Choose Healthy Without the Struggle
Try this science-backed approach — based on decision neuroscience — to make healthier decisions easier.
Life is a series of choices. Get up or hit snooze? Make or buy your lunch? Roll out your yoga mat or roll up for happy hour? These are the kinds of decisions you face all the time when you’re trying to be healthier. Sometimes they’re split-second comparisons that barely register. Other times, you feel all but paralyzed by the options.
Everyone struggles with making healthy calls at one point or another. In fact, there’s a whole field of study dedicated to the process: decision neuroscience. Researchers are trying to tease out how the brain approaches choices, the unconscious factors that come into play, and how everyone — including you — can use that information to reach any goal.
Here’s what they know so far: The brain’s decision-making can be classified into two systems, plainly called system 1 and system 2, says researcher Paul Laursen, PhD, a professor of exercise science at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. “System 1 is fast-thinking. It’s thinking on the fly, reactive and not always clear,” he explains. System 1 takes over when a squirrel runs into the road and you have to decide whether to brake, swerve or continue forward. Or when you slam the door after an argument or instinctively pick up a piece of broken glass with your bare hands. System 1 decisions just sort of happen.
System 2, on the other hand, “is slow-thinking, where you have more time and you’re more in parasympathetic, or ‘rest and digest,’ mode, which typically allows you to make clearer decisions,” says Laursen. Training yourself to use this system – for the better – is key to making healthy choices on the regular, especially when stress, hunger, fatigue or other emotionally taxing states might be prompting to you to act (or react) fast. When you take your time, you can evaluate the outcomes of your options in order to arrive at the best decision for you, Laursen explains.
Say you’re ordering breakfast. You’re eyeing the French toast but could also go for some avocado toast. Taking your time so that your system 2 jumps in might mean you choose the avocado toast knowing it will give you steadier energy during your afternoon workout because it has more fat and protein and less sugar. (It might also mean you get the French toast because you really want it but split it with your partner so you don’t feel sluggish later.) “Taking your time,” by the way, doesn’t have to mean you spend hours considering what to order. It might take just a minute, but that’s still much longer than it takes to grab a roll out of the breadbasket. (When time really is of the essence, recent research published in “Nature Human Behaviour” suggests that narrowing multiple options to just two can help you arrive at your best decision faster.)
“Training yourself to use this system – for the better – is key to making healthy choices on the regular, especially when stress, hunger, fatigue or other emotionally taxing states might be prompting to you to act (or react) fast.”
Paul Laursen, PhD, Professor of Exercise Science at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand
You can train yourself to get better at slowing down, says Laursen. For starters, try giving yourself at least 60 seconds to make a decision a few times a day, such as when you’re choosing how long to run for or whether to have an afternoon cup of coffee. You might notice that you go for a longer run because you realized that you won’t have another opportunity to spend time on your own today, or skip the extra caffeine because you don’t want a repeat of last night’s poor sleep.
That practice will come in extra handy during emotional moments, when activating system 2 thinking isn’t your conscious priority. After you come out of a frustrating end-of-day conversation with your boss, for instance, your reactive, fast-thinking system 1 brain might scream, “Drink!” But having your system 2 in place could inspire you to self-soothe with an hour of yoga, reading or drawing instead.
Just can’t get out of that emotional, reactive headspace? Try focusing on your breath, which “helps calm the nervous system, lowers the stress hormone cortisol, and enables clarity,” says Eric Stefanski, a performance-psychology coach and the owner of Elevation Athletics and Lifesparq in Boulder, Colorado. One technique he likes is box breathing: Take four counts to inhale through your nose, hold for four, exhale through your nose for four, then hold for four. Repeat for two minutes or as long as you need to find your cool.
If you still find yourself struggling with a decision, start thinking long-term, says Sebastian Gluth, PhD, the head of the Center for Decision Neuroscience at Switzerland’s University of Basel and the lead author of the “Nature Human Behavior” study. That means visualizing who you want to be and how you want to feel weeks, months or years down the road, activating a new system: the prospective-memory system. Research shows this helps people land on more patient, fulfilling decisions, says Gluth.
With this approach, maybe you end up with the avocado toast not just because you know it will help you perform better during your workout, but also because you know that if you have a solid session today, you’ll probably feel more confident and motivated for your workout tomorrow, continuing a feel-good cycle that could help you stay on track with your training.
While you can’t micromanage every single decision every single day (how exhausting!), you now have the intel to better navigate choices that can trip you up along your wellness journey. Whether you use that intel? The choice is yours. But hopefully it’s an easier one to make.