How to Encode Better Choices

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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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20 thoughts on “How to Encode Better Choices”

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  1. 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 had recently had an ant infestation in my house that I was only able to control with poison bait, and I had this thought that if some alien being wanted to kill all the humans and take over the earth, all they would have to do is put out free junk food in the break room and poison it. Ever since then, every time there is junk in the break room, I summon that mental image and tell myself “It’s poison!!” Works every time. 🙂

    1. 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.

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

      2. 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.

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

    3. 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.

    4. 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?

  2. 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 this feels like an indulgence to me. But at the end of the day, it’s not that big of a deal. I like the H.A.L.T. acronym, and would have to say procrastination is a big one for me. Also, as a former vegetarian/vegan, I have to add that a trip to the butcher probably would be overwhelming in the beginning. One of your best bets would be to talk to other former vegetarians and see how they made the switch. It was a long time before I could actually go to a real butcher. I took baby steps with ground beef, broth and scrambled eggs. Now I have no problem digging into a grass fed steak or preparing pastured chicken livers.

  3. 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! 🙂

  4. 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 organs available.

    You can do this in your daily life. Having trouble with portion control? Then use a smaller plate or bowl. Need to move around more? Then make something you do everyday a little bit harder to accomplish. It could be as simple as going around the block once before picking up the morning paper. Or tell the deliver person to deliver at a neighbors house down the street so you have to walk for it.

    Since we live most of our lives on autopilot, change the settings in the program to your advantage.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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 the MDA community would be very welcome ?

        1. 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 you’re SAVING SOME for the chickens, because happy chickens lay more eggs. 🙂
          My daughter is a bit of a picky eater, and I would always get so annoyed to see good food going down the garbage disposal or into the compost pile, but ever since we got chickens, I’m actually kind of happy when she doesn’t eat it all, because it means less food I have to buy for them!

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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 in cheese (and crackers), I was the only one who brought in real food…and it all disappeared!

  8. 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.