Why can't I do what I know is best for me?

Why do I choose what’s not good for me even when I know better? I make so many choices - with diet, exercise, work, etc. - that aren't best for me, and I can't figure out why. Can you help?

-Anonymous in Seattle

Isn't this the critical question for all of mankind?


We want to do what's best. We plan to do what's best. We try to do what's best. But we fail, again and again.


The answer to this question isn't simple, and it's not short. But for the sake of our sanity, I'll offer as simple and short an answer as I can for now. You can look into my classes and subscribe to get my email letters to learn much more.


Basically, we don't do what's best because of two things: we are influenced by our efficiency-seeking brians, and we are influenced by our social environments.


Our brains are wired for efficiency. We "think fast," and mostly that's a good thing. If we had to slow down and make every single decision carefully, we'd want to stab our eyes out. I mean... it's just too much work, takes too much time and energy.


But the efficiency that makes us effective can also be our downfall. We think fast by using mental shortcuts, and sometimes these shortcuts make us overlook things that matter. For instance, one way to do what's best for you is to be really good at predicting the likelihoods of what would happen if you selected each of your options. Good prediction means employing the laws of probability - but this takes mental time and energy. So we default to using mental shortcuts.


For example, we tend predict that something is likely to happen in the future if we remember it happening before in the past. But our memories are imperfect. We don't remember everything. Our predictions become flawed because the data we use to make those predictions are incomplete, thanks to our efficient brains.


Our efficient brains are also prone to bias. By bias, I mean that our brains have a hard time weighing the pros and cons of things accurately, or predicting the likelihood of future events appropriately. It's as if we're behind the wheel of a car that has poor alignment, to where the wheel is constantly pulling us, say, to the right. Except we aren't looking at the road, so we think we're going straight when in reality we're running off the road. Only by seeing where we're going can we know that our alignment is bad, and that we have to overcompensate for that pull to the right by turning the wheel a bit more to the left than we'd otherwise expect.


Bias works this way. For example, we are biased into thinking that we know more than we actually do. We're biased into over-valuing whatever rewards we get in the short-term and under-valuing what we'd get in the long term. We're biased for inaction, in favor of the status quo. And so on.


In short, we don't do what's best for us because, while we know what's right when we're in a rational state of mind and planning things out, when we make decisions in the moment our brains move quite quickly, catching us off guard. Mental shortcuts and biases kick in.


If we're under stress, or lack sleep, we have a harder time thinking slow. If we are tired from making many decisions throughout the day, we're less likely to make decisions slowly. If we suffer from depression or anxiety, we're less likely to overcome our biases and shortcuts.


Ultimately, the way around it is to take good care of yourself - eat well, sleep well, handle any stressors - and then, when it comes to decisions that count, automatically assume you're going to take shortcuts and be biased. Automatically assume you need to slow down a second and make sure you've got all the information you need and are thinking things through carefully.


Most of all, make sure that instead of choosing what feels right, you take the time and energy to choose what is right.


Also, our social environments sway us. We're social creatures. Social influence is gonna happen.


Have you ever known what was best for you, but then didn't do it because people around you were pressuring you to go another way? If you've ever been in middle school or high school, you know what I'm talking about.


Peer pressure is not just an adolescent thing. Adults go along with what their social environments except all the time. We follow norms even when those norms aren't best for us, and aren't necessary. Consider the norm of marriage. We've all been raised to assume that marriage is a necessary and important life goal. It's part of our culture. But if you never got married, nothing too terrible would necessarily have to happen to you. Maybe you'd be looked at funny by some people, but that might be a small price to pay if marriage isn't best for you.


Same for buying a house. Not everyone should do it, though it's considered the norm to want to. And same for a lot of other things.


We do a lot of things because we're told they're right to do. But this doesn't mean they're best for us. Many social norms are best (like don't go around murdering people). But some rules can be broken with little harm done (like choosing not to have kids).


We also do a lot of things because the majority of people are doing them. It may not be best for you, given your current financial situation, to invest in bitcoin. But if everyone is doing it, you might be struck by FOMO, and you might end up doing it too. This is called the bandwagon effect.


And then there's just good old fashioned herd behavior, or behavior you engage in to socially belong. If you go out with a group of friends and they all want to go to a strip club, you could very likely end up going too, even though it's not what you want. I can't tell you how many times, in my 20s, I went out with friends and ended up going to parties I didn't want to go to, drinking more than I wanted to, and son on. (Going to a strip club wasn't part of my bad decisions; just making that clear.)


The thing is: we often don't realize just how powerful our social environments are when we're making our decisions, trying to do what's best for us. This sort of influence can happen under the radar.


The best way around it is to include in your social network only those people who you know will be a positive influence, people whose interests align with yours. If you want to quit smoking, because you know doing so is best for you, then don't hang out with smokers (if you can help it). If you want to lose weight, make friends who eat healthy and like to go to the gym.


Aside from this, simply be aware. Be aware of whether what you're told you "should" do is actually best for you. Be aware that the bandwagon is going to have particular appeal, and have the courage to ask if standing against the majority makes more sense.


And always remember what's best. Sometimes we get so sucked into life that we forget what is actually best for us. Take the time, regularly, to evaluate where you are, what you want, and where you want to go. And then make sure that your choices get you there. If you don't know where "there" is, then you don't have a north star directing you, and you're much more susceptible to being yanked around - by your human psychology or social environment. You're much more likely to end up nowhere.