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How Not to Make Excuses

States of mind

An experiment in excuses
For most of my life I’ve been running an experiment between two categories of things in my life: the “excuses are OK” group and “no excuses” group. It’s only recently that I noticed I was running this experiment, though, and so the years and years of results are only now starting to come in handy.

Let me give some examples of choices that have been in each group. By the way, though I talk a lot about eating well in this post, the points about excuses and exceptions apply just as well to forming any other kind of habit.

“Excuses are OK” group

  • Eating foods that I’d be better off not eating
  • Going to bed at a reasonable hour
  • Keeping track of incoming mail

“No Excuses” group

  • Parenting
  • Vegetarianism (for the 22 years I decided to do that)
  • Going to work

So I might do well for a stretch at making good eating choices, then hit a day when I was traveling and didn’t have many options, so I’d say to myself “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat well on a day like today–I’ll just eat whatever.”

But on that same trip I would not say “Oh well, it’s really hard to eat vegetarian on a day like today–I’ll just get a hamburger.”

My results
Knowing what I know these days about self-motivation, it shouldn’t surprise me that the “no excuses” group of activities were much more successful than the “excuses OK” group. For instance, when I started making a rule of eating only at specific times of day, it became much easier to make better eating choices. I went 22 years without knowingly eating any red meat, seafood, or poultry–even that time back in my 20’s when I was out of money and extremely hungry while traveling and someone offered me a hamburger. By contrast, it’s rare that I’ve gone 22 days without overeating (though all the days I have eaten well count for something, as I eventually lost 60 pounds and have been in great shape for quite a while now).

To look at it another way, and in terms of a real experiment, one study on habit formation found that those participants who kept up the behavior they wanted to make into a habit with no more than one exception over the course of months were much more successful at forming durable habits than those who made two or more exceptions.

The secret of excuses and exceptions
The thing about excuses and exceptions is that if we’re trying to build habits, there’s no good reason for excuses short of total catastrophe. Any time we don’t stick with the behavior we’re trying to build up–that is, any time we make exceptions–we lose some of the habitual behavior we’re trying to build. There may be days when eating well is inconvenient, boring, or annoying, but if I use inconvenience, boredom, and annoyance as excuses, then they’ll wreck my attempts to build a habit over time.

That’s not to say that making one excuse is the end of the world, but it is true that taking excuses as a serious problem and not an acceptable norm will help us develop the habits we want to create.

Easier said than done–but possible!
“That’s really nice,” you might say, “but it doesn’t help me for you to just tell me to behave the way I’d like to all the time. Not behaving the way I want to is the problem in the first place!” And that would be a reasonable thing to mention. Fortunately, there is a practical takeaway here: excuses are red flags and should be treated as such. There’s no such thing as a good excuse when trying to build a habit, there are only catastrophic interruptions. If a friend of yours is in the hospital and you end up throwing your good eating habits out the window from stress and limited choices, that’s fine; it’s not the end of the world–but it is a catastrophic interruption, and it means you’re damaging a good habit you’re working on for something more important. But good friends are more important than good food, and that’s a reasonable choice if you really need to focus on your friend.

On the other hand, what if you just interrupt a good habit because you’re in a bad mood or happen to be in a restaurant that serves something you like? Many of us immediately reach for the excuse box.

But if we recognize excuses and exceptions as danger signs, we can stop ourselves and say “My goal here is to build a habit, not to come up with excuses to screw that up.” Using this kind of awareness, making rules, taking responsibility, surrendering excuses, and making use of any useful tactics we can learn (like this list of 24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry), we can move ourselves out of the “Excuses OK” group and into the group that’s really kicking experimental butt.

Photo by ariel.chico

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How to Stop in Mid-Fail

States of mind

When we make bad decisions, where’s the real point of no return?

Let’s say Meg decides she really want to go to Sweden, and she plans an incredible 3-week vacation there: great hotels, tours, plane tickets, the whole shebang. As she’s making these reservations, she thinks to herself “I probably can’t afford this–but I’ve always wanted to go to Sweden, and who knows when I’ll have the chance next?” Everything’s set. Once the reservations are made, is it too late for her to change her mind?

