Health & Fitness

How quickly, how well, and how confidently do you make decisions? Do you waste time, lose sleep, or agonize over them? Are you paralyzed by the toughest ones? Do you make decisions based on emotions rather than applying organization and logic to a set of facts and well-defined criteria to quickly reach the one best choice? Emotional decisions are subject to whimsy, PMS, and/or testosterone, and change with the wind, leading to confusion, while the analytical approach enables sound, lasting decisions that lay even the toughest issues to rest, often fairly easily.

So why don’t we all use the latter approach on every important dilemma and the vast majority of the minor ones? We all have some logical ability, we can usually get enough facts, and anyone can muster some degree of organization, even if it’s just a cardboard box or manila folder containing every piece of relevant paper plus a greasy Big Mac sack. With those you’re equipped to decide which shoes to buy or when to euthanize your 15-year-old dog, right?

You’re still not equipped, you say? Uh, oh . . . don’t tell me you have no thoroughly researched, well-defined, deeply ingrained system of criteria for all decisions! Well, holy cow, no wonder you can’t make good, quick, usually easy decisions on no-brainers like whether to take chemotherapy after your cancer surgery. Without a consistent, sound, all-encompassing set of criteria, your priorities are all over the map from dilemma to dilemma and bad hair day to good hair day and you have nothing to base a valid decision on. No wonder you find it difficult to make a straightforward choice about your ninth grader’s pregnancy or a true challenge like choosing which car to buy. You’re up a creek in a storm without a boat, a compass, a paddle, or a rudder. You need to define your life’s criteria before a truly tough decision arises and paralysis by analysis or an emotional decision lets life pass you by or kick you in the teeth.

So where/how do we get this set of criteria? It is derived from our value system -- our codified, cohesive, consistent life’s priorities. Without a value system, the criteria we base all our important decisions on are unidentified, often even unidentifiable, and we must invent new criteria to suit each occasion, under pressure, biased by whatever emotions rule that day or week. Without a value system our tough decisions are ultimately made by our worst enemy in a crisis: our emotions.

Rigorous value systems don’t make life tougher by controlling it; they make it easier by removing many of its uncertainties. Do you think talk radio’s Dr. Laura can spit out solutions quickly because she’s an unyielding, heartless, er, um . . . automaton? Lord, no; she does it because her value system, which happens to be the Jewish faith in her case, is well-defined, rock-solid, and all-encompassing. You may or may not agree with her decisions, but look how easily they come to her and how satisfying they are to her. And they’re backed up by millennia of intense, erudite scrutiny.

You could make decisions as easily as she if you had an equally well-defined value system. Any real religion provides one; surely some religion suits your existing general sense of right and wrong (if not, I’d be examining my definitions of right and wrong). If you have no religion and don’t want one, one simple alternative is the Golden Rule. It provides weak motivation and often situational morals, but it’s a start, and should provide pretty good guidance for basically decent people. College courses, e-courses, seminars, books, and even lengthy discussions with mature friends can help us define our value systems. Even most movies made before the ‘60s provide better moral guidance than nothing, certainly better than most of today’s amoral or immoral, self-centered, shallow entertainment and entertainers.

You can start codifying your value system by listing generic values (e.g., time, money, honesty, sincerity, image, bling bling, family, job title, fun, health) both across the top of and down the side of a matrix. Then in each block of one diagonal half of the matrix, compare the relative value between its two factors. Example; in the block where the “job title” row and “family” column intersect, discuss or state which is more important to you -- working 60-hour weeks or being a good parent and spouse with a life outside the job. Tip: if you can’t resolve your priorities between a pair of factors, one or both factors is probably too broad (e.g., maybe “family” needs to be subdivided into “kids”, “spouse”, “ailing parents”, “outside interests”, etc.).

Defining a set of core values is far beyond the scope of this column, but searching the internet and a bookstore or library with key words such as core values, moral values, value systems, etc., will provide some guidance in your quest. If you feel your life needs a stronger compass, if decisions are difficult, if you lack self-discipline, if emotions run your life, maybe your life would benefit greatly if you defined your core value system.

A sound value system should render decisions such as these pretty easy to make:

  1. Do I inform the clerk when she charges me $29 for a $229 office chair?
  2. Does one parent raise the kids, or do both work and pay someone else to raise them?
  3. Shouldn’t you decide on #2 before doing anything that could produce a kid?
  4. Should I buy the $150 designer shades or the $10 model?
  5. Do I work Saturday or take my kids to a ball game?
  6. Do I continue writing this health and fitness column?
#6 is the dilemma that sparked this article. Although defeated for now, my cancers reminded me of a very useful insight I had decades ago: I’m going to die some day. It may be in two years or in 25, but it will happen, and that’s a useful piece of information. This column has involved 5-10% of my waking hours over its six years, and my time is getting increasingly precious. Too many things aren’t getting done, and now that I’ve already dropped some other activities I also enjoyed, my remaining ranked priorities are competing with this column. With the generous cooperation of your Seasoned Cooking editor, Ronda Halpin, we’re preserving the column title but will cut way back on its frequency of appearance, with an emphasis on wintertime publication.

Why are we discussing value systems in a Health & Fitness column? Because three of the best ways to increase our mental, and to some degree physical health are:

  1. Learn to say, “No”,
  2. Identify our priorities so we know WHEN to say, “No”, then
  3. Actually say and mean, “No”.

In this case, I’m saying, “No” to my own desire to continue the monthly column, because my backlog of top priority activities and milestones is increasing, not shrinking.

All of your decisions should be increasingly sound, lasting, and consistent as your value system becomes clearer to you. Our priorities and goals, not our emotions, should drive our important decisions, activities, and milestones. A quick Google search revealed the following internet sources of help in defining value systems. There are many more available, such as the nighttime pay-as-you-go college course which was my most thorough formal introduction to the topic.

I’m going to miss researching, condensing, and presenting new topics for you each month. But the freedom I gained by letting a recent column slip to the last possible minute to take care of more urgent activities, including fighting an undeserved traffic ticket and catching some big waves, felt rewarding and well-deserved. Thank all of you for your readership, and I’m sure the Atkins dieters will breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe a year of sparse columns will let the column rise to the surface of my priorities list again.

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