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Why It's Easy to Do What's Wrong

we default to what's easy
❝Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there.❞ -Will Rogers

I feel pretty good as we climb the hill to the rest area. My wife and I are riding in an organized bike ride called the Tour de Pepin. We're biking 72 miles around Lake Pepin - a lake on the Mississippi River between Minnesota and Wisconsin. They have rest areas set up for us about every 10 miles. This allows us to refill our water and get some calories. I’m pretty happy, considering we're 40 miles in. In other years I've been quite cranky at this point, so I'm excited that I'm feeling so good. We only have one steep hill left to climb. After that, it's relatively flat for the rest of the ride.

15 miles later, we're in Red Wing, Minnesota resting a little bit, getting a snack, and refilling our water. At this point, the wind should be mostly at our back, and it's mostly a straight shot back to the finish line. If I wasn't confident before, I'm really confident now that I will make it back with no problems. We finish our snacks and hit the road for the final stretch.

Unfortunately, it's unusually hot today. I don't have a thermometer with me, but it's a good bet that it's close to 95 degrees, and we've lost our shade. As we pedal down the road, we can definitely feel that the sun is quickly draining our energy. 10 miles later, we approach the final rest area. I don't feel as great as I did at mile 40, but I still have some gas left in the tank. There are only about 6 miles left to go. Therefore, when my wife asks me if we should stop at the rest area, I tell her there's no need. Let's just hurry up and finish.

Two miles after that rest area, my water is as hot as tea, my feet are killing me, my shoulders hurt, my back is sore, I can't control my breathing, I'm sweating uncontrollably, and I can't seem to get my heart rate to slow. I realize it's going to be a long 4 miles.

We finally finish, but I'm in bad shape. We don't even go to the after-party; we go straight to our car. I immediately drink a liter of water, but it's not enough - I'm still thirsty. I wasn't having a direct conversation with my body, but it feels like my body was on strike.

Eventually, we go back to the post-race party and watch some live music, and I reflect back on how poor my decision was to skip that last rest area. Logically there's no scenario where it makes sense to skip it, but in the heat of the moment, to me, it made perfect sense.

My wife and I didn't have a clear plan to stop at every rest area. Had we decided ahead of time, we wouldn't have had to make the decision with clouded judgment.


We are lazy. That's hardwired into us. We will do whatever we need to do by expending the least amount of energy. Thousands of years ago, the people who wasted energy didn't survive to become our ancestors. Conserving resources for when we absolutely need them is a survival mechanism.

As a result, we will default to doing whatever is easiest, even if what's easy isn't necessarily good for us.

if it's easy, we're more likely to do it


This idea that I'm calling laziness is so common that there's a name for it. It's called status quo bias, and it says that we will fight to stay the same. We need around five reasons to change for every reason to stay the same before we even consider changing. This is not a character flaw. This happens beneath our conscious awareness. The ancient part of our brains, the part that's responsible for survival, prefers the familiar to the improved. This is true even if the improvement is equally as easy as the familiar. Once you layer on top of this the fact that the familiar is almost always easier, then it starts to make sense why it's so easy for many of us to do things that seem to be against our long-term self-interest.

status quo bias says we'll choose familiar over better


When we are experiencing intense emotions, both good and bad, we're not likely to make the best decisions. Therefore, if we don't have a plan or a system in place that we can follow when emotions start to run high, then our default is to do what is easiest.

"What is easiest" does not mean what is the easiest in the long run. It means what is easiest at that moment. And because we're usually running high on the emotion scale, we're not likely to make the best decisions. So what is easiest at the moment is what we think is the easiest.

we don't make good decisions when we're in the heat of the moment


Setting up a system for yourself to follow is a process-oriented approach to living your life. Unlike a goal, which is outcome-focused, a system is less limiting and detaches you from any particular outcome. The idea is that if you get the system down, the outcomes take care of themselves.

For example, think about the kind of person you want to be. Do you want to be the kind of person that reads for an hour every day? Do you want to be the kind of person who goes on a run every morning? Do you want to be the kind of person who leaves the office at 4:45 every day? Once you decide the kind of person you want to be, you can design your system around that. Once you commit to running every morning, for example, the rest of your day will fit into the time remaining after you run. If you decide that you will only run if there's time, you'll never run.

Decide ahead of time who you want to be and set up a rule for yourself to become that person.

what kind of person do you want to be? decide ahead of time


By planning ahead of time and thinking about the kind of person you want to be, you can create rules for yourself. You can have a rule that you're going to run every day. You can have a rule that you're going to read for an hour every day. You can have a rule that you're going to leave the office at 4:45.

When you have a rule that you consistently follow, overriding your rule becomes harder. In the heat of the moment, the easy choice will be to follow your rule.

You can even use this to plan ahead for things that might go wrong. For example, what will you do when you don't feel like running in the morning? What will you do when it seems like there's no time to read? What will you do when there's an unexpected expense? What will you do when the market goes down? What will you do when you get to the next rest area on your bike?

Don't wait for the version of you that's stressed out in the heat of the moment to make a decision. Decide ahead of time.

have a system and plan ahead

The easy thing to do is usually the wrong thing to do and is not in your best interest. Set up your system so that the right thing to do becomes easy.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Clear, James: Atomic Habits

Fogg, BJ: Tiny Habits

Housel, Morgan: The Psychology of Money

Klontz, Brad, Edward Horwitz & Ted Klontz: Money Mammoth

Klontz, Brad & Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Peterson, Jordan: 12 Rules for Life

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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