Control Your Choices Before They Control You

The gist: Whatever choices you make today will be easier to make again tomorrow. A smart decision today is hard, but its results will compound daily.

On the classic TV show, Lost, Charlie is a heroin addicted leader of a rock band stranded on a desert island, his supply running low. The pain of withdrawl is imminent.

Seeing an opportunity to help, another character, John, takes the drugs from Charlie and tells him:

If you want these back, all you have to do is ask for them. On the third time, I’ll give them to you.

Despite Charlie’s pleading, John explains that Charlie now has a choice. His addiction is ending one way or another—either right now by making the choice not to indulge anymore or later by using up his supply.

Whether you think John is a hero or a jerk, the predicament he put Charlie in is one most of us face every day in some small way.

We can either make the best choice now or put it off until later.

The problem, of course, is that procrastinating on good choices only gets easier the more you do it. And changing direction only gets harder the longer you delay.

Here’s a helpful way to think about the decisions you make each day.

Image courtesy of Flickr
Image courtesy of Flickr

Control Your Choices Or They’ll Control You

Your psychology is a fascinating and complex thing. Every choice you make affects the next one after it. This is how habits are formed and become ingrained. The more you make the same choice, the easier it becomes to make that choice again.

As difficult as it is to truly understand yourself, it’s not so hard to see how the choices you’ve made led to the type of person you are.

You can waffle back and forth between them and get lost in the overlap, but there are basically two ways to classify yourself.

  1. You control your choices. You see the opportunities and pitfalls in front of you each day, and you consciously decide how to respond to them. Your life is a ship on a tumultuous ocean, but you have a skilled captain at the helm.
  2. Your choices control you. The ocean of life is too much to bear, and you’re overwhelmed by the choices in front of you. You let your base instincts—the ones only focused on short-term gains—steer the vessel.

Think of some of the situations you might want to change in your life and ask yourself how you approach them.

  1. Deadlines at work. They’re coming one way or another. Will you prep for them now or wait until they’re staring you in the face?
  2. Losing weight. If you’re overweight and unhealthy, you’ll eventually be forced to do something to fix it. Will you wait for life to force you into that position, or will you choose to tackle it proactively?
  3. Quitting smoking. There are 12 cigarettes left in your pack. Do you take control by tossing them out or do you wait until the pack is empty.
  4. Improving your finances. If your spending is out of control, you’ll eventually go bankrupt. No more spending allowed! Will you wait for that to happen, or will you be the one to take the first step towards righting the ship?
  5. Advancing your career. Changing jobs is scary. It’s easiest to just wait for your boss to promote you or let you go. If you want better odds than a coin flip, you might need to start communicating more effectively and making your ambition known.
  6. Dating and relationships. Will you wait and hope someone magically comes along who perfectly fulfills your needs, or will you fulfill your own and take it upon yourself to find someone who compliments the life you’ve built?

Your Choices Can Make You  Strong

It’s funny isn’t it? When you take the easiest path, you often end up dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

Sure, it was easy, but it left you feeling empty and less in control. Worse, it made it easier to make that same unfulfilling choice again and again until it was a habit.

Now think of the times you made the choice to do things the right way, even if they were hard.

All that effort was hard, but it left you feeling powerful. That’s your brain rewarding you for taking control. That’s the dopamine blast—the satisfaction of making the hard choice and sticking with it. It doesn’t come right away—that’s what makes it hard—but when it does, it’s oh so satisfying.

Hard Choices Become Easy

Each time you make that hard choice, it gets easier to make it again. So you do. And you continue until its an automatic decision.

The habit this builds makes you unbelievably strong. And each time you make the choice to take control again, you get even stronger.

The path to strength is not easy. It can’t be—strength is gained through struggle—through resistance. But the reward of strength is great. It’s a life of direction and satisfaction.

Take a look at the decisions you make over the course of the next few hours. What tradeoffs are you making? When you run into a difficult one—a decision you’d rather not make—ask yourself what you would do if that decision were easy instead.

If you like the answer, then make that decision because, tomorrow, it will be.