Streamlining your decision-making can pay off in a major way
We all have crazy times in life: Work deadlines, family issues, or other upheavals can throw even the most steady person off course. But then there are times when we just feel all over the place for no discernible reason.
That was me lately. Despite everything being pretty stable, I'd been feeling stressed, scatterbrained, and generally drained—and I couldn't put my finger on why. I was always running late, I'd often let "hanger" get the best of me, and I was skipping workouts in lieu of sleeping in or staying late at the office.
When I stopped to think about it, I realized I spent a good chunk of my time making tons of dozens of tiny, daily decisions: what time to work out; what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; when to go to the grocery store; what to wear to work; when to run errands; when to set aside time to spend with friends. It was exhausting and time-consuming.
Around that time, I picked up happiness guru Gretchen Rubin's latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. As soon as I started reading, a lightbulb went off: "The real key to habits is decision-making—or, more accurately, the lack of decision-making," Rubin writes.
Making decisions is difficult and depleting, she explains, and research suggests that habitual behavior actually helps people feel more in control and less anxious. "People sometimes tell me, 'I want to go through my day making healthy choices,'" she writes. Her response: No, you don't. "You want to choose once, then stop choosing. With habits, we avoid the drain on our energy that decision-making costs."
Finally, something clicked: Maybe I didn't need to make a million choices each day to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Instead, I should just make habits, and stick to them.
Becoming a Creature of Habit
It sounded simple, but I was worried. I felt like I had zero willpower compared to other people who can get up, go to the gym, make a healthy breakfast, and start their workday before I'm barely out of bed. (Check out The One Thing These Crazy Successful People Do Every Day.)
But Rubin let me in on a little secret: "Those people aren't using willpower—they're using habits," she explained over the phone. Habits, though they sound may rigid and boring, are actually freeing and energizing, since they eliminate the need for self-control. Essentially, the more you can put on autopilot, the easier life becomes, she says. "When we change our habits, we change our lives."
At first, I was highly optimistic about which habits I'd pick up: I'd wake up at 7 a.m. every morning, meditate for 10 minutes, go to the gym before work, be more productive, and eat super healthy at every single meal, avoiding sweets and unnecessary snacks.
Rubin told me to take it down a notch. As she writes in her book: "It's helpful to begin with habits that most directly strengthen self-control; these habits serve as the 'Foundation' for forming other good habits." In other words, first things first—sleep, exercise, eating right, and uncluttering should be your priorities.
She suggested I work on my sleep habit before trying to nail a meditation habit, for example, since getting more sleep would strengthen my ability to tackle a 10-minute meditation in the morning.
To achieve my goal of going to sleep at 10:30 p.m. (actually sleep, not scroll through Instagram in bed), Rubin suggested I start getting ready for bed at 9:45 p.m. At 10 p.m., I'd get in bed to read, and then I'd turn the lights out at 10:30 p.m. To help me stay on track, she suggested setting an alarm on my phone at each time increment to serve as a reminder.
My new routine would also make getting up at 7 a.m. doable after a solid 8.5 hours of sleep. In turn, I'd have plenty of time to get fit in a workout before I had to leave for work.
Next up: my eating habits. While I wasn't eating too poorly, I'd never planned out healthy meals in advance, which led to lots of impulsive decisions out of convenience or sheer hunger. Instead of my usual all-over-the-place meals, I committed to eating the following foods:
Breakfast: Greek yogurt, sliced almonds, and fruit (at 9:30 a.m., when I got to work)
Lunch: aCobb salad or leftovers (at 1:00 p.m.)
Snack: ahealthy snack bar or fruit and nut butter (at 4:00 p.m.)
Dinner: protein (chicken or salmon), veggies, and a complex carb (at 8:00 p.m.)
I wasn't super strict with exact ingredients, and gave myself some leeway with specific meals—for good reason. Rubin notes that while some people really like consistency and can eat the same thing over and over again, others crave variety and choices. Since I definitely fall into the latter category, she suggested I pick two meals to alternate (e.g., a Cobb salad or leftovers), which would allow me to have a choice, but without the sense of wild possibility I'd had in the past.
1. Going to sleep early rocks. I'll be honest: I immediately took to the new bedtime routine. Not only do I know sleep is the number one most important thing for your body, but I also personally love to sleep. And reading more is one of those things that's always on my New Year's resolutions list, so scheduling time for it—without the distraction of a screen—was also a treat.
2. It's not that hard to get to the gym in the morning. Plus, I felt more ready to crush a workout after taking my time to get ready and have a cup of coffee while doing so—something I never used to do before a 7:30 a.m. workout.
One night, I stayed up late working late on a project for work. I ignored the alarms on my phone and didn't get in bed until 11 p.m. And guess what? I felt groggy the next morning, and when my alarm went off, I promptly snoozed it 'til 8 a.m. I figured I'd been faithfully getting up early all week, so I deserved to sleep in.
That reaction was a perfect example of what Rubin calls the "Moral Licensing Loophole:" Because we've been "good," we're allowed to do something "bad." But if we always thought that way, well, we've never actually be consistent in our "good" habits.
Still, life happens. Work happens. I didn't expect to be perfect this first week, and since there are good reasons to skip a workout (sometimes), maybe my solution is to schedule one day off per week.
3. Eating the same meals is weirdly liberating. This helped eliminate a lot of the guesswork from my days. Ironically, it was freeing to know exactly what I was going to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I cooked on Monday night and Tuesday night, had leftovers for lunch Tuesday and Thursday, and ordered a salad for lunch or went out to dinner on the other days. I did cave a couple times when it came to the office snacks, grabbing a handful of chips after lunch and a few chocolate candies here and there. (It's the perfect example of finding one of the loopholes that Rubin warns against—telling myself I "deserved it" after a big presentation. To be honest, I didn't feel good after breaking my streak of no snacks.)
4. Automating the little things in life is incredibly helpful—and underrated. The most valuable thing I realized during this experiment was how often I was waffling and deliberating over minor decisions. Throughout the week, I tried to find small ways to remove decision-making from my life. It was a cold week in New York City, and instead of deciding which scarf, hat, and gloves would look best that day, I wore the exact same ones every day, no matter what. I wore the same pair of boots, switched off between a favorite pair of black pants and dark jeans for the entire week, and wore a different sweater with them. I even wore the same jewelry, and did my makeup and hair basically the same way. After just a few days, I was shocked by how much time and thought I saved by making these simple choices habitual.
The Bottom Line
By the time the weekend rolled around, I felt far more clear-headed and calmer. My daily decisions were starting to take care of themselves, and I had some extra time at night to enjoy myself and take care of other minor tasks that had been building up. And I kept my bedtime and early wake-up calls the same on Saturday and Sunday, which also didn't feel that tough.
As Rubin writes, the same habit strategies don't work for everyone. You have to start with self-knowledge, then you can figure out what works for you. My own habits are still a work in progress, and finding ways to keep myself accountable is my biggest challenge. But if one week taught me anything, it's the amazing effects that habits can have on helping you feel calmer, less stressed, and more in control of your life. (Related: How Cleaning and Organizing Can Improve Your Physical and Mental Health)