Engineering Your Default Choices
Making Fewer – and Better – Decisions
One of the most powerful things that you can do for your health goals, whether you want to lose weight, put on muscle, change your physique, or reduce your cholesterol, is to develop a set of default choices.
What is a default choice?
Picture a drop-down menu on a website. Sometimes, the drop-down menu is pre-populated with a particular choice – but sometimes it’s not.
If it’s pre-populated and you forget to answer that question, your question will automatically be answered by the default choice. If it’s not pre-populated, you must put effort into making a selection.
And – though this may surprise you – we often make better health decisions when we don’t have to think much about it.
One famous example of this is when Walt Disney World changed children’s meals so that juice was the default choice instead of soda, and fruit was the default choice instead of fries.
In other words, if you ordered a children’s meal at Disney World after this change, the plate came with juice and fruit instead of soda and fries unless you specified otherwise. You would have to make an effort to make the less healthful selection – which reduces the likelihood that you would, because we tend to do whatever’s easiest!
As a study remarked on this change: “The healthy defaults reduced calories (21.4%), fat (43.9%), and sodium (43.4%) for kids’ meal sides and beverages.”
It was far easier to get families to reduce children’s sodium intake by 43.4% by simply making the swap automatically, rather than lecturing them about health concerns of excess sodium intake or creating a “healthy choice” item on the menu (which would almost never be chosen).
Obviously, engineering a default choice to be beneficial for health makes decision-making easier – much easier (and less martyr-ish) than if fries and soda came with the meal and you had to request the swap to fruit and juice.
Like Disney, in my work with clients, one of my goals is to help people pre-populate their mental drop-down menus with repetitive habits that pay off, so that their default choice is always a good one, without too much mental effort or feelings of deprivation.
Plus, having your default choices pre-engineered simply makes life easier. You don’t have to worry about what’s your breakfast when you’re rushing out the door, for example.
In today’s blog post, I’m going to give you five powerful examples of default choices that save time, money, and effortful decision-making so that your food and exercise habits are easier, more automatic, and more consistently healthful.
#1: Automate Your Coffee Order
Liquid calories often trip up my clients – even when people consistently track their food intake, they may not take coffee beverages into account. But they do add up – especially if ordering a cozy, warm, caffeinated beverage is a way that you relax or recharge.
My advice is to decide on your “signature drink” – the coffee order that rolls easily off your tongue when you reach the barista.
Mine? If I’m looking for a snack, I get a 12-oz skim latte (about 100 calories), or an almond milk latte if it’s available. If I’m just looking for warmth, I get an herbal tea. I sweeten all of my drinks with stevia.
#2: Automate Your Breakfast
Breakfast is a challenging meal for many of my clients, because it’s often when people are most in a rush. They’re trying to get their kids ready for school, get themselves ready for work, and maybe even get in a workout.
A balanced breakfast isn’t at the top of the to-do list, and it’s easy for choices to erode into less-than-healthful habits if the existing default is a bowl of cereal.
To automate breakfast, choose a better meal (you can also think of it as a snack) that is extremely easy to put together and may even be portable, and make this your default.
For me, it’s a smoothie. If I haven’t planned or prepped a different breakfast, I make myself a smoothie. I also have a repertoire of breakfast recipes in my Fit Smart Fast Cookbook, which you can download here for free:
#3: Automate Your Vitamins
I have a tip for you: it is easier to automate your behaviors by using “after” cues instead of “before” cues.
Here’s what I mean: it is much easier to “take vitamins after breakfast” than it is to “take vitamins before bed.”
By making your desired healthy habit follow another normal behavior (rather than precede), then the normal behavior becomes a trigger for the healthful habit.
Make it your default to take your vitamins either after breakfast or dinner – meals when you’re usually at home. Then, eating becomes the trigger for taking your vitamins.
#4: Automate Your Default Dinner
Something that I do each week to make sure that I have a healthy dinner default is cook eight servings of quesadilla filling.
I chop and sauté one pound of 98% lean ground turkey, one pound of onions, and one pound of green bell peppers, and then store it in two large glass containers.
Then, anytime something else isn’t planned for dinner, we make quesadillas with tortillas, cheese, and the prepped filling (and my default habit is to top it with buffalo hot sauce, but that’s just me!). It’s incredibly easy, inexpensive, and filling – having this default choice makes busy nights a no-brainer! We end up having quesadillas about four nights a week, but I literally never tire of them!
#5: Automate Exercise before Work
Finally, something that I strongly recommend is to squeeze exercise in before your day gets started, to reduce the mental load that going to the gym can require.
To use the example of an after cue again, waking up becomes the trigger for exercise.
Over time, I have become increasingly convinced that morning exercise is a solution for many (though not all) reluctant exercisers.
For example, a remote coaching client once made the remark that she felt that exercise was taking up too much of her mental bandwidth and time. I knew she wasn’t exercising more than 30-60 minutes a day, so I dug a little deeper. As it turned out, she was delaying exercise until the middle of the day, which meant that 30-60 minutes of exercise was preceded by several hours of hemming and hawing about going to the gym.
Instead of exercise only occupying 3-6% of your waking hours (as it should), procrastinating exercise often takes up 25% or more of your mental bandwidth during the day, and sometimes the internal debate takes up all this energy and the exercise never even happens!
Sidestep this energetic black hole by automating first-thing-in-the-morning exercise. When the alarm goes off, your gym clothes are right there to hop into, and you get to the gym and back before your day has even started.
Finding a Proper Place
As I often discuss with clients, automation isn’t about making food and exercise a bigger deal than it really is. It’s the opposite. It’s about reducing its priority – putting it in its proper place and enjoying the rest of life fully.
By engineering your default choices, you make it easy to make better decisions every time, without the struggle of willpower, procrastination, guilt, or constant mental acrobatics.
By starting with a plan, you free yourself of all of that. All you have to do is the default – and even though it may be challenging the first few times you do it, within a short amount of time (weeks at most) it will feel like the most normal and automatic thing in the world.