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Choice Architecture

I don’t know about you, but as I’ve gotten older, following the rules has gotten a lot easier for me. Maybe it’s just getting older and wiser or maybe my “rules are meant to be broken” wild side has faded away. In either case, I like rules because they help me make better decisions. Think about if there were no rules in life; no rules on the road such as traffic lights, no rules in school for children, or no rules for us of when to be or what to do at work? I believe life is better because of rules. When you give me rules, I can and will follow them. When you don’t give me the rules, I make up my own rules and that is rarely a good thing.

Why do people make bad decisions that cost them their health (smoking), their savings (gambling), their marriage (cheating), their dignity (getting drunk in public and making a scene), etc.? I think about this a lot for myself and for others, I want people to make decisions that lead to happiness and health, not misery, pain, and chronic disease.

If the “effect” of decisions happened before the “cause”, things would be different. I know this is absurd but what if we felt immense pain or regret BEFORE we made a bad decision? We probably wouldn’t do it AT ALL. However, most times, we don’t think or feel before we make a bad decision. What if you felt that sinking feeling and/or regret before you put $5,000 on the Saints to win last Sunday? What if the extra 10lbs showed up on your belly or butt before you ate the ice cream every night. What if you were served the divorce papers before you started cheating on your wife? I know this sounds strange but in my quest to help myself and my patients make better decisions in life, I think about how to help make better decisions easier.

Here is one thing I know for sure; your environment unconsciously shapes your decisions more than your decisions consciously shape your environment. Let me explain, we have many different environments; we have a work environment, we have a physical environment (our body), we have a family environment, we have a spiritual environment, we have a financial environment and we have a relationship environment to name a few important ones. Each one of these environments is either moving in a healthy direction or an unhealthy direction based on the decisions that are being made within them. Take your physical environment, we know if we eat good, work-out, pray and meditate, get good sleep, take the right supplements, etc., we are much, much more likely to feel good and live a long time vs. if we eat whatever we want, sit and watch TV all the time, sleep 4 hours a night, never take the right supplements and don’t practice any form of spiritual connection. Seems pretty obvious right? However, how many people do you know who don’t follow the rules and make good decisions? Common sense is NOT common practice. I would say when it comes to the physical health environment since that is what I help people with every day now for 30 years, more people make bad decisions than good ones.

Since our environment shapes our decisions more than our decisions shape our environment, how we “set up” our environment is critical. Let me give you an example, I notice that many of my patients as they get older, move to an “over 55” development. Most of these developments are single-story, with no yard to care for, no maintenance such as shoveling snow, etc. People think this is a good thing and I understand why. However, I think this is a bad thing. For many people, walking up the stairs every day and doing yard work every week is the only way they are keeping their body moving and strong. But Dr. Dane, I have bad knees? Wait until you have a weak heart and a weak body, your knees will be the least of your problems. Loss of muscle mass is the #1 ager of the human body. So, when you stop climbing stairs, stop doing yard work, stop cutting wood, stop mowing the grass, stop planting flowering and weeding, etc., you lose muscle and get weak quickly.

The term for shaping your environment to “nudge” you to make better decisions is called “choice architecture”. Let me show you how this works by giving you an example that I am currently involved in. I work out with 5 people on Monday and Wednesdays at 12pm in the fitness center at our office. Just the fact that I meet them there each week is an example of choice architecture. I am much more likely to show up because I would feel guilty or “less than” if I let the team down by not being there. So, I show up and now it’s become a habit. In fact, I WANT to show up! I feel good showing up and working out and my body thanks me. My environment is shaping my decision making in a very good way. Right now, the 5 of us are participating in a 21-day “no-carb” challenge. The holidays were not good for any of us. Too much eating, drinking, and not enough working out. Our challenge is simple, whoever loses the most amount of fat compared to their overall body weight is the winner. We even have a wager going. The 2 people that finish last have to take the 3 people that finish first out to dinner and the overall winner gets to choose the restaurant. Game on! The first week, I lost 3.5lbs of fat and gained 1.5lbs of muscle. There is no way I would have done that without the “nudge” of this contest. Also, I know my weakness, CARBS, I love them, just like you do. I created a strict rule for myself, NO CARBS for 21 days during the contest. So, I removed them from my house. No carbs, no eating carbs. Again, give me the rules, I follow them. Don’t give me rules, I make up my own.

There are so many ways that we can shape our environment to nudge us to make the right decision that would otherwise probably just not happen. I have money pulled out of my checking account automatically into an app on my phone called “Acorns”. It rounds up all of my purchases to the nearest dollar so if I bought something for $5.15, it will round it up to $6.00 and take the 85 cents and transfer it to my Acorns account. I have a multiplier of 5x’s on it, so it takes the .85 cents, multiplies it by 5, and makes it $4.25. Then it sweeps it into the Acorns account. I never really notice it because it’s such a small amount of money going in each week. But guess what? In the past year that I’ve been using Acorns, I have over $6,000 in my account. Another example of how choice architecture and creating the right environment can make a big difference.

So, how can you mold your environment to make the right decisions easier and follow the rules that lead to success?

I've given you a couple of examples but give it some thought. Maybe you can start meeting a friend for exercise or at church each week? Maybe you can have money automatically transferred into a 401K or saving account and start saving for retirement or a rainy day? Maybe you could remove the TV out of the family room where you sit every night, so it forces you to read or talk to your family? Maybe you can move to a 5-acre property as we did 2 years ago, that requires a lot of upkeep and therefore you’re constantly moving and exercising. Maybe you stop buying all the things at the grocery store that you know tastes good but will wind up on your gut or butt. As I tell my patients, “if you don’t buy it, you won’t eat it”. Think about how to shape your environment to gently force you to make the right decisions.

Once you create the right environment, the right decisions become so much easier because you don’t have to think about them, they just happen automatically. To win the game, you have to set up the rules in such a way that it makes losing almost impossible.

By the way, if Tom, Bruce, Bill, or Abi are reading this (my workout buddies), I’ve already decided where you’re taking me for dinner.

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