I'm on a Southwest Airlines flight right now, heading from DC to San Francisco. The way food works on Southwest is they hold out a big basket full of snacks, and you take whatever you want for free. None of the snacks are healthy; it's crackers and cookies and chips.
I have to admit, I was really tempted to take a pack of Oreos. The justifications are easy to come up with: I've already paid for those Oreos, I'm coming off a long trip where I was off my diet, one small packet of Oreos doesn't really matter.
No Oreos for me, though. The huge basket was dropped on the middle seat next to me, I saw all the glistening blue packs of Oreos, and I avoided taking them. I don't always make the disciplined decision, but I make it a lot, and I'm getting better at it all the time. The trick, I've found, is to consider the aggregate long term in every decision.
Oreos are a short term play. For a period of thirty seconds or so, I will have the pleasurable biological response of eating something fabricated specifically to elicit that response. It's not about hunger or nutrition, it's about very short term pleasure. That by itself isn't so bad-- taking momentary pleasure in the joys of every day life is an excellent practice.
The long term effect of eating one pack of Oreos isn't so bad, either. Will it really decrease my lifespan? Will it increase my waistline by even a fraction of a millimeter? I don't know, but I doubt it on both counts.
The thing about decisions is that few are made in total isolation. The decision to eat this single pack of Oreos is representative of a decision I have to make all the time: do I eat junk food for pleasure? Every time I do eat the food, I'm making it more likely that I'll do so in the future. It's a snowball effect.
That's what the aggregate long-term effect is: by making this decision, and assuming I will make future decisions roughly the same way, what will result? In this case, I get many moments of fleeting pleasure at the cost of decreasing my fitness, lifespan, and overall health. Taken in that context, it's very easy not to eat the Oreos.
On the cruise I was just on, I ate a lot of bad food. I had a couple dinner rolls (usually whole wheat) with lunch and dinner, and I often had dessert (or two, or three). I'm not really sure why I made that decision, but I wish that I didn't. In the moment it seems like an integral part of the enjoyment of the cruise, but in retrospect it has nothing to do with my memories of the cruise. I remember time spent with my friend Brian, the new people we met, the hijinks and adventures we had, the ports we visited, the work I got done, and the general serenity of being at sea. I also remember some incredible grass-fed lamb chops, but the bread is just a blur.
This long term aggregate lens is useful beyond eating, of course. I used to date girls without really thinking about whether I'd want them in my life down the road. As a result, along with a handful of really awesome girls that I dated, I sometimes found myself in the position of spending time with someone I wasn't really crazy about, or being in that awkward situation of having to let someone down, or sliding down that slippery slope of boyfriendhood with a girl I didn't actually want to be my girlfriend. Now I think long term and stop myself before I start anything with anyone I don't think is pretty great.
I've always been really good about saving and investing money, despite never having a budget. I think it comes from this long-term aggregate view. On this flight I can buy wi-fi access for eight bucks. It's tempting, because I'm addicted to the internet, and justifiable because I have some work that I want to do that would benefit from downloading a copy of a database. What's the aggregate long term effect of that sort of purchase? Well, I go on a lot of flights that I might start buying wifi on, but beyond that, I'm setting a precedent of paying exorbitant rates for unnecessary convenience.
It's for the same reason that I will some day buy my own plane, but would never pay extra dollars or miles for a first class seat on a commercial flight. The long-term aggregate effect of paying for first class is that I get to be moderately more comfortable for a tiny fraction of my life, at great hourly expense. The aggregate long term effect of buying a (very efficient) plane is that I can learn to fly, take friends with me, have more flexibility, and in some cases save money.
In trying to improve myself, I'm always trying to find underlying principles that influence large swaths of my behavior. One of those principles is this of optimizing for long-term results. By applying that lens to all decisions I make, I create a compounding effect of most decisions leaving me even better off in the future. It works at the source, motivation, making me want to do the right thing, rather than forcing myself to do the right thing.
Find some area of your life where you're not satisfied, take an honest look at what decisions have led you there, and make an effort to look at the aggregate long term effects of those decisions while making them. You'll probably find that fixing the problem is a lot easier and less painful than you might expect.
Photo is the tower of Il Duomo in Florence. What a view!
Just when I was about ready to do the gear post, I order two awesome new things. Happens every year.
The way we make decisions is pretty interesting. Making decisions that are bad for us is easy and effortless. Think about how easy it is to decide to watch TV, eat some junk food, take a nap, and then play some video games. On the other hand, let's say that today you wanted to have a really positive day. To actually decide and convince yourself to prepare and eat healthy food, avoid watching any TV, power through your work even when you're feeling tired, and avoid wasting time on facebook is hard. Not impossible, of course, but just by thinking through these two scenarios, you can imagine how much more mentally taxing the latter is.
The trick to overcoming this is to make decisions once that will have an effect for a long period of time-- in other words, having a standard routine that allows for no variance. For example, I want to have a good sleep schedule. I can do what I tried to do for about 30 years, which is will myself to make a good decision on when to go to bed every night, which didn't work at all, or just say that computer is off at midnight no matter what, and I'm asleep by two no matter what. Now I don't get to make a decision every night-- I just turn of the computer, read, and go to sleep. All I had to do was make this decision once, and then train myself on it for a couple weeks before it became second nature.
Another huge benefit of rigid scheduling is that the schedules can be tweaked. I wanted to eat more Omega 3 fats. How do I do that? Well, if I just know that's a goal, maybe I'll go grocery shopping and figure out which foods are better, figure out how to prepare them, and make them. Or maybe I'll just dial it in by eating a couple more walnuts here and there and order salmon on the rare occasion I go to a restaurant. In my case, switching to eat more Omega 3 was simple-- I eat the same thing for lunch every day, so I just substituted a sardine sandwich and tuna sandwich for my nut/fruit sandwiches. One decision and my whole diet is improved.
Studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle. On one hand it needs to be exercised regularly to be effective, but on the other hand it's strength can become depleted through short-term overuse. If you're trying to eat healthy, exercise, work effectively, write, be financially responsible, and sleep well through micro-management, you probably won't be able to continue indefinitely. Instead you'll have a burst of a week or two where you crush it, and then you'll deplete your willpower and regress back to old habits.
This is a post from a blog I used to run, but I feel it might be useful to add to this site.
Mindfulness meditation, or at least as far as I have experience it, teaches us to do two major things; to observe the constant internal and external changes we experience and not to react to them.
This morning I ran my second 5k ever. It was a major personal achievement for my to run my first 5k, which happened a couple of months ago. I took that achievement and sat on it though, having barely run since. Yet as the weather here in Iowa has gotten unbearably hot I decided to pick my running back up and start training for my first ever 10k. This decision came at the beginning of this week, and I decided that I would look at events to give myself a clear deadline.
To facilitate getting back on the horse I registered for four 5k's, one of which was this morning, with plans to run seven by the end of November. I'll sneak a ten-er in there somewhere once I find a fitting one.
Now, I have run a 5k before and made it through in no small part with the help of a friend. I smashed my time on that first run and it felt great. But, this one didn't go quite so well. I was operating under the assumption that I would be able to press through, having done the distance and time before. I would just need to beat the mental games that one plays with themselves when running.