behavioral economics multitasking

In my last post I shared one of the keys to workplace wellness: how we frame messages about health. This insight is largely owed to the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who suggests that many of our lifestyle choices are governed by the more emotional “fast-thinking” part of our brains.

One reason for this is that our cognitive capacity has limits. These limits have less to do with our ability to know everything (a feat many of us accomplished as teenagers), and more to do with the mental exertion required to process all of the information for the decisions and tasks we face in a typical day.

“Slow-thinking” processes – those that require focus, effort and consideration – use a significant amount of cognitive capacity. They also tend to disrupt each other when our attention is diverted, requiring us to spend even more resources refocusing. The resulting strain can be a problem for humans, particularly when it comes to making choices about our health.

To compensate for capacity, our brains often do what has become a familiar term among workplaces seeking to maximize finite resources – they outsource. When we’re tired, stressed or multitasking, we tend to leave decision-making about lifestyle choices to our more impulsive “fast-thinking” brain.

In a paper that underscores this point, Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin asked participants in a study to choose between cake and fruit salad. Those who were asked to remember a seven-digit number while making their selection were 50 percent more likely to choose cake than participants in the control group.

Cognitive demands can adversely affect countless lifestyle choices. For meals alone, we average about 200 decisions per day, and stress makes us susceptible to outsourcing these decisions, often with poor results. Over weeks and months, these decisions lead to unhealthy habits that can cause longer-term illnesses, such as prediabetes.

With so many different tasks to juggle at work and home, it’s hard to find time for a break, and harder still to think that pausing for a few moments can actually make you more productive. But managing cognitive resources is an important aspect of improving health behaviors. Activities that involve relaxation, reflection and meditation can help offset daily stress.

So, your health mission today, should you choose to accept it: take a mindful walk where you can notice and enjoy your surroundings. Or sit for a moment and try to think about 10 things you are grateful for. Or take 30 seconds to close your eyes and breathe.

Just don’t do them all at once. We’re trying to limit our multitasking.

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