When we’re so focused on the road directly in front of us, we have a hard time identifying challenges that lie ahead. Think of those many potholes as distractions to your current self, and think of the red light you’re about to run as the more catastrophic long-term result of your distractions.
If you picture your life in a day as a road and the destination as a particular goal, then you can be assured of some obstacles along the way. If you’re reading this blog post from somewhere in the Midwest, chances are you’ve encountered at least a few potholes on your way to work. One or two in a ten-mile commute, no problem, but encounter over 20 between stop lights and you’re talking about an all-out hindrance to getting from point A to point B. Your goal of simply getting to work (or eating a salad for lunch, metaphorically speaking) has just been impeded by a couple hundred potholes (or an abundance of unhealthy options at the company cafe, so to speak).
Unfortunately, it’s unfair to expect a human being, whose primary concern (at least on an evolutionary level) is to survive now, for this moment, to be even the least bit concerned about how his or her means for survival 30 years from now. This drive to survive right now and provide for today’s version of yourself is the underpinning of why we struggle so much to make the better decision for tomorrow’s self, today.
Whether it be consuming a salad instead of a pizza, working out instead of a Netflix binge, or not driving through a pothole (fingers crossed you don’t blow a tire) instead of swerving and hitting the car in the lane next to you, every day we encounter struggles between immediate and delayed satisfaction.
Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), it’s all about the brain. Your brain’s center for “I don’t really want to do that, but I know I should” processing is the most recently developed aspect of our neuroanatomy. Unfortunately for us, it’s the most metabolically demanding part of the brain. What this means is that the term “hangry” is a very real thing. Let enough time go by without an energy source that supplies glucose to that noggin of yours, and pretty soon you’ll become kind of a jerk. It’s not that being hungry directly makes you a worse version of yourself, but it impairs the PFC, which in turn makes you less likely to filter your complaints and frustrations about the world. Heck, even parole judges are influenced by this phenomenon, as is indicated by the quote below from the 2011 study “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions”.
“We find that the likelihood of a favorable ruling is greater at the very beginning of the workday or after a food break than later in the sequence of cases.”
From granting parole to withholding that road-rage driven profanity-laden outburst during rush hour, the Prefrontal Cortex does wonders for we humans when it comes to doing what we should do, even though we don’t want to. But what exactly does this have to do with our current self vs. our future self, and decision making right now?
What has just been created is a kind of one-two punch that has devastating effects on our decision-making skills-
- Daily obstacles to making the better choice.
- A hard-wired neurological predisposition against making that tough decision if you’re hungry, sleep deprived, chronically inactive, or stressed.
The PFC is also the last region of the brain to fully develop. Not until a human’s twenties will his or her PFC reach a fully developed level, allowing them the maximum potential for proper decision making. That is assuming they are immune to extraneous factors that influence the efficacy of the decision center of the brain, which none of us are, so where does that leave us?
The First Punch
When you walk into a grocery store, gas station, or even an MCL cafeteria (for those who aren’t familiar, basically an ala carte middle school lunch line style restaurant), you are faced with a multitude of food and drink options. Each of these options, or products, has been strategically placed with either your line of sight or order of approach in mind (think packets of overpriced single-packs of gum at the checkout line). By now I’m sure all of you have heard “don’t go to the grocery store hungry”, and this is spot on. Picture this- you’re two weeks into making a lifestyle change through food intake, and when you go to the grocery store hungry, that prefrontal cortex’s guard is down. All of a sudden you’re MUCH more likely to grab that box of cookies staring at you as you walk through the baked goods aisle towards the service meat department. Damn, two weeks of hard work sabotaged by your own brain, probably subconsciously.
Using MCL cafeteria as an example, more specifically, I can recall a design element that is brilliant on their part, but not good for the health of their loyal patrons. When you begin your tray sliding walk down a row of potential food selections, what is most prominently displayed at eye level with pre-cut slices waiting to be picked up? Pie.
So. Much. Pie.
Of course, you’re about to smash lunch and you’re probably pretty hungry, so your guard is down long enough to snag a slice of pie before you get to the actual food of substance that COULD be healthy for you. Keep in mind, most things are fried, breaded, or swimming in some kind of gravy, so healthy options are few and far between. I’m not trying to pick on MCL cafeteria in particular, just using them as an example of organizations vying for your business. They will cater to your deepest innate human weakness, a lack of self-control.
Self-Control, A Finite Resource
Speaking of self-control, identifying the problem is one thing, thinking of ways to combat the impulse and take back control of your decision making is a whole different ballgame. Think of the first aspect of this one-two punch; potential choices/options. The power lies within the “choice architect”, the person or organization responsible for your available options in any decision-making situation. Here’s a radical idea; become your own choice architect. No matter if you’re going to the grocery store, a restaurant, or coffee shop, don’t leave your decision up to the seller. Narrow down your potential choices in your mind before you even arrive! To further lock in your likelihood of making healthy choices, put them down on a list on your phone, or go one step beyond that and actually verbally tell someone what you’re going to purchase. The more people you tell, the more likely you are to follow through.
Example- You’re leaving work to go grab something for lunch, tell some of your colleagues you’re running to grab a big tasty salad. Then, text your significant other or a friend and tell them too! I’m sure they’ll text you back and say they might be more inclined to do the same now! Win-win!
Most importantly, if you are the choice architect for your own family, you hold enormous responsibility for their health. If you make healthy options more readily available at home, chances are higher that those family members will make better decisions themselves. If you have it, you will eat it. If you don’t have it, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you move past your “need” for it. Kids are resilient and just because they can’t find any more of their favorite fruit snacks or potato chips in the family pantry, doesn’t mean they’ll starve.
Deprive them now to reward their future, or reward them now to deprive their future.
Be ready for part 2 in the series “Potholes Preventing Progress”, coming soon, where I’ll elaborate on the second punch to be thrown, and how to dodge it.
Self-control and smooth pavement are finite resources, check back soon to find out exactly how to progress through life without being derailed by “potholes”.
Yours in Wellness,
Prevention over Treatment