that work well in the short-term, while your mindful decision-making gradually burrows itself into automatic thinking in a way that will eventually be able to handle tougher, less predictable situations with more choices.

So how do we engineer these optimal environments?

Counterintuitively… by giving ourselves less choices.

The Tyranny of Choice

“The tyranny of choice” is a phrase coined by American psychologist Barry Schwartz. In an article in Scientific American by the same name, Schwartz points out:

Being able to choose has enormous important positive effects on us. But only up to a point. As the number of choices we face increases, the psychological benefits we derive start to level off. At the same time, some of the negative effects of choice . . . begin to appear, and rather than leveling off, they accelerate.”

In other words, the more choices we confront on a regular basis, the worse we perform. Our “higher self” can stall out, and our habits take over – not always for the best. This is a problem, when you consider the climate of the modern Western diet.

In another study on overeating, researchers tested the effect of habituation (getting used to a food). The theory is that getting accustomed to the presence of a food will decrease overeating. When the study presented subjects with a macaroni-and-cheese meal either on a weekly or daily basis, the participants who were exposed on a daily basis habituated to the treat and ate less of it. The subjects who were only offered the meal once per week, however, ate more.

In other words, variety and habituation are natural enemies. 

(This is, by the way, why I am opposed to using “cheat meals” as a dieting strategy. My philosophy is that habituation is an important part of developing a healthier mindset around food, and a no-holds-barred eating day dampens the natural inhibition that occurs through habituation, among other disadvantages.)

We live in an environment of overwhelming abundance and choice. So how do we craft our personal food environments and mental strategies to create less choice, thus removing the burden from our conscious mind and promoting positive skill development, habit change, and long-term success?

Here are a few strategies that have worked for my clients:

Repetitive Meals 

This is rare in 21st century developed countries, but creating a repertoire of just a few meals that you essentially put on “repeat” will transform your approach to eating. It will allow you to develop habituation, and you will develop self-discipline almost by magic.

One client said once (in surprise at this idea), “I always thought of variety as a good thing.” Variety is a good thing, when it comes to nutrients – particularly eating a variety of vegetables. However, I am using “variety” in a broader sense – in that we as 21st-century citizens of the West could literally eat a different dish for every meal for at least several weeks without repeating a meal.

As long as these repetitive meals contain a colorful and diverse panel of vitamins and minerals, we are in no danger of becoming malnourished when we decrease choice.

One great example is always having the same thing for breakfast, or maybe even breakfast and lunch.  For example, I have a smoothie with protein powder, yogurt, greens, and berries every single morning. In one fell swoop, I get in two servings of fruit and vegetables, along with a filling helping of protein.

One of my clients, every single day, eats yogurt and berries for breakfast, and a big salad with chickpeas, veggies, and cheese for lunch. Sometimes she mixes up the salad toppings, but they are simply variations on the same theme. Dinner is more flexible, but having her first two meals on autopilot helps her automatically weed out many less-healthful choices all day long, without even thinking about it.

Eating at Home More, and Out Less

When you eat at home, you are naturally presented with less choice than when you eat out.

While many articles in mainstream publications can easily point out the massive caloric load of eating out (since many popular appetizers provide sufficient calories for literally an entire day), what many people overlook is the fact that variety is partly what drives overconsumption.

When you sit down with the menu, it’s easy for healthful-eating intentions to evaporate. It’s fun to pick on different appetizers ordered for the table, and to try both an entree and a few sides. However, this variety of choice makes for overeating. Not only are the dishes higher in sodium, fat, and calories (yes, even at upscale dining rooms or hipster “health” eateries), but the psychology of choosing makes it difficult to moderate caloric intake.

While one good solution is simply to eat at home more and to eat out less, this is not a permanent realistic fix. A real-life strategy is the simple act of looking up a restaurant’s menu beforehand and choosing your order before you are in the environment. I also recommend against ordering in, as we often make weirder and more calorically-dense choices when confronted with the variety of the to-go menu.

Having a Signature Drink

Coffee, that is. Highly-processed, designer coffee creations can pack an incredible caloric wallop – even ones that sound healthy, like a “chai latte,” which sounds like a virtuous tea but is really a syrupy, decadent beverage.

One strategy to reduce choice (especially when you’re standing in front of the barista and they’re asking if you’d like to add a pastry to your order) is to have a signature drink and to order nothing else.

When it comes to deciding on a signature coffee drink, it’s helpful to remember that all sugar is sugar. Honey is sugar. Agave is sugar. Cane sugar is sugar. Syrup is sugar. Raw brown sugar is sugar. Don’t be fooled by health halos into thinking that a more urbane-sounding sweetener is anything better than pouring a scoop of white sugar into your drink. Also, keep in mind that many non-dairy creamers (like soy, almond, and coconut milks) are often sweetened with sugar, especially in commercial coffeeshops. So be smart about your choice!

My signature drink is a skim latte, plain. When I am standing in front of the barista, I don’t have to hem and haw over a caramel macchiato versus a black coffee. My standard order rolls off my tongue without even thinking about it.

This leads to…

A Set of Personal Rules 

They are totally up to you, but creating and using a self-imposed set of “rules” can help you wade through situations in a way that reduces choice fatigue. For example, when my husband and I eat out, one of our family rules is that we always split one thing. We also tend to go to “old favorite” restaurants more often than we try new ones, which also favors habituation.

When some of my clients travel for work (not for pleasure), I often recommend that they “go Paleo” just for the trip, which automatically cuts their choices down to mostly protein and vegetables.

Some people decide that they are permanently sugar-free. Some people decide that they are permanently dairy-free. The key is that this decision is up to you, and that none of these “diets” are magic bullets – they simply eliminate a surplus of choices, which automatically creates better, faster, and smarter decision-making.

Finding Joy in Simplicity

Do ideas of repetition, habituation, and choice reduction sound dull and unappetizing?

You would be surprised.

I want to circle back around to Daniel Kahneman and Barry Schwartz. What I did not mention earlier is that in both of their seminal works, Thinking, Fast and Slow and The Paradox of Choice, respectively, these psychologists examine how decision-making influences happiness.

Counterintuitively, people with less choice (up to a point) actually do live more satisfied lives with a higher sense of well-being. Too much choice is paralyzing, because we live in fear that we could have made a better decision. Just enough choice, on the other hand, is empowering, and decision-making results in contentment and satisfaction.

This is true whether you are making choices between fruit jellies, paint colors, or shoes, or even handling more complex life decisions like getting married or having children. More is not always better, and sometimes less choice leads to happier living.

In fact, putting your habits on autopilot is the opposite of mindless living, because it puts you in touch with the motives and aspirations of your higher self. It is the most mindful kind of living, when your habits reflect your deepest values day after day. You can be the person you want to be, every day.

In practical terms, knowing what meal you are going to order allows you focus more on your dining companions. Pre-planning your breakfast allows you to prioritize time with your children before they leave for school. Packing your lunch allows you to focus more of your conscious effort on work and performance.

Having your most important health and wellness behaviors on effortless “repeat” allows you to live a life that is in alignment with the priorities and goals of your best self.

I know this was a long post today, so thanks for sticking with me!

Let’s reflect on last week!

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” Each week, I e-mail strategies to my mailing list on Monday. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!

Last week, we talked about the deep motivations for change. What were your answers to these questions?

  • Which behaviors consistently create “health regret” for you, but you feel that these behaviors are difficult to change?
  • Why do these behaviors concern you? What are the long-term consequences of these behaviors?
  • What situations and contexts trigger these behaviors for you? Please note that this does not have to be a negative situation – it may be a benign context that provides a trigger for behaviors that you don’t like.

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Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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