Making good choices can feel weirdly difficult

Remember that time you heard a great piece of advice? Maybe a favorite blog picked up on a fresh, new medical or psychological study. Perhaps it was words of ancient wisdom that caught your attention. Either way, you resolved right then and there to put the advice into practice. You resolved to reform your ways and turn over a new leaf.

Remember how you completely failed to keep that commitment?

Yeah, we’ve all been there. A friend e-mails a neat article on time management; researchers declare that sitting all day is worse for you than chain-smoking while pounding vodka-Red-Bulls; an inspiring NPR story extols the virtues of mindfulness meditation; a pastor delivers a killer sermon or homily; a new job or school year brings the opportunity to stay organized and on top of our game. Whatever prompts it, these crystal-clear moments of resolve —  this is a great change that I am totally going to implement, starting now — are not infrequent. Much rarer than the moments we make these game-changing resolutions are the occasions when we actually uphold them.

Our external lifestyles make change tough

Part of the reason for our lapses is understandable: the same patterns and structures and lifestyle features that got us into the ruts we sought to escape persist even after we make up our minds to be different. Whatever new versions of ourselves we’re envisioning on the other side of these personal inflection points, everything about our daily lives is still built up around not being that kind of person hitherto. Our thinking may suddenly change, in short, but that doesn’t mean anything else has.

Merely desiring to carve out time to meditate, for example, doesn’t erase the other habits that have kept you from meditation to date. That penchant for late-night TV, that tempestuous love affair with the “snooze” button, that reflexive refreshing of your Twitter timeline that seems to fill every spare moment — these patterns of action take more than a thirty-second epiphany to unravel.

Some psychologists and lifestyle gurus frequently advise us to make our changes as small and incremental as possible. But thanks to this phenomenon, I think their arguments are frequently overstated. Often, the changes we seek can’t be made by chipping away at one isolated behavior or habit. We have to tackle a whole network of related behaviors at once. If we really want to lift weights three times a week and make it a productive experience, that requires changing bedtimes and eating habits to match the new routine.

In some circumstances, making one tiny tweak at a time is overrated.

But sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies

It isn’t always external features of our lives that box us into suboptimal behavior. Sometimes the inertia doesn’t seem to come from outside us. Sometimes it comes from within.

Even when we have successfully set aside an hour, even when our running shoes fit and our favorite shorts are clean and dry, even when the weather is cooperating, there is this profoundly shortsighted part of ourselves that is totally invested in the present comforts of our couch. Sometimes our responsible, forward-looking self overrules this internal slacker; other times, the carefree impulse wins the day. In their provocative book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write of “fierce battles between the Planner and the Doer”:

Since people are at least partly aware of their weaknesses, they take steps to engage outside help.
We make lists to help us remember what to buy at the grocery store. We buy an alarm clock to help us get up in the morning. We ask friends to stop us from having dessert or to fortify our efforts to quit smoking. In these case, our Planners are taking steps to control the actions of our Doers, often by trying to change the incentives Doers face (Nudge, p. 44).

This is a fascinating way to frame the problem. Thaler and Sunstein, scholars who share a passion for behavioral economics and a burgeoning field called “choice architecture,” devote their book to exploring practical and external solutions. They call for more intentional design of the world around us, from supermarket shelves to government forms. They advocate for an approach they call “libertarian paternalism”: preserve individuals’ freedom to make bad or unhealthy choices, but design the environment wherever possible such that the virtuous road is the path of least resistance.

It’s not surprising that Sunstein, a famous friend of President Obama and a brilliant center-left commentator, would look to external techniques and policy solutions — things that big institutions, be they corporate or government, can do to make it easier for us to subjugate counterproductive short-term impulses to our long-term best interests. But we need not wait around for powerful people to take Sunstein’s advice. We have it within our own power to hold ourselves accountable.

How? What’s the secret? That question will have to wait for next week.