In case you’re wondering – and I’m certain anyone who knows me personally isn’t – being a personal development blogger does not give you any advantages in the human experience. I still lose my temper, I still binge-watch TV, I still misplace my phone and still lust after the new iPad even though I really don’t need it. In fact, really, there’s only two things that set me apart, a little: one, I have nifty labels like “the G.I. Joe Fallacy” (“Knowing” is nowhere near half the battle) and two, I write about it. A lot.
An example of my non-enlightened state: I have been seeing a VA nutritionist for the last year or so. I started at 246lbs, and was aiming for 220, simply because at that weight I can go skydiving without paying a weight surcharge. We talked about making changes to my diet (I was a donut-a-day kind of guy) as well as increasing my workouts. I began incremental changes like giving up sugar except on weekends, getting a standing desk, and more. I signed up for MyFitnessPal and TheWalk and even tried out things like the 7-Minute Workout.
At first the weight came off. I made it down to 237, in fact, and I was feeling pretty good. Even through a hernia operation I didn’t gain back too much, and when it was done I had the ability to do even more extensive exercise. All the normal things you hear from people about weight loss/physical fitness were also happening to me: my clothes fit differently. I could go up stairs without puffing.
But. My weight loss plateaued, and I began to resent the MyFitnessPal that told me that if I maintained my 1500-calorie-per-day diet I’d weigh 220-ish within five weeks. The weeks were going by, and it wasn’t happening. The numbers didn’t lie – but the predictions did. Increasing my exercise simply built more muscle mass (supposedly) but didn’t seem to change my shape, and a few times I pushed it too hard and injured myself. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember the limitations of the body.
About a month and a half ago I realized that I was coming up on another appointment with my nutritionist at the VA. I hadn’t checked the scale in a while, and when I did, I was horrified. 242lbs. I had been at this for a year and then some, and I had only lost a net 4 lbs – and that was rising.
I determined to pay more attention to my food log. I tried to walk more, and workout more regularly using non-muscle-building. I was determined to have something to show for my appointment.
I did, too. Weighing myself the day before the appointment, I clocked in at 243lbs. That’s right, I’d gained a pound.
And that’s when all my personal development knowledge didn’t help me at all. I felt like a failure. I felt humiliated, old, beaten, ashamed to face the nutritionist. In fact, I planned on canceling the appointment – but procrastinated doing it until it was too late (yes, I beat myself up over that failure too). Most of all I felt angry – betrayed by physiological science. I had done the formula, improved my diet, increased my exercise – but hadn’t gotten the promised results.
The nutritionist was very sympathetic as I explained my frustration. “That’s got to be very frustrating,” she said (hey, at least I communicated that well). We talked about it a bit, came up with one or two strategies I hadn’t tried yet – like taking a walk directly after lunch to prevent metabolic slowdown – and she encouraged me “not to give up.” Frankly, she was great with her active listening, nonjudgmental support, and soft encouragement. I know, because I recognized all the techniques from all the personal dev books I read!
Humans are Great! Except Me.
Here’s where things get really amusing, and I have to divert to a meeting I was having with others who are organizing a conference at a campground in Maryland later this month. We were talking about the golf carts that are on the property to help people get from point A to point B. A very good friend of mine and I disagreed on the qualifications needed for driving one of the carts. I held the “treat them like responsible adults” opinion, while he was of the “if you let anyone drive, they’ll drive into the tree/pond/cabin/volcano.” It’s a common feature of mine: I tend to believe the best about people, and promote the idea that if you give people the space they will become the higher vision of themselves.
So you’d think that Michelle’s philosophy of Eat food. Stuff you like. As much as you want. would appeal to me, right? It does! I recommend it for everyone!
Except me. When it comes to me, I find myself convinced that if I am given carte blanche to drive my dietary golf cart without extensive regulation, I’ll plunge full speed ahead into the Lake of Deep-Fried Fudge-Covered Butter-Stuffed Oreos. Not count calories? Not measure workouts? Not try to earn the right to own the 4-Hour Chef? Might as well start slouching towards Bethlehem now, because the center will not hold with all the chaos loosed on my world.
It’s hard to forgive yourself your lapses, even when they probably aren’t really “lapses” but are just part of being human. It’s sometimes harder to trust yourself, or give yourself permission to try out new things or to hang on to old things. While the Grand Unified Theory of Me may be all about love, it’s far from narcissistic. It’s a constant internal struggle for authenticity and honesty.
