Mindfulness & Decision Making

The Importance of Little Choices

We all make important choices every day.  Get up when the alarm goes off or hit snooze a few times?  Have soda or water with lunch?  Watch that 5th episode of The Office or just go to bed?  These choices may not feel particularly important because their immediate consequences don’t feel particularly significant.  In fact, it’s often the case that the immediate consequences of these decisions end up steering us in a direction that, were we to think about the big picture, we might not choose.  Hitting that snooze button feels so good when you’re groggy, and soda just tastes better than water, and you’re just so comfortable on the couch as Netflix streams episode after episode.  But, allow your awareness to zoom out to that big picture perspective, and ask again, what are you really choosing?  A few extra minutes of interrupted sleep that will likely make you less alert and productive throughout the day.  A drink that will fill your body with sugar and chemicals that may increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.  Sacrificing a full night of sleep so that the next day you’ll experience deficits in memory, judgement and mood.  Of course, few people would actively choose these negative outcomes, and yet, these are choices that people make every day.

One reason for this is a psychological phenomenon called temporal discounting, which is the tendency to place a greater subjective value on immediate outcomes and less subjective value on future outcomes.  As an example, when given the choice, most people would rather have $10 today than $20 next week.  That example may seem trivial, but this tendency to take less seriously any outcome that we will not experience immediately has significant implications for our well-being.  We don’t really think about the grogginess we’ll experience 6 hours from now when we hit that snooze button, or the health problems we’ll develop 10 years from now when we drink that soda at lunch today.  Over time, these repeated decisions become habits, and so even when we begin to see these far-off consequences as worthy of our present-moment concern, our intention to change health-related behaviors can often fall short of actual behavior change.

So knowing that we have this deeply ingrained distortion in our understanding of future risk and reward, what are we to do if we want to make healthier decisions?  Some recent research has begun to look at mindfulness- and acceptance-based approaches as possible options, and these studies have shown some promising results.  Mindfulness has become a pretty popular term over the last few years, but for those that may not be familiar, mindfulness is about being fully tuned in to the present moment, and intentionally brining your awareness to whatever is happening, both internally and externally, with a curious, open, and nonjudgmental attitude.

There is a range of reasons why a more mindful perspective can help us to make choices that we feel good about.  For instance, mindfulness practice can help us to increase our tolerance for distress, which is important for decision making, as many of the reflexive choices we make (e.g., hitting the snooze button) are primarily for the purpose of making some distressing thought or feeling go away.  If we can sit with that distress, notice and accept its presence without feeling the need to act, we suddenly have more options in terms of how we respond in the moment.  Mindfulness also helps us to be more attuned to our bodies.  This might actually make a person more likely to notice the brief high and inevitable crash from that sugary, caffeinated drink at lunch, and with that awareness, may choose in the future to avoid that afternoon rollercoaster altogether.  Finally, a mindful perspective helps us to keep the big picture in focus, so we can remain aware of our values and principles when we are making decisions.  Whether to stay up late watching TV may not at first seem like something that needs to decided based on our highest order values.  But when we look at our life and our actions as a whole, even these little choices are part of the puzzle, and we become able to see them in context.  That last episode you want to watch may feel highly satisfying in the moment, but when you weigh that enjoyment alongside, for instance, your personal commitment to performing your job to your fullest potential in order to support your family, that immediate enjoyment may no longer feel worth the sacrifice of alertness and productivity that will come the following day.

Embracing this mindful perspective and making healthy choices will of course be beneficial all year round.  But it seems particularly important to keep all this in mind this time of year, as the summer presents us with a multitude of opportunities to make seemingly gratifying but potentially harmful decisions.  So when you’re thinking about going on that crash diet to make sure you look good at the beach this weekend, or your about to pour that Nth drink even though you can’t quite remember how many came before it, take a deep breath, zoom out to the big picture, tune in to your body, remind yourself of what’s really important to you, and just see if that makes the options in front of you look a little bit different.


Tim Pineau, Ph.D.

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