A neuroscientist who studies decision-making shares his best advice for living healthier

Making healthy choices sounds like a good way to get in better shape. But according to Moran Cerf, the strategy is misguided.

Cerf, a professor of business and neuroscience at Northwestern University, has been studying decision-making for over a decade. One of his biggest takeaways is that making choices on a daily basis is psychologically exhausting.

In other words, it’s tough to constantly exert the willpower required to avoid snacking or get up off the couch to exercise. Eventually, old habits get the best of people and they cave to unproductive tendencies.

Based on his research, Cerf claims other strategies are far more effective at getting people to build sustainable habits that promote healthy living – and they aren’t the typical stuff of diet books.

Choose your company according to your goals.


The most important strategy starts with who people pick as their company, Cerf said, since the people you surround yourself with ultimately influence your behaviour more than most other factors.

His research has found people’s brain activity actually syncs up when they’re in each other’s presence.

People wanting to be healthier will naturally take on the habits of fit people if they spend more time with them, Cerf said. Kids are often warned to avoid peers who are bad influences, but adults can also benefit from seeking good influences.

Step on the scale no more than once a week.


Cerf believes people rely too heavily on data to guide their lifestyle choices.

Knowing your starting weight and goal weight are helpful, but an individual’s weight can fluctuate by a few pounds each day. Weighing yourself daily invites too much noise into the process.

Cerf’s recommendation: Weigh yourself just once a week, and focus less on the number than the direction you’re headed. As long as you’re making progress, Cerf said, that’s what counts.

Pick one menu item at restaurants and stick to it.


In his own life, Cerf always selects the second menu option on a restaurant’s list of specials. He’s not a picky eater, so the strategy helps him avoid making a low-level decision and, in turn, free up more energy for the important stuff.

People who want to get in shape can modify the tactic slightly, he said. Instead of choosing the second menu option, people can opt for a similar healthy dish at the various places they go.

Rather than face a dilemma of temptation versus prudence, the decision will be pre-made. People can use their leftover willpower in other productive ways.

Make a “Ulysses pact” with yourself.


In Greek mythology, Ulysses tied himself to the mast of his ship and ordered his men not to untie him even if the Sirens’ message tempted him to stray off course. In medicine, a version of this agreement is known as a “Ulysses pact.”

Cerf said people can make a similar pact with themselves: Tell yourself at the beginning of the year how often you want to work out. In moments of weakness,defer=”defer”to the Ulysses pact to keep your over-arching goal in mind.

People can even add a financial incentive into the mix, Cerf said, by setting aside a certain amount of money for the year and “paying” themselves when they go to the gym.

Think about how long you want to live, and work backward.


No one can fully predict the future of medicine, but Cerf said that people can evaluate their present habits based on their expectations for longevity.

For instance, people who want to live a longer-than-average life need to focus on preserving their brain and heart health, which can be accomplished (in part) through a diet of leafy greens, nuts, and certain berries, paired with regular exercise, according to cardiologists.

People who have different goals may feel fine about exposing themselves to greater risk factors if their long-term health isn’t as important to them as short-term satisfaction.