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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 13, 2016

How to Encode Better Choices

By Mark Sisson
20 Comments

Young pensive businesswoman and ideas coming out of her headQuick check-in: what’s the hardest habit you’ve had to break in going Primal? Something you’re currently looking to change? What have been the challenges?

While I don’t consider Primal living particularly difficult, I think any behavioral shift can be tricky. It’s human nature to stick with what’s known. There’s a certain comfort in routine, however ill-advised our customary patterns are. And, let’s face it, some habits stick more than others. If only we were a more logical species, we might imagine, one able to simply encode the choices we know are good for us… Thankfully, our psychological blueprints are more complex than our gadgets, but that doesn’t mean we can’t optimize our settings and establish some tactical redirects.

I’ll admit I have my own “whenever I” scenarios – those situations for which I have established go-to strategies that help me stick with a healthy choice I’ve made for myself. At this point, the substitution has become pretty automatic for me: if this impulse, then that response. The automation makes life easier. It spares me the energy and hand-wringing that would otherwise go into fending off the original inclination or wondering in the moment what I should do to get my mind off of it.

The Anatomy of Human Decision-Making

Not surprisingly, the issue of “automation” is pretty key when experts talk about behavior change and decision making. Whenever we need to make a decision, it seems, we put together a cognitive representation that allows us to simplify the problem/choice at hand. Humans participate in two types of thinking when they mentally assemble that simplified model and make the final decision from there.

The more arduous and taxing of the two is deliberation, that consciously reasoning mode of problem solving we’d apply to figuring out our taxes or warding off tempting impulses. As most of us can attest to, our capacity for this kind of thinking is inherently limited.

The other mode of thinking that comes into play is automatic thinking, which we use much more often that we assume. It’s the stuff of analyzing facial expressions in a fraction of a second, of understanding language or other familiar symbols, of knowing which way to turn to drive home. Unlike deliberative thinking, we have considerable capacity for automatic thinking.

Although there’s interaction between the two modes, automatic thinking actually makes up the majority of our cognitive work – and even our cognitive selves.

Where It Fails

In the midst (or at the end) of a long day, we’re not terribly good at thinking through all of the considerations and arriving by reason at the most beneficial decision. In-the-moment reasoning, as handy as it is, can rarely get us where we want to go long-term. For better or worse, that’s how human behavior manifests in the real world.

Thus, as much as we can operate on automatic, the better off we are—provided our routines, assumptions and self-talk (which we can change using reason) encourage positive selections. So, what can we do to help ourselves in that regard?

We have three main options really for shifting our decision-making processes to maximize our likelihood of making good choices.

1. We can simplify our lives and choice environments.
2. We can hone the ways we judge (or redirect) options.
3. We can cultivate the associations with these choices.

The question for these proposals becomes—how?

Simplifying As Much As Possible (a.k.a. Box yourself into good choices.)

I’ve written before about selection fatigue. The more choices we have in making a decision, the more mental resources we use. It’s why a variety of options don’t always make us happier but just add more static to the day. Simplifying our choices means simplifying our choice environments—cutting out as much of that extraneous static as possible.

Likewise, the more decisions we make in a day, the more mental resources we use. The more we do in a day (particularly if we attempt to multi-task), the more run down we’ll be.

The key is to conserve mental energy by establishing rules, times, and parameters. Not everything needs to be nailed down, but if every day of the week has too many moving parts, you’re probably never going to feel in possession of your time or life.

Let’s say you’re trying to encode better choices around sleep because you’re a workaholic and can’t seem to turn off the impulse to do more—to take care of more. The work—whether job, home or family—just never feels done.

Simplifying your choice environment in this case can mean setting hard and fast parameters around your evening. Set an alarm for bedtime. But also set another for the end of all work time—maybe an hour to an hour and a half before bed. After that point, your computer and T.V. are done for the night as is your smart phone. You won’t so much as pick up a shirt off the floor or put a dish in the dishwasher. If you have to further simplify (avoid distraction) by sequestering yourself in the bedroom for that last hour to keep yourself from working or doing chores, do it. (After a couple nights of going crazy, you’ll begin to get more efficient and/or resourceful during your “active” evening hours.)

Now let’s say you’re trying to eat better. Simplifying your choice environment might mean shopping at smaller stores/markets or minimizing actual shopping trips by ordering from direct-to-consumer farms or from online stores like Thrive (you can save a “favorites” list). It can mean packing your lunch and bringing more or less the same thing every day. It can mean scheduling time each week to make a few large meals you eat as leftovers for lunches/dinners.

In short, it’s deciding ahead of time to reduce the number of choices you perceive yourself as having—and making it easier to choose what is already in front of you.

