Or “Everything I needed to know about life I learned from The Lord Of The Rings” (including cherish comfort because life can be harsh, value friends and family, and appreciate shiny pointy things from ancient craftsmen).
I believe it was Frodo’s companion Pippin who said Short cuts make long delays, when the hobbits were heading out from their home in The Shire, at the start of their journey to destroy the One Ring. If you’re not a fantasy fiction nerd like myself, just work with me for a bit.
The longest delay of all
Think about the last time you came up to a proverbial fork in the road, and had to make a healthy choice: work out, go for that walk, choose the Paleo option instead of the lasagna, but you took the easier way out instead.
What was going through your mind at the time?
Probably a) you weren’t thinking at all and you went straight for the comfiest option, or b) you struggled very briefly with the healthier but less familiar option and then caved with an “Ah, what the heck” and went for the lasagna-wrapped, sink-deeper-into-the-sofa option.
When we struggle with a choice, we’re likely to default to the more familiar, or the one requiring less energy. You know it’s healthier to throw off the covers and stagger to the coffee machine and workout mat, to skip the rice in favor of the double helping of the chicken, or to pass on the pizza and beer when out with friends (or to pass on the outing altogether). But the warm bed is so inviting and the floor so cold, the rice would go so well with the jus from the chicken, and it’s been so doggone long since you hung out with your friends…and you cave.
You could see this as a matter of willpower, but it’s also an example of a particular behavior known as heuristics: how our minds process information by taking shortcuts. It’s hard to remember every single street sign as we drive to the store, so we navigate by 2 or 3 major landmarks. That works well, but as Tolkien pointed out, shortcuts can make for long delays: heuristics are practical but because they prioritize mental effort over rigor — they’re easier — they’re not always right.
From Psychology Today: A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows an individual to make a decision, pass judgment, or solve a problem quickly and with minimal mental effort. While heuristics can reduce the burden of decision-making and free up limited cognitive resources, they can also be costly when they lead individuals to miss critical information or act on unjust biases.
“Don’t overthink it”
Though my wife might disagree, I hear this a lot less now than when I was growing up, apparently because I have less energy these days to think through all the ramifications of all the possible outcomes that I could imagine (and I could imagine a lot). And being imaginative, then as now, can be exhausting.
A could lead to B, which could lead to C, and C could lead to D followed — omigod! — by F! With explosions in Imax and Dolby Atmos! The heuristic approach offers quick decision making with minimal mental effort, which is highly appealing when your brain is fried. And whose brain isn’t somewhat crispy and burnt these days?
I’ll steer clear of all the possible hoo boy examples of how this way of thinking can go very wrong when it comes to matters of race, religion, politics, or gender — sashaying right on by, just gliding past those aisles — and focus instead on poor health outcomes. But spoiler: I’m going to argue that it’s time to think more rather than less.
And we know what’s right!
Aristotle was wrong! We know what’s right and we still choose the pizza!
Clearly, simply knowing what’s “good” isn’t enough for people to do the good, despite what Aristotle asserted 2.5 millennia ago. Good, obviously healthy choices — daily outdoor exercise, whole unprocessed foods, emotional upkeep, plenty of sleep and recovery — still aren’t the norm for the majority of folks. Maybe it’s because our lives are 10,000 times more complex than the ancient Greeks, but human beings can be generally relied upon to do what’s expedient rather than right: what’s quickest and requires the least mental effort.
And when it comes to nutritional choices, quick and least effort translates into highly processed foods. How could it be otherwise, if you’re going to eat something that has to be microwavable into a consumable form in 2 minutes that originally began as wheat, beef, eggs, and milk? To make it easily heated, tasty, cheap, and shelf stable, you pretty much have to process, cut, and add a helluva lot of stuff to the original foods. And as I’ve alluded to in other posts, this processing is pretty clearly a major player in the widespread obesity and chronic disease epidemic in America.
Ditto for exercise. Trainers don’t sell workouts by pitching grueling and hard training methods. Quick results sell, and quick and easy sells best. “There are no shortcuts to physical fitness, you will have to work out regularly, periodically hard, and as you get older, harder and harder for lesser gains, often just struggling to maintain and not lose, forever” is the truth, but I can’t recall ever hearing this in a marketing pitch.
You may have heard the saying, “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good”; this is an example of “Don’t let the quick and easy become the enemy of your wellness.”
Gonna go out on a limb, here
I suspect we are hard wired to be drawn to bargains. Nobody needs to be taught, to be trained, to be pulled like a moth to a flame to things that are FREE, CHEAP, EASY, and QUICK.
Nobody preps celery from the crisper drawer at 2 AM when they get the late night munchies, when a leftover square of lasagna is sitting inches away.
Unless you’re blessed with phenomenally healthy, ingrained habits, choices promoting wellness will be new, relatively unfamiliar, and requiring of some effort. The opposite of QUICK and EASY.
Whatever the phrase that goes through your mind when you cave the wrong way — “Ah, hell,” or “Ah, what the heck” — identify it now, so you can recognize it and the feeling of giving in. When you eat the refined sugar and starch-rich snack, when you scarf the the deep-fried comfort food, when you skip the strength workout, or when you stay up to binge watch just one more episode at 1:30 AM.
That feeling should make you pull up short and hard, like seeing a stranger loitering around your car as you walk up to it, or the smile on an adult’s face as they reach towards your children.
Something’s wrong here. Don’t trust this. Sensors on full, shields up.
“Ah, heck” as a self-soothing intro to “Ah, heck, it’s OK to do some harm to yourself” is not OK.
If “giving in” means giving in to your higher self, then by all means give in to your impulse to log another consistent training session, to pass on the donuts, to get together with friends (masks, please) while taking fizzy water with a slice of lemon, to hug your kids, and to go to bed early.
Otherwise, treat it like a warning. You don’t have to act on every warning, but you should not make a habit of ignoring all of them.
The subject of the sentence that is your life is you: your body, your mind, your emotions, and arguably, your spirit. You don’t want to cut corners on your own self. The most efficient way to get results quickly is to not waste time chasing shortcuts that harm you.
Learn to be critical, to be distrustful, of the impulse to give in.