Facing a tough decision? Try slowing down.

Have you ever wondered why, when you’re going to bed at night, it’s so easy to decide you’re going to wake up and go exercise in the morning, but when you wake up, all you want to do is turn the alarm off and catch some more shut eye?

I do. I wonder, “What happened to that motivated girl from 6 hours ago? Did she move to a new body overnight? Come on lady, get out of the bed!"

I realize that when we’re waking up we’re not our most rational selves. Until we’re fully awake, falling back to sleep just feels so inviting. But there’s more at work here, and it all comes back to what makes a decision difficult in the first place.

TED published Ruth Chang’s talk on hard choices a while back and it changed my frame of reference when facing any difficult decision. It’s when we are faced with hard choices that we get to decide who we really are.

Let’s say that you want to be healthy but you also want to eat tasty food. For breakfast, you’re offered either bland granola and plain yogurt or a hot, glazed Krispy Kreme donut. Which do you choose? (Please note: this is in a world where these are your only two options for breakfast).

The decision is difficult, right? Because it’s not that one is better than the other, but that you value each of them for different reasons. One of them you value because you want to be healthy, the other you value because you want to have tasty food. What you ultimately decide to eat determines what you value most, at least for the moment.

So when you wake up in the morning and you want to hit the snooze switch on your alarm, it’s not that you don’t value being healthy and getting up to go work out. Rather, it’s that at that moment, you value getting another hour of shut eye more (and sacrificing that jumpstart to being productive).

The idea that we value something more for the moment is important. It doesn’t take more than 6 hours of sleep (and a groggily awakened mind) for us to shift our values from prioritizing exercise to prioritizing sleep.

Here’s the bigger truth: the choice that’s typically better for us (read: that’s harder or less enjoyable/more painful) we are usually committed to when it’s further away. As the moment for the decision approaches, however, we suddenly start to move away from what we committed to and closer to what we want (read: what’s easier and more enjoyable/less painful).

In order to make the best decisions, we should try to distance ourselves from the moment of decision as much as possible so we can be most rational in deciding based on what we value most. If we let ourselves get too close to the moment of decision before having solidly made up our mind, we will fall victim to temptation and the lure of instant gratification.

And yet, that’s really hard.

Even if we’ve decided on something, those moments of temptation will arise, instant gratification will attempt to reel us in, and oftentimes we’ll slip back to making the choice that goes against what we decided we value more.

So how can we protect our future selves from our future self’s decision making? How can we decide presently that I value being healthy and in the morning be sure we’re not just going to hit the snooze? Is it even possible?

Yes it is possible but you’re not going to get there all at once. The problem isn’t that your future self disagrees with the value that’s at the root of the choice, but that making the choice is usually a farflung cry from your present self’s actual behavior.

I see it all the time: A friend decides to start a diet and cuts all carbs and sugars out. That’s great for some quick weight loss, but the behavior change is so drastic from her current diet that three days later she’s fallen off the wagon again.

I love seeing people make positive changes in their lives, but in order for these changes to stick, we have to be sure we aren’t biting off more than we can chew.

If you’ve decided you value physical fitness and you are currently in pretty poor shape, you’re not going to be able to go out and do the Ironman course tomorrow. It may be enough of a challenge for you to even get to the gym. When you’re making a change by committing to a value, don’t go all out all at once. Start slow and work your way there. Look for the smallest possible change that you can make in your lifestyle toward that value.

If we continue with the healthy value, this one small change may be just to start a food journal of what you eat each day, although even that may be too big. It could be just to start a food journal of what you eat for breakfast. Then next week you can start recording what you eat for breakfast and lunch. The following week you might start recording any snacks you eat.

Just take it slow.

Not all decisions are as basic as what to eat for breakfast, either. Every once in a while we have very major and expensive decisions to make: whether to buy a house, whether to invest in online scheduling software to help grow your business, whether to commit to a relationship, etc. While some people are good at making these sorts of decisions, others of us become more irrational as the difficulty of the decision grows.

But here’s another big truth: we usually know, at a gut level, if we’re biting off more than we can chew. The problem is that that little voice in our gut gets drowned out by our wants and temptations.

Deciding whether to buy a house is without a doubt a more difficult decision than what to have for breakfast, but regardless of what decision you’re making, slowing down is the key to living a life based on your values.

What does slowing down actually look like? It’s different with every decision, but I can say that you definitely know it when you feel it. We’re typically in such a rush that slowing down puts a different tempo to your day.

You go out to a restaurant and 20 seconds after sitting down at a table a waitress comes over and asks what you’d like to drink. You really want a soda but you know you should get a water. If you answer immediately, you’re more likely to order that soda. If you tell her that you need a few minutes, that will give you some time to repeat to yourself why you value drinking water, what it represents over drinking soda, so that when she comes back you can decide from a point of values.

Your friends are all getting married and you’ve been in a relationship for 4 years. You think you want to stay together forever but no rings have gotten involved yet. A friend asks when you’re going to tie the knot and you immediately feel like you should have some justification for why you haven’t done it yet or maybe start talking to your significant other about it the next time you see him/her. If you take a few minutes to realign with your values, however, you might just realize that the answer “things are really good as they are right now” is sufficient and you don’t need to add any pressure to it.

Slowing down can feel like you’re fighting the strong current that the instantaneousness of the internet-age has unleashed, but it is the only way to stay aligned with what you value and not just rush to the decision that brings immediate gratification.

I’m not saying that slowing down is easy, but it’s not all that difficult either. What it is is different. It’s different from what everyone around you is doing and that can make it a challenging habit to pick up.

But I promise it’s worth it. Why? Because it’s how you will pull the real you out from all the clutter that the world has tried to convince you that you want. It’s how you’ll be able to make decisions you’ll be proud of for your whole life. It’s how you’ll actually be able to stay committed to the value-based changes you want to make.

One word of caution: if you try to slow down in the morning to make the decision of whether to snooze or hit the gym, you may just fall back asleep. Just make sure to be sit up first and then make the call.

To your slow growth,

Lucy