I wish you good luck if you’re working on that too. I know I’ll need it.
Last month I mentioned the work of Jonathan Haidt, who helped popularize the “rider and elephant” model of the human psyche. That is, our conscious mind is a “rider” atop the giant behemoth of our desires, instincts, and subconscious conditioning.
One of the weaknesses of the metaphor is the idea that the elephant is a vehicle to go where the rider desires. Someday, evolutionarily speaking, that may be the case; as it is now, though, rational thought is something that was pretty recently developed by humans (about 40,000 years ago). Meanwhile our baser instincts and desires – fight, flight, posture, submit, or freeze, for example – have been around for millions of years. They are pretty well set – though that is also their weakness.
One of the more powerful stimuli to draw the elephant in a certain direction is the phenomenon of love at first sight. It’s a very real reaction – most people, if they haven’t experienced it for themselves, have had to endure watching a friend babble on and on about the many wondrous virtues of someone they just met. Psychiatrist Didier Lauru told an interviewer “When we experience love at first sight we idealise the other person. We feel certain that this person will complete us.” Another quote from the article that I think sums it up even better is from French surrealist André Breton: “I felt as though I was lost and someone came along to tell me where I was.“
It’s not just in regards to people. In most of our daily life, the rider is actually there to justify where the elephant is going. We find things that give us those little bursts of dopamine and adrenaline and then justify them afterwards. This can be as simple as “Eh, one more donut won’t make a difference…” to the more convoluted “What? I missed my grandson’s first school picture? I need to pay better attention to Facebook!“
Remember when I said that the elephant’s instincts are also it’s weakness? That’s because you can do some psychological aikido on yourself. Aikido is a martial art that uses the idea of blending with your opponent’s momentum and then subtly guiding them in the direction you choose – letting their own effort do the work. In personal development terms, this means that rather than fighting against the force and direction of this eons-old biological mechanism, the rider looks at the direction the elephant is going and figures out how to channel that into a constructive direction.
“We have to work out our needs first, without reference to price. It’s entirely possible that you may not be able to afford certain things you need. It is also possible that, even when something is affordable and wanted, it might still be a bad idea to purchase it. In fact, that is what opens up resources for the more important projects.”
-John Armstrong, How to Worry Less About Money
A few examples of how I have been tricking my own elephant:
- I have been cultivating a habit of no processed sugar during the week. It’s sometimes difficult – cravings happen, though I’ve not caved yet. On the other hand, I make a point when the cravings are the worst to have something with a strong taste: sharp cheddar, or a sugarless raspberry scone with butter. This distracts the craving and makes it easier to hold to my goal. (side note: so far I’ve lost about 5 lbs. with just this life hack. Your mileage may vary).
I love fiction. I’m in a constant battle against my elephant to be productive when it would like nothing better than curling up with a good book, an engrossing movie, a podcast. But the application “The Walk” harnesses this desire for narrative by only giving me chapters after I’ve walked a certain amount of time. According to the app, since I started listening to the thriller I’ve averaged 63 minutes of activity a day, over ten hours of intentional walking since I started a couple of weeks ago. I have literally taken the long way home just because I wanted to find out what happens next.
- For a long time I’ve been interested in typography. The art of letters is fascinating to me – take a look at this game, for example – but I never went to graphic design school, there’s no way I could justify (if you’ll pardon the pun) spending a great deal of time on it professionally. Thanks to a gift from a friend who happens to also be a professor of typography, I’ve re-discovered this interest as a hobby. The goal is not to make a career of it; it’s to make a craft of it, and perhaps eventually create a font that I will pass on to my grandchildren.
Rather than fight your desires, is there a way you can channel them into a positive direction? That guilty pleasure that you keep chastising yourself about, that you spend so much energy resisting: what happens if you give in, but connected with something else that your rider actually knows is good for you? It’s a good idea to take a look at those urges so that you can better understand the motivations behind what you do. It’s much less taxing than trying to come up with complicated rationalizations for your behavior or, worse, spending a huge amount of time chastising and guilt-tripping the elephant or the rider for simply being themselves.
Like it or not, you’re rider and elephant. It’s a good idea to learn to love both.