Two weeks before the trip she looks briefly at her finances and begins to worry about what will happen to her credit card debt if she goes. Is she really going to be able to pay all that money off? It turns out she doesn’t have it in savings, as she was kind of hoping she would. Now is it too late?

The day before she leaves, the anxiety is too much for her, and she sits down and runs the numbers. It turns out that the trip isn’t just a little out of her reach: it’s going to cause havoc to her whole budget–she might even run out of money while on the trip! And she hadn’t realized the hotel was going to cost that much, and should she really have booked the more expensive flight so that she didn’t have to leave at 5:30 in the morning? Is it too late now?

It may feel too late. When you’re driving away from the fast food restaurant or about to drop that angry letter in the mailbox or standing at the counter while the sales clerk rings up your purchases, it may feel as though you’re committed to the bad choice you’ve made, even if you now realize it’s a bad choice. For some of us (and this is completely typical of the old eating habits I’ve been painstakingly overcoming for years), you may be halfway through eating something, realize you’re not enjoying it at all, and still finish it because oh well, you already bought it and started eating it, and you don’t want it to go to waste, right? Because making you unhappy and contributing to your ill health is much less going to waste than throwing it away … uh, right?

Yet it’s never actually too late until it’s literally impossible to take whatever it is back. Even if it would take a lot of effort to backtrack, or if you lose money by changing your plans, or if you have to do something that seems random and embarrasses you, it’s better to reverse a bad choice at the last minute than to never reverse it at all. The day before Meg’s trip, she can say to herself “This is ridiculous: I can’t afford this, and I won’t even be able to enjoy the trip because I’ll be worrying about money the whole time.” Then she can call the airline and see if she can get a refund or credit for the flight, call the hotels and tours and cancel her reservations, and so on. If she’s past the deadline for getting much money back from the trip–for instance, if she got non-refundable plane tickets and the airline won’t give her credit toward future travel–then maybe it is too late, but if she just has to take a hit of a few hundred dollars instead of spending thousands she doesn’t have, then canceling (or scaling back to much cheaper arrangements) is still the right decision for her.

On the surface, this kind of reversal looks stupid: you go to a lot of trouble to arrange something, then you go to a lot of trouble to cancel it, and lose money in the bargain. The important thing to realize is that the value Meg was trying to get at the beginning was an illusion: the trip was not really something she wanted on those terms. If she took it, she would be less happy and less empowered than if she didn’t. Once she realized this, the value of the trip as she understood it changed. It’s as though you made arrangements to buy a nice car and then found out the car was a lemon. Would you still buy the car (and for the same amount) just because it seemed like it was worth more before you knew better?

There are two benefits to reversing a bad decision even after the bad decision has already cost you something. The first is that the bad decision hurts you less if you don’t follow all the way through with it. The second is that you give yourself a memorable and meaningful lesson. The canceled trip will, we hope, really stick in Meg’s memory, so that the next time she tries to buy something that she can’t afford, she can reflect on it and say “Remember when I almost bankrupted myself on that trip to Sweden I wanted? This is like that. Why don’t I steer clear this time?”

Is it ever too late to get a little smarter?

Photo by tricky

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Mental Secret Weapons versus a Cinnamon Bun

Self-motivation examples

There are cinnamon buns on the counter in my kitchen, which I bought for my son. There is nothing preventing me from having a cinnamon bun, since it wouldn’t be grossly unhealthy to eat one, and my son isn’t necessarily entitled to every single bun. But I definitely have no nutritional need for a cinnamon bun and in fact am still working hard to lose weight, so while I’d certainly get a little pleasure during the few minutes it would take to eat one, in the long run I’m likely to get more happiness by not eating one. As low-key as the satisfaction of having made a smart choice is, together with freedom from a mild sugar crash and greater ease in getting more fit it has more enjoyment to offer me in the long term than the cinnamon bun.

But, of course, I wanted a cinnamon bun. I went over to the counter and looked at them, thinking something like “These aren’t really good choices for me to eat, but I can’t resist.”

Stop! Halt! Broken idea detected!  “I can’t resist” is making the cinnamon bun issue into an absolute, as though it were an irresistable force like gravity instead of 1) mild hunger plus 2) most of a lifetime of bad snacking habits plus 3) a vague leftover sense of mild deprivation from childhood. Theoretically, staring at those cinnamon buns, I should still have a way out, even though I was strongly inclined to eat one.

