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Why You Don't Make Most of Your Own Decisions

Posted on Friday, October 2, 2015 at 01:18PM by Registered CommenterLon Langston | Comments Off

I played soccer in an adult league for a few years (until the majority of players were half my age and twice my speed). When I started playing, I rolled my ankles almost every week. My solution was to wear elaborate ankle braces, which were uncomfortable and limited my flexibility.

Flexibility is important in sports and flexibility, in the form of autonomy, is kind of important in our larger lives. We each like to believe we know what is best for ourselves. We certainly value the freedom to decide. And yet, we don’t make most of the decisions that impact our lives. We put the cognitive equivalent of ankle braces on our decision-making.

Fortunately, American adults have the right to make the vast majority of our own decisions. Only, we cede our decision-making power, not to the government or other people, but to being unaware and unintentional.  

You may disagree, because from your own experience, you know that you are acutely aware of big decisions:  Where to go to college, where to work, where to live, whom to marry. You gather information, talk to family, friends and experts. And deliberate. You also know that you are aware of everyday decisions: What to eat for lunch, whether to work out or not, what to read or watch on television, who to hang out with. You spend less time and attention making these decisions than the big ones, but still, you make them. The reason our experience tells us that we make most of the decisions is that both big decisions and everyday decisions are conspicuous.

They are conspicuous, but they are not voluminous. They make up only a drop in the bucket of the total number of decisions we each make.

The vast majority of decisions made in a day and a lifetime are micro decisions. Thousands of times every day, we each make tiny decisions that largely go unnoticed – unnoticed but consequential.  

Several months into playing soccer, I read Christopher McDougall’s book, “Born to Run.” (I also enjoy running.) McDougall explained how the naked foot adjusts its 19 muscles and 107 ligaments, with every step, at the split-second of contact with the terrain, to protect itself from injury. I bought into McDougall’s premise and not only changed my running shoes (and even ran barefooted some), but weaned myself off the ankle braces. The idea is that over-supportive shoes and braces prevent the body from developing the hundreds of small muscles, ligaments and tendons, and the neuropathways that activate them, that can increase our performance and our durability.

There are elements of life that are within our control. There are elements that are out of our control. And then, there are elements that seem to be out of our control, but are actually controllable, or at least influenceable.  The decisions we are usually aware of turn elements in our control to our favor. Micro decisions turn elements normally out of our control to our favor.

Micro decisions dictate what all 640 muscles in our body do, including the muscles that control voice tone, pitch and volume. And the ones that control our non-verbal communication: facial expressions and all the movements, large and small, that make up body language.  So micro decisions profoundly impact how we each interact with the world. And how we interact with the world is the primary determinant of how the world interacts with us.

We don’t have enough cognitive resources to make every micro decision consciously, but we can set up mechanisms that will make them tend to benefit us. This is called automaticity. When the brain or body senses a set of circumstances in the environment, it automatically activates an “If-Then” heuristic – If a certain thing happens, then I automatically respond in a certain way. If my foot lands on an uneven surface, then my foot and leg muscles instantly compensate. If a person engages me, then I respond confidently and competently.

Leveraging automaticity for good requires a clear understanding of both personal values and vision, and good habits. When values, vision and behavior (habits) are aligned, the result is micro decisions that make you the best version of yourself.  

I played soccer, with no ankle support, for years, with no injuries.