A Simple Plan
I started a relatively basic but drastic life hack last week. I call it “no obvious sugars”, and basically the idea is to cut out the blatant sweets in my diet. Things like donuts, candy, cookies, cereal, I’m even going so far as to eliminate things like ketchup or soda with high-fructose corn syrup. I am not eliminating all sugars; aside from how hard that would be (I’m old, my eyes can’t read those ingredient labels like they used to) I also have a hard time believing that fruit and a bit of honey in rolled oats is causing the kind of blood-sugar spike that doctors warn of.
That’s the motivation behind it, you see. If you want specifics, take a gander at this video:
Now, I’m not actually all that concerned with occasional spikes. What I’m concerned about is the idea of being dependent on the sugar. Of needing it, rather than simply enjoying it. Honestly, it’s less about health and more about some issues of control, but hey, if we can channel the latter into the former, it’s all good.
I should add, I live in Wisconsin. Land of frozen custard, the best donuts in the Northern Hemisphere, truffles and chocolates and more. I was raised within a reward system where the Ultimate Reward (and symbol of adulthood) was a Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae. My devotion to the art of the pancake is literally internationally known. My partners, my kids, even my co-workers know that I have a sweet tooth.
So cutting out sweets, even only five days a week, represented a pretty major lifehack. It’s not as easy as just dumping all the sweets in the house – after all, on the weekends, I plan to indulge. I’m not forcing my partner Natasha to do it along with me, so the temptations still abound – especially in a home office environment, where for hours there is nobody here but me and that bag of Twix bars…
Yet it’s really not been that difficult to do. I’ve been astonished, in fact, at just how easy it has been. At the risk of jinxing myself I will tell you my strategy.
I deliberately did not focus on the long-term benefits. I have a sneaky suspicion I’m losing weight, but that’s a side effect. I know that my mood has been very down lately, which would suck if it wasn’t an indication that this was a good idea in the first place. I’d rather have my mood not altered by my sugar intake; not that other things like body chemistry wouldn’t affect it, but somehow it feels more authentic.
I just focus on one thing: the next “No.” That is, in a few minutes when I go in to refresh my coffee, that cookie will be sitting there on the counter saying “C’mon. Eat me! I taste gooooooood…” And I reach into my metaphorical mental pocket and pull out the “No” that I’ve kept there, and I move on.
The great thing about the Metaphorical Mental Pocket is that it spontaneously generates the next “No” for me, without even being asked. So when lunch comes around and I have something savory and delicious and the server asks “Would you like some dessert?” I can reach in and pull out the slightly ornamented “No, thank you.“
See, I don’t have to worry about going without sweets for the next week, or month, or whatever. I just have to be ready for the next time that sweet comes around, and already have my decision ready.
It’s a way to get past the dangers of ego-depletion (great podcast about that on the latest You Are Not So Smart, by the way). So I invite you to try it out this week, for something that you might want to change. You don’t have to make all the right decisions. You just have to make the next one.
Now: what do you want to change?
“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’!”
That sentiment, from one of my favorite close-combat instructors, is an incredibly useful mantra when in a struggle. It’s a reminder that in some situations, the only rules that matter are the ones that matter to you – and that playing by your opponent’s rules is giving them a pretty hefty advantage.
What about when your opponent is yourself, though? What if the battle you are fighting is the battle against binge eating, for example, or simply the struggle to eat more healthy in a world full of bad influences and temptations? In that situation, where you’re your own enemy, does cheating work?
Many diets think so. Several years ago I went on the Abs Diet, pretty strictly for several months. Aside from a particular weight/situp regimen, it also has very specific low-carb diet suggestions – some of which have stuck with me (still love snacking on almonds and cranberries!). It also had a “cheat” meal – a meal once a week where you could eat anything you want. I remember planning that meal around my social schedule: “We’re going to have barbecue with Karl thursday night, that’ll be my cheat meal.” I remember looking forward to blissing out on ice cream sundaes on those meals, before grimly resuming my exercise and diet the next day. Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Body has a similar timed “cheat” day, and so do many others.
Which is why articles such as this one by Dick Talens (via Maneesh Sethi) exist: The Ultimate Guide to Cheating: Planning to Fail. Don’t worry, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to, I’ll get to the point.
WORDS. They Have Meaning.
The gist of the article is the idea, backed up by scientific evidence, that two people who “break” their diets in exactly the same way will have entirely different results based on their mindset.