Lately I’ve been trying to make a habit of pulling out whatever willpower tricks I have whenever I’m in a situation where I could make a bad choice, even if it’s a very minor bad choice. So I tried a few of the 24 anti-hunger techniques I could think of off the top of my head: “Have some tea (anti-hunger idea #11), or a piece of gum (#10),” I told myself. I don’t want tea or gum, I answered myself. I want a cinnamon bun. I actually reached for the container then.

“You’ll be happier if you don’t eat that!” I told myself in desparation (#2).

You promise? I answered. (I’m not making this up. I actually thought the words “You promise?” to myself. It was a little weird.)

“Yes, I promise,” I said. “So are we good?”

We were good. I stepped away from the cinnamon bun and drank some water (#12). It wasn’t even difficult to step away then. The effort had only had to go into coming up with a tactic that changed my thinking for that particular situation.

Changing my thinking worked because I like happiness, which was what I was able to offer myself. Happiness is good, and within pretty generous limits, more happiness is better. Apparently whatever part of me wanted the cinnamon bun was satisfied if it could trade it in for happiness. While I was surprised that this little mental conversation was sufficient to resolve the cinnamon bun problem for me, in general it makes sense. We always have a variety of dimly-seen forces prodding us to do things that ultimately we won’t be thrilled we did, but we also have available to us a wealth of secret mental weapons we can use to align ourselves with our own best intentions, including visualization, reframing, distraction, support, and others. If we get in the habit of trying a few of them whenever we’re faced with a difficult choice, sometimes we’ll surprise ourselves.

Photo by TowerGirl

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Don’t Economize in the Wrong Places

Strategies and goals

We all have a limited amount of resources: limited time, limited money, limited attention, limited skills … and so naturally we economize. To save our resources we take choose things to do without, select more modest alternatives, focus on one thing instead of another, share with other people and so on. And these are necessary skills: being able to spend $20 less on a grocery trip or to free up an hour in your day for something important give us greater power, flexibility, and control in our lives.

Yet economizing is a tricky balance, one that’s easy to lose in either direction. For example, if I try getting a cheaper brand of something at a grocery store, sometimes it will be a good find, but other times we’ll discover we’ve just gotten a really good deal on something no one in the house wants to eat–and a good deal on something you don’t need is always a bad deal.

It’s this way with anything. Putting too much time into “productive work” at the expense of relationships can undermine those relationships so that the support and even reasons for doing the “productive work” gradually erodes away. The classic example of this is the workaholic whose family falls apart due to time not being put in.

It’s difficult to know how to balance all of these requirements. Heck, it’s difficult to even figure out a seemingly simple limit, like exactly how many calories to eat per day when trying to lose weight (because of needing to consider variables for amount of muscle and fat, height, build, lifestyle, types of food, amounts of weight to lose, and so on). This doesn’t mean that we can’t put limits to good use, only that it’s good to question the limits we put on ourselves to make sure they’re still serving the goals they’re supposed to. If this idea turns into constantly revamping tactics so that goals are never reached, it’s destructive–but if it turns into a slow process of fine-tuning our choices and priorities, it can speed us toward our goals more effectively and more enjoyably than if we try to economize too much or in the wrong ways.

Photo by wenzday01

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Useful tool for Nutrition and Fitness: SparkPeople

Resources

A screenshot of part of the Nutrition Tracker tool at SparkPeople

Ever since I started seriously working on my own fitness back in 2005, I have kept track of what I eat, my weight, and how much I exercise in little notebooks that I carry around with me, at least most of the time. Recently, though, a friend showed me SparkPeople, a free nutrition and fitness site. SparkPeople allows users to track what they eat, how much they exercise, and what kind of exercise they do (including both cardio and strength training categories), weight, measurements, and other fitness metrics. It’s well-suited both to weight loss and to other fitness goals and offers charts and totals of helpful values like calories, fat, protein, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals, calories burned in exercise, and more. There are other features I haven’t used extensively, including recipes, forums, goal-setting, and tracking how much water you drink. All of these features are free; to the best of my knowledge there are no paid membership options on the site. SparkPeople is supported by noticeable but well-behaved advertising.

