Ubel: Precommitment! One reason we humans do not always behave rationally is that we have limited willpower. We know that exercise is good for us. We understand that junk food is bad. But we cannot follow through on our rational desires. We plan to run for 30 minutes, but after 10 we get off the treadmill and convince ourselves we are a bit stiff today. We try to cut down on empty calories and then grab a handful of M&Ms from a candy bowl, almost unaware of our action. No single M&M caused anyone to have diabetes. No one experienced a heart attack because he was 20 minutes short of his exercise goal. And yet our lives, our waistlines even, are the result of thousands of such decisions and behaviors.
To improve ourselves, we have to act as if each M&M matters, as if each decision has important consequences. To do this, it helps to make rules and follow them. Commit yourselves to no candy, no desserts, and you will become more mindful of M&M bowls. Run outside, rather than inside on a treadmill, and you will be forced to finish your running loop. Tell a friend you will walk with her for 30 minutes this afternoon, and you will be forced to show up. Do you want to save more money? Have some money automatically deposited into a savings account that you cannot access easily through ATMs, debit cards or checkbooks. Sometimes the best way to behave better when you are weak is to impose martial law on yourself when you feel strong.
Mind: Has your awareness of these innate flaws changed your daily routine?
Ubel: It has made me almost impossible to live with! Imagine spending time with someone who is obsessed with rationality, who constantly tries to find ways to “better himself.” My poor wife!
Mind: If you could give one piece of advice for avoiding a few of the mental mistakes outlined in your book, what would it be?
Ubel: None of us is perfect. We will all make a boatload of mistakes before our lives are done. So try to think about the areas in your life where you can least afford to make mistakes or where you must, simply must, remain steadfast in the face of temptation, and concentrate your energy and attention on these few areas. Is saving money your Achilles’ heel? Do not worry, then, that you might not always make great decisions on the tennis court. Is food your downfall? Try to minimize the food-related mistakes you make, and do not get bogged down trying to fix everything else in your life. Once you have mastered food (is that possible?), you can move on to the next challenge.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Explaining Fiscal Foolishness".