If you “plan to fail” then you lose anywhere from 1-3 days of progress; however, you eliminate the risk of failing epically.
“Failing epically.” Is it just me, or is the hyperbole rising in here? Here’s my question: if these diets are so difficult to maintain that you have to break them on occasion in order not lose them entirely…then is the problem actually with the people on the diet or with the diet itself?
Or, to put it another way: if, in order for the diet to succeed, you have to ignore it every once in a while…why is that cheating? How is that failing?
Or, to actually get to my point: why do we use words like “cheating” and “failing” to describe it? Words are powerful things; if the system is set up so that the only way to “win” is cheating, then there is something wrong with the system. I suppose there could be an argument that there is a mischievous joy in “getting away with it” when you break the rules of the diet – but if we’re trying to play with our brains in that kind of way, why stop at some negative feeling?
“…And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” – Sun Tzu
If you choose a route that requires you to cheat, to break, to “plan to fail”, I suppose that can work. Personally, I’d rather look at it as winning. I’m not breaking my diet – I’m planning on celebrating my hard work and discipline in the time-honored human fashion of a feast! Having rewarded my body all week long with healthy eating, I am now going to reward my tongue and every delicious bite of ice-cream-hot-fudge-skittle-truffle-banana-lava-cake will be a reinforcement of just how awesome I am at my diet!
Of course, a truly Enlightened soul wouldn’t be “fighting” the battle at all – which is most of what Sun Tzu actually talked about in The Art of War. But for those of us who still need the illusion of struggle to trick ourselves into right action, I think it’s time to stop playing other people’s games.
Who needs to cheat, when you can just win?
Image used courtesy We Love Costa Rica
Whoa There, Tiger
“But Gray, I thought you were going to practice the habit of posting pictures of everything you eat, in order to help follow along with the 4-Hour Body Slow-Carb diet?!? I signed up to follow you on twitter and everything – even liked your Facebook page! How could you let me down like that?”
Well, first of all, if the only reason you signed up to Twitter was to watch what I was eating…well, I think I can safely say there are better uses of the medium.
Second of all, one of the key ideas that Leo Babauta talks about with habits is that it’s a bad idea to start too many at once.
Cascading Habits, Cascading Failures
Why not start several new habits at once? Isn’t that the way that people go through transformative processes? After all, the Marine Drill Instructors didn’t say “Hey, Gray, this week we’re going to have you cut your hair, next week you’ll wear this uniform, the following week you’ll start saying “sir” before and after every sentence.”
This is true. And in some cases, such as boot camps and rehab clinics and Disneyland, they do want you to change a whole bunch of habits at once. But they also set up an environment that will support the habits that are changed. The environment may make it difficult not to maintain the habit. You can’t really sleep in very easily when there’s a loudmouthed sergeant beating a garbage can near your head screaming “GETOUTTATHERACKGETOUTTATHERACKGETOUTTATHERACK!” So the habit of rising early is pretty effectively supported, along with other things.
I don’t want you to think, from my last post, that I’m some anti-number Luddite. I’d love to have a Fuelband, I love the sensor on my nephew’s car that shows how many miles I can still travel on the gas in the tank, and I can spend hours playing with Google Analytics and feeling strange wonder at the number of readers I have in Beijing (and the way my guest post on Tiny Buddha tripled my site traffic overnight. Hello, new readers!).
I even have one of the more popular self-quantifying websites, MyFitnessPal, bookmarked on my browser and on my phone and my iPad. It’s a fun little exercise, inputting the foods I eat (selecting from drop downs) and seeing how my caloric intake weighs against my exercise for the day, and at the end of a day’s log learning that If you had this kind of day every day, you’d lose X pounds in Y weeks! Read More…
While reading the blog of the king of lifehacking, Tim Ferriss, I came across a phrase that hadn’t really registered with my conscious mind yet. I’ve been aware of the phenomenon, and of the movement, and even been a part of it here and there. This blog, really, could count as an incarnation of this particular trend. It is the “Quantified Self” movement, and it’s about “self knowledge through numbers.”
Started by Gary Wolf in 2008, the movement is not new – there are many journals where people have monitored their moods, their body functions, etc. However, it’s going through a renaissance, spurred my many factors such as the miniaturization of GPS trackers, 3D accelerometers, biometric trackers, and “always-on apps” that transmit the data to the Cloud. Once it’s there, an entire cottage industry of apps turns the data into graphs, bars, and pie charts that the QSers use to…well…play with themselves.