Personally the most useful feature for me is the Nutrition Tracker, where I can tap into a very large database of foods and record exactly what I’m eating in as precise amounts as I can figure out. This allows me to receive detailed nutritional reporting. The tracking on this site takes me a little longer than my notebook method because I previously counted only calories, and I had memorized the calorie counts of most foods I ate, but it has several benefits. One is that it gives me much more information than I had on my own, protein and cholesterol totals being especially useful to me. Another is that, interestingly, I feel compelled to track everything every day–even on the days when I exceed my calorie goal, when the total is less appealing–because if I track a partial day, it feels like I’m being misleading: it would appear that I had only eaten however many things I tracked instead of that I stopped tracking. Using my paper system, there were days that I didn’t track. I like this slight extra incentive to be consistent.

A third benefit is that I’m forced to write down the specific foods I eat rather than, for instance, writing “omelette” and estimating total calories: my numbers are more precise using this system.

While I find some of the tools a little cumbersome–speaking as a techie, for instance, I’d love to see the tool for adding foods integrated into the Nutrition Tracker page as an iFrame–all in all they have been fairly easy to use and quite useful. Of course you have to have access to the Internet to update the system, but they have a good mobile phone interface that I’ve barely used but that might do the trick for people who don’t always have access to a computer.

Speaking about motivation specifically, notice that this site provides some key pieces: one is supporting detailed tracking and regular review of tracked information, which is a rudimentary feedback loop (a more sophisticated feedback loop would just add free-form discussion or journaling about what led to good and bad outcomes and how to change or stick with behaviors for best results in future). Another is the community that’s available there for encouragement and cameraderie. Yet another is focusing attention on nutrition and exercise issues, since more attention often translates to more and better motivation.

Since there are a lot of features on this extensive site that I haven’t used, I hope other SparkPeople users will post their impressions and tips in comments.

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Will a Good Habit Stop a Bad Habit?

Strategies and goals

Since I started getting serious about fitness, there have been two kinds of health habits I’ve been trying to change and improve, and they’re the same two that we hear all the time when people talk about weight loss: eating and exercise. I can tell you from experience that eating well and exercising regularly work, if they’re done the right way. What I haven’t understood until now is why picking up the exercise habit was so much easier than changing my eating habits.

In both cases, I’m trying to strengthen good habits (getting regular exercises, choosing healthy foods to eat), but only in the case of eating am I also trying to quash bad habits (eating the wrong foods or too much of the right foods).

When I started exercising, I got into good habits within a few months, habits that have improved slowly over time ever since. Eating, however, has been another story. In terms of good eating habits, I’ve been building those much like my exercise habits. Some of the lunches I’ve been eating are so filling yet light and nutritious, they’d make you weep. Well, maybe not you, but certainly someone with a sentimental streak for healthy lunches.

My bad eating habits, though, haven’t been going away at the same rate as my good eating habits have been coming in. Sure, they’ve been diminishing over time, but if the good habits had had anything to say about it, the bad habits would have been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp years ago. So what’s going on here?

Research to the rescue: A study by psychologists Bas Verplanken and Suzanne Faes gives evidence that forming a good habit to reach a goal doesn’t necessarily do anything to get rid of bad habits that might get in the way of that same goal. Verplanken and Faes make sense of this with the idea of “implementation intentions”–plans to do something specific in a specific kind of situation. This research seems to show that implementation intentions (like “prepare a healthy lunch in the morning and bring it in to work instead of buying something”) are much more useful for forming habits than general goals (like “eat a healthy lunch”). When you think about it, this makes sense: building habits is about doing something over and over again. If a person hasn’t decided exactly what to do exactly when, there’s a lot more in the way of the behavior that person is trying to repeat.

Implementation intentions, though, only cover specific circumstances and specific behaviors. So my nifty ideas for lunch can certainly help me choose a healthy lunch over an unhealthy lunch–but those same ideas will have little or no effect on whether I decide to buy some kind of high-calorie food to munch on an hour later.

