“In every difficult moment ask yourself, ‘What is a hard choice and what is an easy choice?’ and you will know instantly what is right,” said weight-lifting poet Jerzy Gregorek. Indeed, our success in life seems to directly correspond to our willingness to make difficult choices.
Hard choices move us forward. They recognize that we need to sacrifice something now to benefit down the road. They trade today’s ease for the chance of a better future.
Easy choices do the opposite. They focus on our comfort. They prioritize short-term rewards. While hard choices make us stronger, easy choices reverse our progress.
Think about the choices you made today. Did you decide to exercise or spend that time laying in bed doomscrolling? Did you decide to start that new project or waste time procrastinating? Did you confront a difficult situation or choose to avoid it?
Whenever I reflect on my day, it’s the easy choices that I regret. It’s the moments that I failed to take on that challenge that I wish I could do over.
The problem is that they’re called hard choices for a reason. Worse, you’re fighting 200,000 years of evolutionary programming to make them.
You’re programmed for immediate rewards
Humans have been on this planet for approximately 200,000 years. For the vast majority, our ancestors spent their time prioritizing that day’s survival. They found food, responded to threats, and sought shelter. The longer-term future wasn’t a big concern.
If you were fortunate enough to stumble across a tree of ripe fruit, you wouldn’t worry about the long-term caloric intake. The smart decision was to eat as many as you could before the local tribe of monkeys came in and cleaned them out.
We’ve spent thousands of generations prioritizing the immediate returns. It’s no surprise that our brains evolved to want quick payoffs over longer-term investments.
It’s a cruel twist that what’s enjoyable in the short-term tends to be bad for us in the long-term. We’re programmed to trade a benefit today for a cost tomorrow. We don’t much care for paying that cost now for the chance of a long-term payout.
Here’s the problem: you already know this. You know that it’s not in your long-term best interest to overspend, overeat, or limit yourself to your comfort zone.
When we envision our lives, few of us actively want to be in debilitating credit card debt, struggle with our health, or avoid risk and commit ourselves to a mediocre status quo. We know that we’re better off making these hard choices. Yet when the time comes to make the decision, we default into the easy option.
We don’t need to be reminded of this. We need a better way to make these decisions.
Consider each decision as your own external advisor
A coworker comes up and asks for your advice. She’s not getting the performance she needs out of one of her team members. She’s not sure whether she should address it, or ignore it and hope that somehow everything magically works out. What do you tell her to do?
The answer’s obvious. These things never improve on their own. We owe it to people to provide them with actionable feedback to help them improve. You’d tell her to stop avoiding the problem and deal with it.
Or suppose a friend asks you whether he should focus on getting their work done, or spend the morning catching up on his social media feed? You’d look at him as though he’s nuts. The answer’s obvious. Do your work. Ignore the distractions.
It’s easy to see when viewed as someone else’s issue. But when it’s our own problem, the desire for short-term comfort overrides what we know to be the better long-term solution.
We’re almost always able to solve other people’s problems because we look at them from a more rational viewpoint. Use that to your advantage.
Mathematician Eric Weinstein refers to this as watching your robot. He suggests that we view our own daily behaviors and motivations in the same way we would evaluate a robot programming. So if your robot wants to be healthier, yet still eats a plate of French fries every day for lunch, it’s easier to identify and correct the defective behavior.
By stepping out of our own shoes, we’re better able to detach ourselves from our drive for short-term rewards. We’re better able to recognize the long-term impact of these decisions. In the wise words of Marcus Tullius Cicero,
“Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself.”
Consider each decision as a long-term rule
You’re developing your budget. As a rule, should you spend more money each month than you have coming in? Or if you value time with your family, would a helpful rule be to spend your evenings working late and miss having dinner with your kids?
We’ve very good at excusing one-time deviations. We tell ourselves it’s okay to overspend our budget this month and vow to do better going forward. Or we rationalize working late and missing time with our family and friends, telling ourselves that we’ll make it up to them later.
One of the key facts of life is that the temporary quickly becomes the permanent. We rarely recognize how often one-time deviations become our new standard.
