Yes, we have lost 35 pounds, but I have lost 15 and David has lost 20! Is that fair? Men are so lucky; their metabolisms are so much faster than women’s. Plus, David has a little ace in the hole: he just started on some ADHD medication, which suppresses his appetite. A few days ago, we were about halfway through dinner when he said, “I’m full. I think I’ll wrap this up for tomorrow.” I stared at him in wonder. He had never stopped eating in the middle of his first helping before, and I didn’t even know he realized that you could wrap up food for tomorrow. It’s a strange new world.
In a follow-up to last week’s book discussion, leaving long periods of time between each day’s food, as in The 8-Hour Diet (really ten hours for me), seems to work well, as does getting a full night’s sleep. I’ll keep you posted.
We’re still walking every day, but as I said to a co-worker last week, it’s still not a habit. I know because I don’t do it without thinking. I have to talk myself into it every day. That means that I do not have a habit of exercise more than two months after I started walking daily. (I started in November walking outside, before we got the treadmill.) Since I’ve seen so many books and magazine articles saying “30 Days to a Perfect You,” I thought I should see why this was not happening.
The first book I read was The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You
Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. The book grew out of a course that McGonigal teaches at Stanford University, and is laid out in a very practical manner. After a chunk of instruction, there is a box with exercises for you to complete in your own life. Each chapter is neatly summarized at the end, and her writing is very logical and engaging.
Ms. McGonigal spends some time touring you around the prefrontal cortex, pointing out the areas for “I will,” “I won’t,” and “I want.” These are the three components of willpower, with the “I want” being your long-term goal, and the others being your quick or habitual responses. She points out that jumping toward whatever you want is not a bad thing, unless the thing you want is a bad thing. If it’s the very last awesome deal on Black Friday, good for you. If you get home and find out that you have absolutely no use for a pair of purple shoes that don’t fit anyone you can think of, perhaps you should have paused. That’s her key phrase: “Pause and plan.” When tempted, think of your long-term goals and how this action will affect them. This reminds me of Stephen Covey’s very wise teaching: Humans do not have to live like rats, stimulus-response. Humans are the only creatures who can see that there is a gap between the stimulus and the response, and can take the opportunity to make a different choice during the gap. As he says, the success or failure of your life takes place in the gaps.
McGonigal brings up some interesting phenomena, such as “rebound irony.” Scientists gathered a group of people in a room and told them not to think of white bears. What do you think they couldn’t keep out of their minds? Not only did they think of white bears, but if they tried to force themselves to think of something else, a different part of their brain started a scanning program, looking to see if they were really thinking about white bears. McGonigal says to allow yourself to think about your temptation, even experiencing the feelings that you have about it, but to act rationally.
Both the Willpower book and the next book talk about self-control as a muscle that wears out as you use it. If you just struggled with one temptation, you are not stronger immediately, but rather more likely to give in to the next one. Stress lowers self-control, as does a lack of sleep. She also talks about how one small failure can cause us to give in completely, such as being so upset that you ate one piece of cake that you figure you may as well eat the whole cake. She counsels you to pause and think rationally about your long-term goal.
Interestingly, she says that people who assign a moral value to a temptation that has no moral component begin to feel that they are a good/bad person, and they dole out rewards and punishments for themselves. For example, “I babysat for a neighbor’s kids for two hours, so I deserve a cigarette.” Not only does it not make sense, but it sabotages your long-term goals. Self-awareness is essential to reaching those goals.
The Willpower Instinct is a practical, helpful guide, no matter what sort of challenges you’re dealing with in your life.
Secondly, I read the brand-new Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, by Jeremy Dean. The first two sections of this book are somewhat more abstract than Willpower Instinct, but also more in-depth. The third section is quite practical. Mr. Dean begins by telling us what habits are and why it is practically impossible to break them or make new ones. After this encouraging beginning, he tells us the secrets of those who have succeeded, and how maybe, if you are an exceptional person and work very hard, you might change one or two.
Here are the three characteristics of a habit:
1) They are automatic. No thinking required. For example, during a power outage, if you walk into your dark bathroom, your hand will flip the light switch anyway. It’s as if your hand is working for someone else.
2) They have no emotional content. If you are crying while you’re brushing your teeth, it’s not because your toothpaste is tragic. It’s more likely that you are listening to sad music or thinking about something else.
3) They are situational. The environment you’re in or the time of day triggers a habit. If you wake up, you begin the trek to the shower. When you’re in your car, you drive to work. Most people can’t remember much about their drive in, because their bodies drove while their minds were far away.
Both of these books use the fascinating phrase, “cognitive miser.” I was talking to my MBA-student son yesterday, and he used the same phrase! It means that there is only so much brain power to use at any one time, so we shuffle whatever is possible to auto-pilot so that we can use our conscious brains for the problems at hand. Think about it: When you go grocery shopping, do you look at all of the choices every time you buy a jar of peanut butter? Do you compare taste claims, ingredient lists, and price per unit? Of course not! If you did this for every single product every time you went to the store, you’d never get out of there! Plus, you’d be completely exhausted. Usually, people have made a decision on a product long ago, and they continue to pick the same brand for years. This is a problem for marketers. This same concept carries over to your entire life, such as if your household habits were established when you had four little kids and your youngest just graduated from college. They just don’t make sense any more, but they’re ingrained. The best time to make a change is when your life has had a major upheaval: you got married, you changed jobs, or you “moved house,” as the British Mr. Dean would say. You just had your habits severed, so before you lock in new ones, make some plans!
Perhaps the most insightful teaching I gleaned from Making Habits, Breaking Habits was that— contrary to what many “experts” advise— people who fantasize about being exactly the way they want to be usually fail. That’s because, emotionally, they have already arrived at their goals and are then devastated by the reality of the long road ahead of them. Rather, Mr. Dean counsels, visualize the path to your goal, with all of its possible pitfalls, and work at solving those problems before you get there. You can create statements for yourself, such as, “If [blank] happens, I will deal with it by [blank].” That way, you will not be surprised, and you will already have a plan in place. He advises taking one small step at a time, not a complete life makeover all at once.
I enjoyed both of these books. Although they dealt with related topics, there was just a little overlap, and both relied heavily on scientific research. As Mr. Dean says, scientists can be heard to mutter, “The plural of anecdote is not data.” Indeed.
Check ‘em out! Both books should be available in your local library or at all fine retailers.