The upshot seems to be that good habits can help destroy bad habits only if there’s no way for both habits to happen together. Bad habits can be overcome, and there are many tools on this site that offer ways to overcome them, but to make the best progress on that front, it becomes important for us to separate out the specific habits we’re trying to change or acquire, good and bad, so that we know which bad habits need to be tackled directly and which we can depend on good habits to crush.

Photo by Helico

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The Problem of Living One Minute in the Future

States of mind

I recently noticed that I have the habit, sometimes, of living approximately one minute in the future. This is a problem. I’ll explain:

Of all the focus and motivation-related skills I could be developing, the one that helps me the most when I practice it and causes the most harm when it’s missing is mindfulness. When I take time to be aware of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about what I’m doing, what’s really important to me, and from all that what choices suit me the best, I make some terrific choices. When I lose track of too many of these things for too long … not so much.

The question of how well mindfulness works has a lot to do with how much effort and attention go into it, so the problems come for me mainly when I let my attention be taken up too much by other things.

Recently I was doing my best to apply mindfulness to how I eat. This probably sounds like a relatively unimportant, navel-gazing exercise, but since eating is one of the things that in the past I’ve done least mindfully, for me it’s something that I benefit from working on regularly.

What I noticed about myself was that while I was eating something I enjoyed, I wasn’t paying the most attention to the bite I was actually eating. I wasn’t even paying attention to the next bite: no, the bite I was focusing on was the one two bites ahead. Somewhere deep down I seem to still have a concern that the food will all just run out all of a sudden. And who knows? Someday I may live in a time and place where there’s a famine and there isn’t enough food. For an adequately employed American in 2010, though, that attitude is ridiculous.

And yet, I began to notice that whenever I was on my next-to-last bite, I stopped enjoying what I was eating and felt as though I had no food left. This is while I’m still chewing and have another bite to go, mind you. I was living two bites in the future, and even when there was still food two bites away, it wasn’t food I was eating–all I was enjoying then was the fact that there was still food available.

I don’t eat like this all the time, or even necessarily most of the time. But when I’m not paying attention and letting my least useful long-term eating habits get the best of me, there’s a disconnect between me and my food–which may explain why until the last couple of years, while I ate healthy food, I didn’t have a good sense of how much I should eat or when. That’s changed with effort and practice, fortunately, but some of the attitudes that gave rise to the problem in the first place are still present, even though they’re diminished.

The problem of living a little bit in the future can crop up anywhere: watching the clock during the work day and not being willing to be happy until it’s time to leave; working on a project and not allowing a sense of any accomplishment until the project is done (if then); and so on. If you find you’re having trouble enjoying something, it can be useful to pay attention for a moment to where your focus is: is it on what’s going on now, or is it on some imagined payoff, deadline, beginning, or end?

That’s not to say we should always live in the moment: always doing that is neither wise nor practical, and I talk about the reasons this is true in this article. But living slightly out of kilter with the moment often isn’t a good strategy either, and sometimes all it takes to be happier and reduce stress is to set the clock back a minute or so.

Photo by rockmixer

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Getting Back on the Scale After the Holidays

Strategies and goals

Just before Thanksgiving, I posted How Not to Blow a Diet Over the Holidays, which contained the best information I had to offer about holding to a difficult course of fitness and weight loss during a time of year crammed with distractions, temptations, and surprises. Toward the end of the post I said, “Today I weigh 182 pounds. I’ll update this post in early January to let you know how it came out for me: I expect to have lost at least a few pounds.” Was my prediction sound? And just how useful did I find my own recommendations?

What worked
Well, my rash declaration definitely helped me focus my attention and reminded me to use the best knowledge I have. (After all, just knowing something isn’t the same thing as making active use of the knowledge), and the self-motivation skills I’ve been researching and writing about seem to have done the trick: my scale this morning tells me I weigh 177, five pounds less than I did a few days before Thanksgiving. I’ve lost roughly a pound a week over that time, most of it in the beginning of December, and am very close to my goal fitness level. (Exactly how close, I can’t be sure, as I’m not aiming for a number on the scale, but instead for a level of visible fitness.)

Did my pre-Thanksgiving strategies help me? Absolutely. I made a point of bringing food I could eat to celebrations and meals, planned what to eat ahead of time (including limits), took special care to track what I was eating, and talked freely about what I was doing to get support and to increase the potential rewards of sticking with it.

