Health decisions: Do You Want Can or Have-to Decisions?

Every day you are faced with dozens if not hundreds of decisions. Take a moment and reflect on your day so far. Most decisions you probably won’t even notice as such, for example:

  • “Should I get up or stay in bed five more minutes?! Or the famous one:
  • “What should I wear?”

All of these decisions affect you as countless articles and studies have shown. Every morning you wake up with a limited amount of “decision energy”, which lasts for a certain amount of decisions. Once this energy is used up, you will either make worse decisions or no decisions at all.  That’s the point when you need to recharge with food or sleep. Keep that in mind.

This concept is important for your health, but so is another one, I named “Can-Decisions” and “Have-to Decisions”. You probably can already guess from their name what they are.

Can-Decisions are decisions you can freely make, and you are not forced to decide in a certain way. For example you can decide to sleep only 4 hours per night. It’s your decision, whether that’s good or bad doesn’t necessarily matter. (Assuming that you can make it through the day.)

Have-to Decisions on the other hand are decisions you are basically forced to make in a certain direction. Now some of you might argue that there is no decision that you are forced to make. Let’s say if you don’t decide them in a certain way you suffer from severe consequence.

Let’s continue the sleep example. Assume you only sleep 4 hours per night, but then your doctor tells you: “If you sleep only 4 hours per night for one more night, you will die.” I don’t know about you, but I would make sure that I never sleep less than 4 hours ever again. Wouldn’t you?

That’s an extreme example, but gladly, everyday life gives us plenty of examples and you probably already heard several of them.

  • “If you continue to smoke, you will get lung cancer.”
  • “If you continue eating fast food, you will suffer a second heart attack.”
  • “If you don’t reduce your stress levels, your blood pressure will make you sick.”

Basically all of those examples are Have-to Decisions to some extent. If you don’t do X, something bad will happen to you. The thing with health is, no one knows for sure, which is also the main problem, why we are so bad with deciding our Can-decisions.

Let’s assume you’re a 30-year old smoker. If somebody told you to stop smoking because you’ll get lung cancer, you think about your grandfather or a close friend who smoked their whole life and never got sick. Fair enough. You get rid of that can-decision and continue smoking.

As a matter of fact you don’t have to stop smoking.

Five years later you get lung cancer and you survive it. Your doctor tells you again, you should stop smoking, because if you don’t, you’ll get cancer again and are very likely to die this time. Even though, it’s still in essence a Can-decision, it shifted more towards being a have-to decision at this point.

Again, I don’t know about you, but if I would be in this situation, I would probably never touch a cigarette again.

A study conducted in 2010 actually found out that smokers who quit smoking after contracting lung cancer double their chance of survival after 5 years compared to those who continued to smoke.

The underlying problem with these health decisions.

The problem with making Can-decisions is not that we suffer from decision fatigue all the time and are not able to make them, but it’s the underlying probability.

You can’t be sure of anything. There simply is no 100% certainty, except for very few things in your life. Let’s take smoking again, because it’s one of the simplest examples.

On every pack of cigarettes is a warning, that usually says something like: “Smoking may cause lung cancer.”

It’s not “Smoking causes lung cancer”, it’s “may cause” and that’s the difference. If it would be 100% sure that smoking causes cancer or smoking kills you within 5 years, why would anybody start smoking? Maybe there are some social factors involved, but I guess that the number of people who take up smoking would move towards zero.

Unfortunately that’s not the case. Not for smoking, not for anything, especially not in the area of health.

  • Fast Food may cause obesity, but it doesn’t have to.
  • Too little sleep may cause heart disease, but it doesn’t have to.
  • Too much sugar might cause diabetes, but it doesn’t have to.

You get the point. But what can you do about it?

Two possible solutions.

If you are able to read this on your phone, computer or tablet you have it more than good, even if you don’t realise it. You are likely to have the ability to make can-decisions in every area of your life.

You can probably choose the food you eat, you have clean water to drink and you can find a couple of minutes a day to exercise. You also have all the knowledge you need to get healthy at your fingertips. Still, you are likely to forget the overall luxury of having can-decisions.

Maybe you know that fast food isn’t good for you, but you still eat it every day. Maybe you know that soda contains tons of sugar that might cause diabetes, but you drink it anyway. I’m not going to suggest how you can change those habits, but I’d suggest only one thing for now.

Remind yourself that you have the ability to make those decisions. You still have all those can-decisions. You are not forced to do anything. Don’t let them turn into have-to decisions.

Remind yourself about your can-decisions.

Remind yourself every day that you are able to make those decisions. Even if you still drink the soda afterwards or light up the cigarette, remind yourself that it’s your choice. If that’s hard for you, good, do it anyway. Maybe tell yourself: “I know this cigarette isn’t good for my health, but I’ll light it up anyways, because at the moment it makes me feel good.”

If you don’t remind yourself of your ability to make can-decisions, you’ll forget about it. It’s similar to being grateful. I bet there are a hundred things you could be grateful for right now, but you probably don’t recognize most of them, unless you look for them and remind yourself.

Try it, come up with 10 things you are grateful for, and yes, having warm water and electricity are valid options.

After you remind yourself about your ability to make decisions, you can take it one step further and make it emotional.

Make the decision emotional. 

Most of your actions are not based on rational reasons, but on emotional ones. For example, you don’t buy a new car, because it has a great acceleration, but you buy it because it makes you look cool in front of your friends.

After you made the decision, you need to justify it with rational reasons, but you act out of emotions. It’s the same with your can- and have-to decisions.

If you’re a smoker you likely know that smoking isn’t good for you, but you do it anyway, for whatever reason. You have the knowledge, but it most often doesn’t matter. You know that sugar is not good and that you should exercise. But those are all rational reasons, not emotional ones.

If on the other hand your 12 year old daughter tells you: “Please stop smoking, I want you to be able to hold your grandkids someday” the whole issue gets emotional.

By making a decision emotional you are more likely to act on it.

Make the best can-decisions while you still can and don’t wait until the become have-to decisions. Remind yourself about them daily and make them emotional if you want to be more likely to act on it. It feels great to be able to have can-decisions, but don’t take this for granted.

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