Ok, so you’ve made the big decision. You’ve thought this through and you’ve imagined what will happen once you’ve achieved your goal.
Whether the decision is who to marry, what diet to follow, or how you’re going to work out, whether or not you actually achieve what you want won’t actually have much to do with how much you want it.
Instead, your success will come down to the ten thousand micro-decisions you’ll make along the way.
What’s a micro decision? It’s a tiny decision, seemingly inconsequential, that has progressively larger follow-on effects.
Want an example? Let’s set the scene first:
You make a commitment to not eat processed sugar for one week. You read about how bad processed sugar is. You stay up late to watch the Netflix sugar-mentary. You chat with your Facebook friends about how bad sugar is. Now you’re convinced processed sugar is bad, and you go to bed vowing to stick out the week without even one mini candy bar.
You wake up the next morning to the alarm and leap out of bed, grab your coffee, skip breakfast because you’re fired up, and head into work. You walk in the door, and the smell of sweet sugary baked goodness hits you. Uh ho. Jim over in Accounting brought donuts today. Disaster looms. Just one little bite, you say.
You know the rest of the story. The hunger. The fly bys of the donut table. The casual chat about your new vow. The joke you make about your willpower being overcome. Everybody laughs.
The next steps are inevitable. The first bite, the one donut that doesn’t have the glazing on it. Must be healthier than the others without glazing, right? Box devoured. Gut bombed. Eyelids glued shut all afternoon, and you emerge from the haze just as you get home from work.
Another failed attempt at avoiding sugar. “It must be too addictive for me”, you say. “Sugar hits the same neural pathways as cocaine”, you mutter. “How can I even attempt to stop that? It’s just too hard.”
What happened? Micro decisions.
Most people would say the first bad decision was when you took that first sugary bite at work. We all know that once the “seal” is broken, it’s game on when it comes to food.
I’d say that you had at least four separate “micro decisions” before that, each setting you up to make the wrong decision the next time you were faced with options. Let’s walk through them.
First, getting to bed in time to wake up without an alarm. There’s plenty of science showing that going without sleep drains your willpower, increases your hunger for sugar, and leads to poor decisions.
That one micro decision to not turn off all electronics and hit the rack at 8 pm (yes, 8 pm until you can wake up without an alarm clock with plenty of time to get to work) shifted the odds for the worse on every other downstream decision you made.
Let’s imagine this is like peering through a doorway into a room full of big, bad dudes who look like they want to stomp you. They’re muttering into their beards, slapping baseball bats in their hands, and rolling up their sleeves. Not getting enough sleep is like walking through the door and into that room. Yes, it’s a terrible idea, and the future doesn’t hold a lot of great options once you’re inside.
The second micro decision was skipping breakfast. I’m usually an advocate of not eating until after noon, but not for day one of going cold turkey on processed sugar. When you try and stop refined sweetness in its tracks, you need to be very mindful of staying well ahead of your hunger.
If not getting enough sleep pushed you into a room full of bad decisions, skipping breakfast closed the door behind you.
Third, deciding to walk over to the donuts. You’ve already made two bad decisions. If I were a scientist, I might slot you into the non-pathological gambling group, and there’d be data to back my guess that this third decision, based on impulse, won’t go well for you.
If you’ve walked into the room and closed the door behind you, this is when you lock it. You know what’s next, right? Yep, throwing away the key.
Let’s do it.
You take that first bite. Game over. The only person you’re fooling at this point when you say you’ll have just one donut is the same person you see in the mirror every time you look. Get ready for stomp central.
Ok, now that we’ve mixed a baseball bat wielding biker gang with a box full of donuts and come up with a roomful of bad news, here’s the good news:
The person who ate that donut, who got a heavy beating, is not a weakling. That person in the mirror is not doomed to fail at sticking with big decisions for the rest of their (your) life.
You can make changes. The changes aren’t complicated. They’re different and may seem strange, but they’re simple. On top of that, once you learn how to make good micro-decisions early on in any decision tree, well, the world just opens right up for you.
We’ll start by going upstream a bit from donut-pocalypse. Let’s make small changes in those first, really powerful “micro” decisions.
First, get enough sleep. A well-rested you is going to have plenty of willpower and will consistently make good decisions. When you see angry bikers through a doorway, you’ll just walk right past that roomful of trouble.
Second, get a good breakfast. Bacon, eggs, or ham plus a color spread of veggies. Hold the fruit and the smoothies; those trigger your sugar lovin’ pathways. Psst, watch the ingredients in the ham and bacon. Companies LOVE to sneak in “organic dehydrated cane syrup” for the suckers in the group.
Third, (heck you don’t even need this), don’t walk over to the donuts. Trust me, you won’t. If you’re full of good food and well rested, you’ll be too busy getting real work done to bother with Jim in Accounting. Let the donuts go uneaten.
Fourth, well, there is no fourth. You had a good night’s sleep, you ate a good breakfast, you’ve got engaging work ahead of you, and your arms aren’t long enough to span the 200 meters over to Jim in Accounting’s open box of poison, ahem, donuts. Get those TPS reports in and never mind the donuts!
We tend to think of decisions only applying to big deals. Those “big” decisions are far less important than the micro decisions you make on a daily basis.
It doesn’t matter the decision; diet, money, exercise, mate. Micro decisions make them great.
You can marry the best looking, most fun, smartest, most interesting person in the world, but if you don’t make a micro decision every morning to love ‘em no matter what, that big decision you made to marry ‘em will turn out to be a mighty poor one.
You can totally commit to the strictest form of Paleo, but if you don’t immediately clear your house of “poison”, get great sleep every night for a week, and lay out a week’s schedule of meals as your first “micro decisions”, well, my good friend Bob Burns said it way back in 1786, 10 years after America declared independence: “The best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.”*
Think about that. If the BEST laid schemes go bad, what happens when you leave every micro decision to chance? Odds are high you’ll have poor outcomes.
Go forth, my friends, and make the most excellent micro decisions you can every time you get the opportunity. Making many tiny good decisions is what it takes to build the best of lives, and that’s what I’m sure you deserve.
Nik @ PT
P.S. Want to kick up your decision making ability by ten notches? Reach out to John Kennedy over at Combat Brain Training, he's got a rad non-digital program that Lee & I have been really enjoying.
*Yes, I know it was “gang aft a-gley”. Relax.
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Too much reading...
How about dessert?