Unexpected complications
So did my own pre-holiday advice eliminate all trouble for me? Definitely not. The two problems I wasn’t expecting seem obvious in hindsight, but when I was making my plans, all I was worried about was the food that would be available to me.

The first of the surprise problems was time for exercise. I generally try to exercise as close as possible to every day. Over the holidays, there were a number of days when I would be with friends or family in all of my available time, and the idea of getting everyone up after Christmas dinner to go for a family run somehow didn’t seem very appropriate to me. Also, my habit of taking 3-5 Taekwondo classes a week was interrupted by holiday closures of the dojang (Taekwondo gym). So I squeezed in exercise when and where I could, more than once getting on the elliptical trainer or doing home Taekwondo practice well after 10:00 at night. In future, I’d want to plan better for these scheduling challenges, probably getting in some morning exercise instead of following my usual evening schedule–but I will also know to expect that I’ll get less exercise over the holidays, and to a limited extent, that’s OK with me.

The other problem I faced was a one-two punch: I would arrive home tired (though cheerful) after having eaten at irregular hours and spent the day with family or friends. I don’t know about you, but for me the combination of being tired and being off my normal eating schedule is a very bad one: it tends to make me feel hungry and inattentive, which means I’ll often just take whatever I think of first and eat it–hardly a recipe for weight loss success. A day like this broke my winning streak of keeping under 1700 calories a day and logging everything I ate, which had gotten up to 42 interrupted days. I’m now in the early days of a new winning streak, and have high hopes that it will carry me across my personal finish line as I rack up the days.

One good holiday season may be the most I’ll ever need
As I write this and do my best to extract knowledge for future (an example of keeping a feedback loop), I’m realizing that if all goes well, it’s very, very likely that when the 2010 holidays come around, I’ll have been on maintenance for quite a while, and while I’ll need to continue to be careful, I won’t need to be nearly as careful as I am now. In other words, losing weight over this past holiday season together with continued effort may mean I’ll never have to be quite so careful over the holidays again. Even if I had done no better than maintain my weight during that time, the same result would probably apply. For many people who are getting in shape, one really successful holiday season may be the make-or-break period for the entire process.

How did things go for you over the holidays? Any special difficulties or unusual accomplishments?

Regardless of how the holidays came out for you in terms of your health, we’re now at a time of year that is probably better suited to renewing commitment and redoubling efforts than any other, and we can use it to launch ourselves forward. Here’s to a powerfully motivated New Year.

Photo by oh_candy

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Hunger Won’t Be Denied: True or False?

States of mind

guineapigs

Recently I came across an assertion that seriously disturbed me: that when we’re “hungry” we “have to eat.” This claim bothered me because it (like a lot of misguided dieting advice) was in a popular diet book, because I think many people believe it, and because it’s wrong.

Pictures of Food
The source of the statement was Dr. Shapiro’s Picture Perfect Weight Loss, a book that offers weight loss advice, examples, and especially a large number of full-color photo spreads of different foods that contain the same amount of calories. For instance, Shapiro graphically displays how a person could eat four ears of corn on the cob and get the same calories as in one medium serving of french fries. I found the pictures interesting and somewhat instructive, although the calorie counts need to be understood as examples (for instance, he counts 70 calories for a slice of whole wheat bread, whereas the loaf in my fridge is 110 calories per slice) and although Shapiro pays only limited attention to nutrition. Mainly, he wants to show that the physical amount of food you eat can vary a lot for the same number of calories, and does that well.

But Shapiro makes a number of imperfect assertions about weight loss, and the one I felt was particularly damaging was this: “The urge to eat is a need that must be filled.” (The emphasis is Shapiro’s.) He continues, “If we don’t respond to that urge, the need-to-eat feelings … will get the upper hand.”

He goes on to reassure the reader that this doesn’t mean all is lost, because the reader can learn to choose much lower-calorie foods and eat whenever they like. The fact that a person can eat much more for fewer calories is certainly true, though the idea that no restraint in eating is necessary in order to lose weight and keep it off is, for many of us, simply wrong.

