Choice: The good and the bad

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Eighteen years ago, a much younger me (with less grey hair, and much more of it) did a Fitness Instructor qualification and began working in a gym for the princely sum of £5 an hour. At the time, I was under the impression that my courses were about gaining knowledge - learning about diet and exercises and that I'd then be able to go out into the world, tell people what to do and they’d get fitter and healthier as a result…

How naive and wrong I was!

Adults are essentially taller children. If you tell them what to do, they rebel just as much as their five-year old son or daughter would. Over the years I read everything I could about behaviour change, psychology and neuroscience, trying to understand how the brain works and I how could apply this knowledge to help people change. I came to the conclusion that my job was to let people choose their changes for themselves, so I started balance to coach them through this. I was convinced that my job was never to tell people what to do, just to be there to support them in making choices for themselves…

How naive and wrong I was!

What I’ve essentially discovered is that choice is hugely important to people and that any programme where you are told what to do will eventually fall down, but that providing people with too much choice can be overwhelming and leave them feeling paralysed…it’s all about finding the right balance. Here we’ll take a look at why choice can be both good and bad, and how you can use this knowledge in your quest for balance.

The bad

The amount of information we process in our brains each day has increased to unbelievable amounts in recent years, more than five times what it was just 30 years ago. Estimates put it at the equivalent of 174 newspapers every 24 hours…that’s a lot of reading! Comparing to computers (which of course, your brain is an extremely high-tech model of), it’s though we each process around 34 gigabytes of data a day. As a kid, my dad would have salivated at the thought of owning a device so powerful…which funnily enough, he did, it was just between his ears.

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Right, that’s quite enough extra data for your brain to process, what’s my point? Even the highest quality computers begin to work more slowly when they’re overloaded with data. Have you ever gone shopping and been unable to choose between the 78 different breakfast cereals on offer, the 146 different loaves of bread, 24 different suntan lotions and 16 types of apples? It gets worse if you shop on the internet. Many a time I’ve tried to buy a new pair of trainers, book a hotel or a holiday and spent an hour or more trawling through comparison sites, links to special offers, Amazon, Google searches, eBay, villa listings and the myriad of other sites where choice is endless. All i often end up with is a headache. Back in the day, there’d be a handful of trainer brands and I could choose between black ones or white ones. With holidays, I’d go to a travel agents where they’d do the searching for me and narrow it down to about three for me to choose from. All this meant that my brain hurt a bit less.

It’s clear that choice can be bad. In fact, it can be paralysing. When you try to multi-task, your brain repeatedly switches between each of the things you’re trying to do; back and forth, back and forth, and each time it uses energy to achieve this, making it very tired. In much the same way, having to switch from option to option, trawling through page after page of 3-star hotels in central London, hoping to save £20 or get the nicest looking room and breakfast included, fatigues your brain and makes choosing seem much harder.

If you’ve watched Kirsty and Phil on Location, Location, Location, you’ll know what I mean; they’re often introduced to couples who’ve seen 50 houses or more but, as of yet still haven’t been able to pick one to live in. And if you’ve sat in a restaurant where the menu is so vast you don’t even know where to begin, pawing over it for some time before eventually choosing the dish you always have because it requires less thinking, you’ll know what I mean. Choice can be tiring and lead to inaction. It’s no coincidence that people who are stressed often talk of being unable to make decisions; their computer is full and no longer has the processing power.

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It’s no wonder then that diet plans and exercise programmes that restrict choice are hugely popular, they save us having to make yet more choices about what exercise to do or what to eat for breakfast, mid-morning, lunch and dinner every single day. The problem is that one of the fundamental traits of being human is our innate desire to control our own destiny. And when we feel like the ability to choose has been taken away, we rebel. We don’t stick to the calorie-controlled diet, we don’t continue to cut out caffeine, alcohol, sugar or whatever else it is we’re not supposed to be having, and we don’t do the exercises our personal trainer told us to. We choose to take back control…isn’t that what the whole Br**it thing is about?

The good

As I’ve just mentioned, we don’t like to be shackled. We’re independent creatures and our desire for free will means we like to make our own choices. Choice is empowering and it also helps recognise that we know ourselves best and can often decide what’s in our best interests. Choice allows us to do things that fit with our values and beliefs, it allows us learn and to change things when they’re not working

The fact that each of us has our own unique genetic blueprint and our own mind creating unique thoughts every second of the day means that choice is a must. Because humans are all unique, programmes designed for the masses can never exactly fit our needs. I could no sooner write an exercise programme now that would work for 50 different people as I could walk to the moon for a nose around.

The balanced approach

So what takeaways are there from this very deep, philosophical wandering of mine?

1) Choice can be both helpful and unhelpful, so choose your choices wisely.

If you waste all of your brain power deciding what brand of couscous to buy in the supermarket, you’ll have very little left for making decisions like which mortgage to get, who to marry (if anyone) and the other big stuff!

Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organised Mind, suggests limiting less important choices to a set number of options, say three. Browse the stationery sections of three websites for a new diary and pick one from the selection that best suits your needs. It might not be perfect, but unless you design your own, it probably never will be, but it’ll save much needed energy for other big decisions and it’ll prevent you walking away with nothing.

In the context of health and fitness, you might weigh up two or three choices of gyms, footwear, trainers or apps and go for the one that seems right. The great thing is, if it’s not right, you can always choose to change your mind.

2) Delegate choices to others who can help

Joining Weight Watchers or hiring a PT is doing exactly this; you are choosing to pass on some of your choices to someone you trust. They can then provide you with the diet or exercise routine to follow so that you don’t have to make all of the choices. You have 34GB of data floating around your head so there’s no room to pick between the rower and the cross trainer or the myriad dinner options in the supermarket.

The growth of the meals delivered to your door industry is evidence of this delegation of choice; either you get something that’s ready to go, or you get all the ingredients and a recipe card, no need to think, just follow the instructions. If you love your exercise classes, you’re choosing to be told what to do, maybe because it just removes the stress of choice.

The key comes in point 1; take time to choose the best person or service that will meet your needs, that’s the most valuable choice. And hey, if you chose the wrong one, don’t be afraid to choose another.

I myself am using this knowledge to guide the structure of my latest book, working title ‘Think: How to achieve changes and make them last.’ In the past, I’d have left it completely open to you how you worked through it and that may well have left you overwhelmed by choice. This time around there’s a set, step-by-step structure to follow, allowing you to be guided through the process of change without having to make too many choices. The option to rebel and read it in a different order will of course always be there.