Changing the Way We Judge Our Options (a.k.a. checking in with our values)

We can simplify our way out of a lot of choices each day, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be faced with temptation. When we do need to make a decision, we’re remarkably good at homing in on seemingly random elements (e.g. excuses) or present bias (e.g. now matters more than later). Because we can’t possibly consider each and every facet and angle, we automatically narrow our considerations to a few pieces that feel “salient” in the moment. Unfortunately, these often have nothing to do with our values.

Instead of giving into the limited thinking of the moment, why not check in with your values. I’m not suggested depending on your reasoning process here. In the thick of the moment, our minds aren’t always to be trusted.

I’m reminded of the H.A.L.T. acronym (hungry, angry, lonely, tired). When we’re any of these, it’s time to stop (halt) and check-in. I’d suggest checking in with feelings first. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? I’d add bored, anxious or procrastinating to that list as well—all feelings that can spur poor choices in my experience. That covered, now check in with values. For this, I believe in the power of visual aids.

Get out a sheet of paper (not in one of those moments but in preparation for them), and draw a simple grid. Across the top write your values – the main elements that make up your sense of personal health integrity, your concept of vitality, etc. On the left hand side from top to bottom, write your biggest excuses or stumbling blocks. Then use the grid to fill in the individual scenario boxes to come up with intentions for how to live your health integrity. Put this on your fridge. Keep it at work. Put it in your car. Consult it. Accept it as your automatic guide.

Still, I know there are scenarios that require or can be met with an even simpler action. This is your contingency plan. If this, then that. Think of your five biggest challenges right now, and create a contingency plan for each. The contingency will be your automatic response for that scenario – a single, simple substitution (no moralizing here) that will get you to the other side of an impulse without too much damage.

Cultivating Associations (a.k.a manipulating how you really feel about it)

Finally, we need to accept that our deep down impressions or associations about certain behaviors/activities/foods/etc. influence our willingness to make certain choices. If we grew up hating exercise, we need to accept that we’ll need to unwind that association over time and replace it with better connections. We’re rewiring ourselves at this point. This is a longer term process, but we can make our efforts count.

We need to identify what assumptions or associations might be unconsciously and automatically turning us off from practicing certain behaviors even if reason tells us we should. Get them out of your system to a degree by journaling, talking it through with someone. Whatever your gripe or “story” about yourself is, voice it so you can find a way to move on. Do your best to consciously put it to bed.

Then invest time and effort in creating new and genuine enjoyment of what you’ve been subconsciously resisting. If you want to eat more vegetables (but grew up eating 3 kinds of canned mush), ask around for some great vegetarian restaurants to get ideas for vegetables dishes you’d never think of. If you’re a vegan in recovery looking to expand your meat variety, spend some time at a quality butcher getting schooled in the finer points of preparing all manner of cuts.

If you’re looking to get beyond a lifelong aversion to fitness, let yourself have some fun experimenting by taking field trips to different kinds of classes, gyms centers, leagues and clubs. Rent bikes, skiis, boats and other equipment that might interest you. Document your adventures with photos and other visuals – of you actually enjoying the habits you’re trying to take on. With every step, you’re creating new associations and rewiring yourself toward choices that serve you better.

Thanks for reading today, everybody. Now for your thoughts. How have you encoded new behaviors using the techniques above or others? Have a great week.

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20 Comments on "How to Encode Better Choices"

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Rambler
Rambler
8 months 4 days ago
One of my biggest downfalls was the junk food people invariably bring into the break room at work to share. Cupcakes, cookies, candy, doughnuts, whatever it was, just sitting there, free for the taking, was nearly impossible for me to turn down. I might be able to avoid it on the first couple of passes, but eventually I would succumb, even though I knew that an hour later I would feel awful and wish I could “un-eat” whatever it was. One day, watching a plateful of bakery-quality homemade cupcakes being snatched up by coworkers, the solution finally hit me. I… Read more »
Gentleman Jak
8 months 4 days ago

One little mental trick I use in those types of situations is I tell myself those foods aren’t for me, like it’s someone’s lunch that they stepped away from for a minute. For whatever reason, it works for me. I’ve passed by many confectionary treats with this trick.

Jarrod
8 months 4 days ago

Thanks! Those are both great tips! I’ll try them. In a way, that processed flour and sugar IS poison.

Susan Brudos
8 months 4 days ago

I have done this, too–I think of it like I think of the cat’s food, it’s just not mine. Not my food.

Carol
Carol
8 months 3 days ago

I am a sugar addict. When I witnessed my co-workers unable to ignore sweet snacks (that had been on the counter for hours) I got my stubborn up and focused on the people in the room. That was after many years of caving in. OA helped with awareness.

Georgina
Georgina
8 months 4 days ago

Me like. When the workday wears o it just does not get any easier. Yes they are in reality not food and poison!