Misconceptions about hunger
I’m surprised a little that Shapiro says this, because he acknowledges some of the complexity of hunger (which is really a variety of physical and psychological feelings), although he seems to complete miss or ignore some important psychological elements. Ideas about “needing” to eat, including Shapiro’s claim that hunger means we “have to” eat and there’s nothing we can do about it are all broken ideas, also known as cognitive distortions. In other words, most of our behavior is driven not by what we experience directly, but by what we tell ourselves about what we experience.

In essence, Shapiro is saying “I don’t know how anyone can possibly not act on hunger, so it can’t be done.” Put in that way, I think the flaw is obvious: just because Shapiro doesn’t know how to handle hunger other than by administering food doesn’t mean that nobody does.

For Shapiro’s information, and that of anyone else who shares his belief, I’d like to point out that hunger is always temporary, and that if you ever want to find a way to put hunger off, there are 24 of them here.

Different People Succeed in Different Ways
I don’t mean to pick on Shapiro especially. I think his food comparisons are very useful despite some minor limitations, and frankly he seems to be like a lot of professionals who have seen successful weight loss (especially those who have only seen it from the outside) who seem to feel that because it’s been accomplished one way, there’s no other possible way to do it successfully. I find the same idea in many books on writing, even by very talented and successful writers: “This is the way to do it. If you don’t do it this way, you’ll fail.” If psychology teaches us anything, it’s that different people succeed in different ways, so what I am doing my best to offer with this site is the other approach, which is to say: “Here are all of the tools for tackling this task that I can find. Take the ones that work for you and run with them.” And if one of those tools is being able to outsmart hunger when you don’t want to eat, all the better.

Photo by Petra Brown

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How to Recover When You’ve Completely Blown It

Handling negative emotions

train wreck

Let’s say someone has been working on losing weight, but over Thanksgiving gave up and ate way, way too much. Or they were going to write 50,000 words this November for NaNoWriMo, yet here it is a few days from the end and they’re only 28,000 words in. Or they’ve gone back on a promise, done something they had vowed to stop doing, failed to stick with a new habit that they really wanted to keep up, or in any other way completely wiped out.

Often in situations like this, we’ll start telling ourselves in one way or another that whatever plans we have are now ruined. The promise is broken, the diet has failed, the project has flopped. It’s easy to lose all enthusiasm at this point and give up, to conclude that people who are successful at achieving difficult goals don’t have these kinds of setbacks. That conclusion would be wrong.

It’s true that failures on the way to a goal can cause a more than their share of trouble. If I’m trying to build a new habit, interruptions to the thing I’m trying to make habitual will make it take longer for the habit to form. If I suffer a setback, it can often create additional obstacles, because slip-ups erode momentum in the same way that taking initiative builds momentum.

Yet it’s clearly typical–in fact, I’d hazard a guess that it’s almost inevitable–for a person to have some failures on the way to successfully building a new habit or pursuing a goal if that goal is sufficiently challenging. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, “most of those who attempt [to quit smoking] cannot do it on the first try. In fact, smokers usually need many tries — sometimes as many as 8 to 10 — before they are able to quit for good.”

Another way to put it, as strange as it may sound, is that the kind of person most likely to succeed at a goal is someone who has already been working on it but has failed one or more times.

Yet knowing this probably doesn’t make you automatically feel like a winner. What will do that is getting back to working on your goal right away. It’s easy to fall for reasoning like “I’ve blown it anyway–a little more won’t hurt” or “I’ll recharge my batteries before I take another crack at it,” but that kind of logic is usually flawed, because whenever we let a setback “give you permission” to stick with old, bad habits for a while, or to stop something we were working on, we are strengthening and refreshing the behaviors we don’t want and letting the behaviors we do want fade in our minds. The neural connections we’re building by prolonging the interruption will make it easier to make wrong choices and harder to make right choices. We’re also often doing more damage that will have to be repaired once we get back on track, making restarting even harder.

We can learn from setbacks by analyzing what went wrong and coming up with ways to act differently in future. And we can cut off failures, keeping them to the shortest span possible, so that they become just blips on the graph. In practical terms, all a setback does is take away a little progress and lower our spirits. We can gain that ground back and raise our spirits at the same time by renewing our plans to pursue our goals and not letting the problems claim any more of our lives than they have to.

Photo from Cornell University Library.

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