why cheat when you can win

“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?

At least it’s not broccoli (shudder!)

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

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