Stop exercising today and you’re more likely to skip it again tomorrow. Skip the diet today and it’s easier to do it again tomorrow. Lower your work standards now and you’ve set a new baseline expectation going forward.
When Clayton Christensen was in college, he was the starting center on his university’s varsity basketball team. His team worked hard all year and made it to the finals. Then he learned that the championship was on a Sunday.
A deeply religious person, when Christensen was sixteen, he made a personal commitment to God to never play basketball on a Sunday. His teammates were counting on him. His coach was pressuring him. He struggled with the decision before realizing that he needed to hold to his principles. As he described it,
“Life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over and over again in the years that followed.”
Later in life, Christensen was working at a management-consulting firm, and one of the partners asked him to come in on a Saturday to help work on a project. Christensen replied, “Oh, I am so sorry. I have made a commitment that every Saturday is a day to be with my wife and children.” When the partner arranged everyone’s schedules to have them work Sunday instead, Christensen responded, “I appreciate you trying to do that. But Sunday will not work. I have given Sunday to God and so I won’t be able to come in.”
By setting boundaries throughout his life, Christensen was able to consistently represent his values. Whether you can get away with giving your boss a similar response, I’ll let you decide. Please don’t get yourself fired. But in general, be wary of one-time exceptions. Each one helps rationalize future deviations.
Don’t look at today’s decisions as a one-time exception. View them as though you’re setting a new long-term rule. It’s much easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time, than 99% of the time.
Consider each decision as a major event
You commit to your friend that you’ll follow up with her. But now you’re busy and it’s low on your list of priorities. It’s not too important and you know that she won’t be upset if you blow it off. What do you do?
Most people would rationalize missing the commitment, even if they won’t admit it right now. We often excuse breaking these small promises because we know they’re not that big of a deal. We’re all busy and sometimes we just can’t get to everything.
Yet how we behave on minor events inevitably affects how we handle major events. If we break small commitments we’re much more likely to break large ones. These habitual behaviors add up to define our standards. And it’s those standards that determine how we’ll behave during major parts of our lives.
When Bill Walsh took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, they were a dismal 2 and 14, and the worst team in the NFL. Three years later, they won the Super Bowl.
Despite the miraculous transformation, Walsh didn’t implement some revolutionary new strategy. There was no one major change that led to this improvement. It was the compilation of thousands of seemingly minor changes.
Walsh implemented a “Standard of Performance.” He developed practices to instill discipline and excellence into every moment. He graded plays down to the inch. Players could not sit down on the practice field. Sportsmanship, cleanliness, and teamwork were primary focuses. While some criticized Walsh for focusing on minutiae, he was actually infusing a discipline of excellence into every moment. As Ryan Holiday describes in Ego is the Enemy,
“These seemingly simple but exacting standards mattered more than some grand vision or power trip. In his eyes, if the players take care of the details, ‘the score takes care of itself.’ The winning would happen.”
It’s easy to look at excellence as some future goal, something that’s driven by the major events in our life. But excellence isn’t an outcome, it’s a process. It’s a practice that we bring to every decision, every day. As Tom Peters put it, “Excellence is the next five minutes or nothing at all.”
Stop looking at minor events and exceptions as inconsequential. It’s these minor events that develop the behaviors for us to achieve excellence in big things. Push yourself to view each decision as though it were a major event, because in many ways, it is.
Start making better decisions today
Look at what you did today. Consider the decisions you made. Are you proud of them?
Where did you choose short-term gratification? And where did you override these instincts and prioritize the long-term?
When each of us looks back at our lives, the defining aspects of it will be the choices that we made. Each choice that we make affects us. Every choice that we make influences the path we take from that point forward.
No one’s perfect. We’re all going to make bad decisions from time to time. The goal is simply to make them consciously and not fall victim to obsolete programming. Whatever method works for you, above all, own your decisions.
Consider each decision as though you were advising someone else.
Consider each decision as though you were creating a long-term rule.
Consider each decision as though it were a major event.
Make the hard choices. As Jerzy Gregorek said, “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”
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