Shary
Shary
8 months 4 days ago

I’ve never had a problem passing up commercial sweets that are full of artificial ingredients and chemicals, and usually look a lot better than they taste. The pitfall for me was always the homemade desserts that are made with real, high-quality ingredients. I don’t consider such foods “poison.” They aren’t, although heavy lifelong indulgence can sometimes produce similar results. For me, they are simply something that should be eaten sparingly and only on infrequent occasions, if at all.

Andrew H
Andrew H
8 months 3 days ago

I used to struggle hard with this. Every cookie platter or cake may as well have been a free open buffet. But eventually I came to a realization: were these foods really free if consuming them was harming my health?

Elizabeth Resnick
8 months 4 days ago
Great post! I’d love to hear more examples from readers. It’s definitely great to prepare ahead and think of how you will handle some of the more challenging situations you might find yourself in. Certain settings, or even groups of people, may trigger choices that are not in your best interest. I’m not usually tempted by junk people pass around…it honestly doesn’t appeal to me. And if I do go a little overboard, it’s on something pretty high quality. I have been known to eat quite a bit of 90% cacao chocolate when I’m feeling a little down. Probably because… Read more »
Suji
8 months 4 days ago

Cultivating Associations is something that truly fascinates me. Unwiring the stories we tell ourselves has been crucial in my life to begin cultivating new associations. Particularly when I combated adrenal fatigue. Thanks Mark for another great post! 🙂

Clay
Clay
8 months 4 days ago
I’d add one more – set the best choices as your default option. This is done in usability all the time. A door that swings in has a flat plate that you push. One that swings out, had a handle to grip and pull. This is called affordance – where the inherent properties of the object tell you how to use it. Another technique is creating automatic opt-ins for the desired outcome. Some state automatically make you an organ donor when you get your driver’s license. To not be one requires a deliberate opt out choice. Results? A lot more… Read more »
Rebecca Ratliff
Rebecca Ratliff
8 months 4 days ago

I seriously just tell myself grains (and beans, and sugar) are for the peasants. I eat like a queen. When I think of food in this very snobby way, it totally helps me avoid all the junk I don’t want to be eating.

wildgrok
wildgrok
8 months 4 days ago

+1

Jack Lea Mason
8 months 3 days ago

I less snobby way is to think of beans and grains, rice, pasta, etc. As famine foods. Things one would only eat if nothing fresh or nutrient dense were available.

Tess
Tess
8 months 3 days ago
Wow I really resonate with this idea of calling things “famine foods” I’m definitely doing that from now on.. one of my behaviours/ mindsets that I am trying to change is to stop eating when I’ve had enough, it’s a challenge for me since I grew up in a family that instilled in me that ‘I have to eat everything on my plate’ and that not doing so means I’m wasteful/ ungrateful…I try to be mindful when I’m eating “am I eating what’s on my plate because I’m hungry or because I feel I have to”, any other strategies from… Read more »
Rambler
Rambler
8 months 2 days ago
Put less on your plate! Then you can eat it all, and if you still want more, go back for more. If you have the means to do so, I also highly recommend keeping chickens in your backyard. Gives you a good source of fresh eggs, the quality of which is all up to you. Then how this helps you is that if you’re full and there’s still food on your plate, you go feed it to the chickens. Because they are like little garbage disposals that will eat anything, and for them, it’s a treat. You can even say… Read more »
Tim
Tim
8 months 2 days ago

The optimal way for me to avoid eating the toxic junk is not to bring it into the house in the first place. If all you have in your refrigerator or pantry cupboard are healthy options–then there is no option at all! This really works better than any Jedi mind trick about famine foods or cat food, in my opinion. If you don’t have the junk around, you won’t eat it.

Kendra Grant
Kendra Grant
8 months 1 day ago

Your idea definitely works for me when I’m home. The problem is when you’re out and you’re not controlling the foods available such as the example mentioned where your workers bring in food. We used to have treat day every Friday in a place I once worked. I’d make sure I had my own “treat” such as greek yogurt and then avoided the staff room that day.

Will Wilkin
8 months 8 hours ago
Once a month there is “hospitality night” at our weekly community choir rehearsal, when everybody brings in food to share during our 15-min break. Invariably they all bring in cookies and brownies and pies, and I am the only one who brings in a big platter of broccoli and cauliflower and carrots, with organic sour cream from grass-fed cows and some kind of imported cheese. Many people thank me for bringing in “real food” and its the only thing I eat during break. Happened again last night at the reception after our concert, except for 1 other person who brought… Read more »
Amy
Amy
7 months 27 days ago

On avoiding non- primal tempting treats: I ask myself, is this a federal holiday? If so, I indulge. If not, I tell myself to keep the holiday eating for the holidays. Doesn’t work every time, but often enough to keep using it.

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