When you decide to start a new project or plan, does any of this sound familiar? You make a nice, long to-do list with an ambitious number of tasks and strategies. Then one of two things tends to happen. Sometimes you get off to a great start, but after a few days life starts to get crazy and things fizzle out a bit. Other times it’s difficult to even get started – life feels overwhelming and you just can’t seem to get any traction.
It turns out there are a couple reasons for this, and it boils down to two main issues: self-control exhaustion and decision paralysis. The fantastic book Switch by Chip & Dan Heath encourages simplifying choices to allow for change to happen. When obstacles interfere with your desire to change, we default to the familiar path and wonder why it’s so difficult to find a new one.
A group of college students were told they were participating in a study about “food perception”. Researchers really wanted to test how exercising self control affects the brain. Students were led to a room with plates of warm cookies (they smelled amazing) and radishes. Half the group was asked to eat radishes but no cookies, while the other half was asked to eat 2-3 cookies but no radishes. They were left alone in the room while they ate, and all of the radish-eaters exercised willpower and refused to give in to the cookie temptation.
Next, researchers asked them to participate in a supposedly unrelated study — finding out if high school or college students were better at solving problems. They presented a series of puzzles to solve. The secret was that the puzzles were unsolvable. The “untempted” students who were able to eat the cookies spent 19 minutes on the puzzles (34 total attempts) before giving up. The radish-eaters spent only 8 minutes (19 attempts) before throwing in the towel.
Psychologists have discovered that we can actually run out of self-control. And it’s not just the self-control we use to resist cookies, it’s any time you have to be more careful or deliberate with your words and actions. Think of assembling a piece of furniture, having a difficult conversation, or learning something new — all times where our behavior tends to be more controlled. Contrast that with the “auto-pilot” feeling of driving a very familiar route or making the same breakfast you’ve eaten for 10 years.
Physician Donald Redelmeier and psychologist Eldar Shafir collaborated to study how doctors make decisions. They presented the case of an elderly patient with chronic hip pain who had not responded to pain medication. Doctors were given the choice of invasive surgery or one medication the patient hadn’t yet tried. 47% chose the medication to spare the patient from surgery. Here’s where it gets interesting – doctors were presented with the same case, but 3 options (surgery, or two untried medications). In this scenario, only 28% chose to try one of the medications.
What happened? Why did more doctors recommend surgery when given additional options? Experts call it decision paralysis. When we’re presented with more choices, we can become unable to choose. In this case, we tend to revert to the default plan. For these doctors, the default plan tended to be surgery.
The same scenario replays itself again and again:
– Shoppers presented with 6 different jams were 10 times more likely to purchase than those who were given 24 jam options.
– For every ten 401(k) investment options offered to employees, participation is reduced by 2%
– In speed dating, participants who met 8 singles were more likely to “match” than those who met 20 singles.
This decision paralysis is compounded by the exhaustion caused by repeated attempts to exercise self-control. When we are stressed and exhausted, we return to the status quo. The Heath brothers concluded that what looks like laziness is often exhaustion, and what looks like resistance (to change) is often lack of clear direction.
So how do we overcome this two-headed monster to affect real change in our lives? In the short term, we can simplify our choices to eliminate decision paralysis. And in the long term, we can work to develop those choices into habits. When choices become habits, they become “auto-pilot” actions and require less self control.
1. Simplify your choices
Instead of making a long list of tasks and changes for your new plan or project, focus on one or two key actions. Don’t aim for perfection, aim for “better”. Give yourself clear direction, or find someone who can help with this.
Eliminate decision paralysis and set yourself up for success by minimizing your choices and setting a clear path forward.
2. Establish habits
Take those one or two key actions and set yourself up for success by making them “no-brainers”. If you’re trying to remember to take your fish oil every day, set it right next to your coffee maker so you don’t even have to think about it. Find ways to turn decisions that require self-control into auto-pilot actions that don’t tax your willpower and exhaust your resolve.
Want some free, no-strings-attached help establishing healthy habits? We have ongoing monthly habit challenges to help prompt you to make small changes that can make a huge difference. Join our free social group to learn more!
Gina Patterson is the co-founder of BITE Nutrition. Nutrition and exercise coaching is the perfect mix for Gina, combining her love of all things scientific and technical with her passion for seeing people live balanced, abundant, satisfying lives. These days you can usually find her lifting up heavy things and putting them down again, and she is active in several local adult volleyball leagues. She enjoys downhill and cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and hiking around her home in beautiful Central Oregon.