Have you ever made a decision and then later thought, “What was I thinking?”
It happened to me once when I ate a Cinnabon at a roadside service center on Route 95 in Maryland. About an hour after I inhaled it, I felt as if I had eaten a large wheel of dense sugar-laced putty and that it might not pass through my digestive system for several years. And yet, when I was considering my choices for a quick snack, I somehow picked the Cinnabon over other options. And for the record, there were plenty of other options. Yet, the seductive smell of cinnamon, the allure of an instant sugar high, and the anticipation of serotonin coursing through my system led me to a bad choice. Welcome to my immediate gratification world.
This type of thing happens to me on a regular basis. So as we enter into a new year, I expect that I will make more bad decisions during the next twelve months. Ironically, and this will come as no surprise, all it takes to make a good decision is the right choice at any particular moment in time. Duh, you say.
Let me explain.
One year, when I was hoping to exercise more, a friend, who is also a psychotherapist, said, “When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice. You can either roll back over and sleep or get up and exercise. The outcome depends on the choice you make at that instant.” He went on to explain that I’d have plenty of time to sleep after I’m dead. That unnerved me a tad.
In theory, the getting-up choice sounds so easy. But in those early morning moments, the warm blankets and the soft pillow seem to convince me that exercise is not all that it’s cracked up to be and might very well be perpetuated by sadists. Yet, in the long term, exercise is healthier and more satisfying. And as one who has logged in hours of snooze-button pressing, I can attest to the short-lived rush of dozing off as compared to the long-term discomfort of inflexible joints.
It seems that every moment of every day is filled with choices. For example, I had to choose to write this blog. When it came time to put words onto paper (or computer screen as it were), I had to choose to do it. But there were many other choices I could have made. I could have cleaned my desk. I’m a neat person and don’t like clutter. I can almost always tidy up something. I could have explored the fridge for something to eat that I neither wanted nor needed but that would help me avoid the task at hand. And of course, I could have checked my Facebook page. I can never get enough of my friends’ updates on pets, sandwich choices, and angry rants that would get them arrested if they said them out loud. It was all about the choice.
Therefore, when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions, perhaps the greatest goal we can set for ourselves is to simply be present enough to make good choices in any given situation. Here are a few examples of the choices we can all make.
Health — When making choices about our health, we should consider the long-term benefits rather than the immediate pleasure (this principle holds true with many things, by the way). An apple is a better choice than a candy bar even though the candy bar tastes much better for the very short time that it lasts. A walk is better than sitting in front of the television and after you’ve walked, you can still sit in front of the television (just saying). Additionally, you must determine what works for your particular body in order to make the right choices. You may need more fiber, less fat, or more cowbell (a shout out to the SNL fans). The more you know, the more informed your choices will be.
Stress — As someone who was trained as a therapist and who has worked my entire life to reduce stress, I think stress management might be the single most important skill we develop. The first choice related to managing stress is to avoid situations and behaviors that create more stress. For example, arriving at the airport late is stressful for me. I don’t want to run through the crowded concourse to get to my flight. So, I choose to get to the airport earlier than most people and then relax with a cup of coffee, thus reducing my stress. Avoiding the choices in life that create more stress should be easy and yet we have a hard time doing it. Try to choose calm over stress whenever possible.
The second stress choice we can make is to see alternatives to those things that appear stressful. For instance, if a man steps in front of you in the grocery line, don’t assume that he is an evil person and did this on purpose. While that might actually be true (but not likely), perhaps he just didn’t see you. By choosing to give him the benefit of the doubt, you are choosing to see the less stressful alternative. If we kept track of the times we chose to see the stressful option over the less stressful option, it would really stress us out! So remember, the less stress you see, the less stress you experience.
Relationships — Probably our most neglected choices pertain to relationships. This is because they are so imbedded in our daily routine and can be so emotionally charged. For instance, with one simple word, we can have a positive or negative impact on our relationships. When my wife does something “normal” and within her typical role in our relationship, it’s easy to ignore her behavior because it’s part of our typical routine. However, if I acknowledge her contribution, I can make her ordinary day less ordinary. If, on the other hand, I choose to only point out the things she doesn’t do, I’ve made a choice to inflict discomfort rather than show support. Our tone, our words, and our timing are all choices we make in either strengthening or weakening our relationships. It’s not always easy to communicate truth and love but it works just like exercise — it may be uncomfortable in the short term but in the long term, we’re better off.
As you go in to 2016, I wish you a year full of life, love and laughter. I also hope that you make your choices a bit differently so that the outcomes of your choices lead to greater success.