Today’s world is one of snowballing choice. We can choose from hundreds of restaurants each with tens of menu items, delivered to our doorstep. We can select from many lifetime’s worth of TV shows and movies and watch them on our laptops, our phones, and our smart TVs. Even a quick trip to the corner convenience store to buy toothpaste requires you to choose among a shelf of brands. Then to choose your payment method. Credit or cash? Apple pay? Do you have a loyalty card? Do you want to open one now? How about a store credit card?
Don’t even get me started on the choice porn that is Starbucks.
We know that choice is generally a good thing. It means freedom and opportunity and hope. The more education we receive, the more developed our society, the more relationships we have, the more choice we’re given.
But we also know each decision comes with a cost, a kind of psychic debit card. That cost has many names: Information overload. Decision paralysis. The paradox of choice. Willpower depletion.
So how do we balance this ballooning universe of choices with a decision making process that is both efficient yet effective, disciplined yet open minded?
After we make a decision, how do we stay committed through the inevitable waves of doubt and second-guessing as we’re presented with yet more related decisions, and as we see the outcomes of people who made different decisions?
Habits are the answer.
Habits are one of our oldest and most reliable technologies. Human brains are literally wired to act out of habit.
Let habits decide for you.
If your habit is to wake up before 7am every day, then your body won’t let you stay out late, night after night.
If you’ve been a vegetarian for years, you actively avoid fast food restaurants. The burgers aren’t appealing.
If your habit is to spend time with your kids when they return from school, then those afternoon hours become sacred to you. You don’t think about working during them.
Habit reduces choice. In fact that may be its primary job.
When your habit is to eat a piece of fruit and a yogurt each morning, you don’t spend time and willpower to think about breakfast. You know what you’ll eat when you wake up, and you eat it, and you don’t second guess your meal when it’s done.
When you wear the same type of outfit every day, say a black turtleneck and slim blue jeans, you don’t spend willpower points and arouse anxiety when choosing your clothes. Maybe the clothes have been laid out the night before. You go straight to the pants and shirts you’ll wear and you put them on without hesitation.
When you head to spin class every Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm, you know what you’ll be doing at that hour. Your schedule clears itself, and you don’t hem and haw as the hour approaches. Your mind expects it. Your body craves it.
Of course you still need to choose and then forge the right habits. That is hard or very hard, depending on the particular habit. It requires patience and persistence and pain. Every step forward can start to feel smaller and smaller until you hardly feel like you’re moving at all. But you are. You’re just making progress on a different level, a less conscious one, but a more permanent one.
After enough repetition, one day you will perform your habit – whether it’s reading a literary novel at night, or kissing your wife before she heads to work, or going for a long walk after dinner – without thinking about it. You’ll finish the task and only then will you realize what you were doing. And it will feel great.
That daily walk after dinner, for example, removes ten decisions you’d otherwise need to make. Without it, you’ll find yourself asking: What do I do after dinner? Watch TV on the couch? Read a book? Or maybe I should exercise. But what type of exercise? Go to the gym? Head to krav maga class? I’m tired though. It’s been a long day. Should I do it anyway? Ugh.
Choice is like the stuffing inside a burrito. It’s the filling. It’s the flavor. Without it a burrito would be tasteless.
Habit, meanwhile, is the tortilla wrap that keeps the whole thing together. Habit gives us shape and structure. The stronger and sturdier the wrap, the more meat and rice and beans you can add into the burrito, and the easier it is to eat.
So build good habits now. Construct them slowly and steadily over months and years. Let them grow into reliable pillars, to stand you up and hold you firm. Let them make good choices for you.
Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.