Why do you act in the ways that you act? Why did your habits come about? Are you in control of your choices?
Inarguably the final responsibility for every action rests with you. We can whine about all the temptation and social pressure, but we are the final say in what we eat, how much we move, and the choices we make in every facet of life. Accepting this reality is empowering and typically leads to stronger choices. However, for consistent positive actions, we must consider how our environment may knowingly or unknowingly manipulate a default choice. To believe you’ll always make the right decisions without factoring in the power of the environment’s pull is a recipe for failure. We always default.
In their 2004 article two professors at Columbia’s Center for Decision Sciences demonstrated the immense power of framing to influence decisions. Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein looked at the percentage of organ donors across many Western countries. You’d expect a wide-ranging variation of organ donor rates with countries falling all over the spectrum. But there was almost no variation. All countries fell into one of two large camps: extremely high organ donor sign-up rates or extremely low.
The reason for this gulf in life-changing organ donations was the systemic defaults. “Explicit consent” countries, like the United States, made abstaining from donation the default and required people to “opt-in” if they wanted to be a donor. These countries all fell into the extremely low organ donor percentage bucket. “Presumed consent” countries, like many in Europe, assumed that people would be donors and required an “opt out” in order not to be.
Each of us makes thousands of decisions each day which slowly erodes our willpower. Plagued by decision fatigue and without the time to invest in properly researching every choice, it makes sense that we’d accept social proof and default. Rather than working against the flow of traffic, we just go with it.
Strong social norms pull most people toward impulsiveness and away from the daily challenges that breed purpose, self-worth, and long-term fulfillment. We’d all love to workout every day, eat clean, meditate, and learn a new language. Yet few environments make such choices the default.
At work cakes, candy, and soda are constantly placed at an arm’s length. Our lunch hour brings the beckon of all our colleagues headed to get fast-food. When our phone chimes the default is checking it and being swept away by a million alluring, dopamine promising nuggets of entertainment. Any free time defaults us to checking that phone for distraction. When we enter the home, the centerpiece is a big comfy couch pointing our eyes to a big screen with lots of colorful images. The default is sitting down and watching TV and once you start, there is no escape.
A brief look at the modern environment reveals a staggering number of decisions we’re being led to each day. When salesman come by they don’t ask if you want something, they put the product in your hand and assume you are going home with it. We don’t opt in to hear our phone’s messaging alerts and when you get a new job there is no opt-in for a sitting workstation. When you have dinner with family, they don’t ask if you want pie and ice-cream, they serve you a bowl and when you go over to Andy’s he doesn’t ask if you want a beer, he brings you one. Millions of little actions are made for us each day. We have the power to “opt out,” but strong defaults help.
By understanding the power of defaults, we have great power to craft our environment and build strong defaults that prompt strong, permanent lifestyle change. All we have to do is plan how we’d like to act and leverage our environment to make those actions likely.
Don’t Make Yourself “Opt-In” to Preferred Behaviors
An understanding of the human propensity to default typically leads to an exploration of the power of environmental design. If you want to eat better, purge the home environment of anything bad and keep mixed nuts and fruit at your work station. Want less phone distraction? Put your phone on airplane mode while you work and plug it into a charging station outside your bedroom before bed each night. Environmental design is essential for taking control in the modern world. I could dig far deeper, but I cover this extensively in my free e-book, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.
Today, I’m more interested in taking this conversation a step further. You should reflect and painstakingly craft your environment to promote success, but there will still be temptation. There is no hacking your way out of the chaos of life. To really create a strong default mode you have to create rules that completely remove the need to opt out of “normal” behavior.
Take Options Off the Table
Absolute “default no’s” can offer great clarity in our choice-rich environment. Today most people eat fast food for lunch almost every day. I pack a lunch and have spare sardines and almonds in my desk for emergencies. That is a typical environmental design. But, I’ve found even more clarity by deciding I’ll never eat fast food again. Even without fast food options I still have more food choices than 99.9999% of humans who have ever lived. In a real predicament, I will either run into the supermarket salad bar, or I’ll skip a meal because I’m a human and we can do that. Making fast-food abstinence a default has freed me from ever even feeling the temptation towards choices I know I’ll regret. In the process, I’ve been prompted to explore other opportunities often clouded by the environment of low-hanging fruit.
Similarly, I’ll never drink alcohol, eat added sugar, or have sweets in the middle of the week, unless it is my wife’s idea. Given our similar value structure, I know this won’t be often, but still will happen. Thus, I’ve created an avenue for necessary variety and spontaneity.
Every morning I wake to a morning mobility flow. My training plan always includes six days a week of some form of training and an optional Sunday run. These are non-negotiable. I will do them because I planned to and have trained myself to mentally close off the “miss a workout” option. If all hell breaks loose, I know I can find time for a couple of Tabatas or a 5-minute kettlebell swing test.
There is great power in deciding to do something every day. Your mind has to become creative to overcome every possible obstacle. Once you’ve done 10 or 20 days, you’re in too deep to quit. You can’t help but be proud of your own effort.
For a while, I was taking cold showers three days per week. I hated them and eventually just stopped. However, after reading more on Wim Hof and the benefits of cold immersion. I returned to the habit renewed by a deeper understanding and a better approach. I now jump into a cold shower for a minimum of three-minutes every day. I’m a month in and I don’t see myself stopping. To do so, would be a declaration to myself that I wanted to decay and grow frailer.
Believe me, 99% is a wimp. This little mantra is magic for accomplishing any goal. You decide on a goal, create a plan, shape the path, and then follow through every time. There is no wiggle room. The default is yes, every single time. What you find over and over is that regardless of how you feel, you can always act. Each time you show up, you train that lesson and burn it in a little deeper. Take the wrong option off the table completely. That is a strong default mode.