I mean that mostly in a positive way: they use the data to get a different perspective of some part of their lives – money, sleep, weight, food intake, whatever – and then, hopefully, use that perspective to make the changes they want in their lives. To make their lives happier.
Last night I really wanted ice cream.
I’m talking the decadent, chocolatey-gooey-caramel-filled-brownie-chunkin’ Ben & Jerry’s kind of ice cream. They sell it right down the street, in those pint containers that just look at you and say “Just grab a spoon, boy, you’re not fooling anyone with that bowl.“
But last night was also cold. The first snowstorm in Seattle, and while by midwestern standards that’s not much, for the city here it pretty much shuts things down. The temperature was right around freezing, and so even the shoveled walks were slick. I was sitting on a comfy couch, curled up in a nice book.
Ice cream vs. comfort. What a battle! I knew that ice cream would be bad for me on several levels – not just fat content, but also contributing to some dental problems. I also knew I’d eaten well already today – delicious homemade chicken mushroom stew with cornbread – and didn’t really need to have the ice cream. It was a craving. All I had to do was get up, walk to the store, and get it.
But the couch was so comfy…the inertial pull almost impossible. More than that, Mama Cleo, the housecat, decided to take up residence on my chest. I would be disturbing her wa if I moved!
Plus, I really didn’t feel like it. So the ice cream stayed safe at the store. Not because of any great self-discipline or force of will on my part. No, it was laziness.
“Progress is made by lazy people finding easier ways to do things.”
This is only the most recent example of a technique I’ve been experimenting with: leveraging my faults (yes, I know that’s a value judgement, bear with me here) against each other.
- If I find myself with the urge to watch Netflix when I really should be doing some other chore? I procrastinate starting it up until there’s not enough time to watch whatever I wanted, and then find that in the remaining time I’m amazingly productive.
- I really have a hard time motivating myself to journal in the morning – so I tied it to the “bad” habit of coffee, and now I eagerly pick up the journal, because it means I get caffeinated!
- I have yet to be able to get myself back in the “habit” of daily exercise – but I use my desire to be polite as a motivation to do yoga whenever my housemate suggests it. She wouldn’t really be insulted if I said no, but by pretending she would be, I give myself the added impetus necessary to do what is good for my body.
- I let my “scarcity” attitude about money (something that is definitely not healthy) rear up and tell myself that I can’t afford ice cream when I’m grocery shopping. So it doesn’t get purchased, it’s not there when the craving hits, and the couch and the book and the laziness win!
“What You Can’t Hide, You Feature!”
I believe this strategy of self-sabotaging to success is just a kind of corollary to a seduction tip I learned years ago from Arden Leigh, author of The New Rules of Attraction. The idea is that if there is some part of you that you feel you don’t like, but that you can’t do anything about…flaunt it! Wear clothes that emphasize the vast expanse of your belly, get the biggest, thickest frames for your glasses, dye your thinning hair brilliant purple. What that does is take away the necessity to try and ignore it or overlook it. It’s there. Deal with it.
Now that that’s out of the way, what else do we have?
The self-sabotaging path to success is kind of like that. It’s being too lazy to fail. It’s misplacing the bills on the counter instead of the desk so you just pay them to get rid of the clutter. It’s forgetting your power adapter when you go to the coffee shop, so you focus on the writing and keep the social networks at bay because they use up your precious battery. It’s deciding the book is too heavy to bring with you on the flight so you spend the time looking out the window and thinking all those thoughts you were distracted from by life…
Don’t Make a Habit of It
I don’t want you think I’m advocating laziness, greed, sloth, gluttony, or any other of those really fun sins. However, if you’re going to have to deal with them, might as well make use of them until that bright and shiny day when you reach enlightenment and no longer have to deal with them at all.
As a last example, my other housemate (not the yogini) was aware of my craving, and politely offered me the remainder of the pint of lemon sorbet she had in the fridge. I resisted, of course – that’s only marginally more healthy than Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey – but it was to no avail. Once she planted the idea in my mind, the walk to the fridge was inevitable. My healthful plans were somewhat foiled, again. My housemate had used her generosity to tempt me into removing that particular obstacle from her own dietary conniptions.
Deliciously foiled again.