Saturday, July 30, 2011

Motivation vs. Willpower

My husband and I were returning from the local gym after a workout recently.  We finally decided to invest in a membership and have just begun to establish new exercise routines. "I know this isn't a very positive way to put this," I said to Bill, "but I didn't hate that as much as I thought I would." I've been pleasantly surprised that in spite of some added physical challenges--not to mention age--since I last worked out on a regular basis, I'm finding my new routine to be quite doable.

Around the same time, I was excited to receive my first blog request: a friend suggested that I might write about "mind over matter" when it comes to choices and portion control. So I've been thinking about that topic while learning to use the cardio equipment at the fitness center.

When I hear the phrase "mind over matter" I think of willpower, and certainly there are times on a health journey when willpower is required. You can read, journal, and think about what to do all you want; but at some point you still have to do it.

I suspect one reason so many diets fail, though, is that they rely too heavily on willpower--on forcing ourselves to do things we dislike. For most of us, there's a limit to how long we are willing to feel deprived, and we spend most diets looking forward to the day we can finally stop and do whatever we please again. Hello, Yo-Yo Syndrome.

It seems to me that when it comes to portion control and other healthy choices, the less willpower required, the better. Instead, we should establish as enjoyable and sustainable a healthy lifestyle as possible. In short: We need to focus on positive motivation rather than sheer willpower.

This is where knowing yourself is essential, because not all of us are motivated by the same things. Point systems, meetings, trainers, internet programs, recipe books, journals, online support groups...  there are a million tools available, but you have to choose the ones which you personally find to be most encouraging, inspiring, or--at the very least--helpful.

The tricky part is that sometimes we don't know as much about ourselves as we think we do. So, I find that the combination of remaining open to different approaches (when I can manage to do that) and a little trial-and-error can be surprisingly effective. I was sure I would hate working out at the gym, but it turns out I don't. I didn't like my first workout, but within 2 weeks working out on those machines went from something I dreaded to something I don't usually mind. I can even imagine looking forward to it. In fact, I'm already looking forward to getting stronger. I was reading a book yesterday which quoted stats indicating that this kind of positive shift is common among exercisers who start slowly and gradually. They begin to look forward to exercise as they get better at it and experience its many benefits.

If after 2 or 3 weeks, however, I found that I was dreading the gym more and more instead of the other way around, it would be time to make some changes, based on honest inquiry: What is it about workouts that I so dislike, and what could I change to make them more pleasant? An "outdoor person" may never be satisfied working out in a gym except as a back-up plan. A morning person may feel too tired to exercise after work. A social and/or competitive person may prefer team sports to a gym workout, while an introvert may do better with exercise videos at home.

The same approach applies to food. If you eat mostly "diet food" that you find bland and uninspiring, it's well worth doing enough homework to discover more of the abundant options available. With a little research, you can find healthy food choices which you truly enjoy and that also meet your particular requirements, from easy preparation to working around allergies or other conditions. It's so much easier to stick with healthy eating if the nutritious foods you eat are also foods you love and look forward to.

When it comes to portion control, again, for me, the key is to set things up in such a way that I don't have to feel deprived or hungry much of the time. No one wants to sign up for long-term misery. It's essential to do some internal investigation to determine if the hunger I am trying to satisfy is primarily physical or not. If so, I might increase foods with a high water content so that I can eat larger quantities. Or maybe in my impatience to see quick results I've gone overboard with restricting fats and need to sprinkle a few nuts or a little low-fat cheese into my meals in order to feel more satisfied with a single portion.

Of course, if what I really want from food is comfort, companionship, security, or relief from pain and stress, I need to find better ways to more directly address those issues. I might benefit from additional time spent with friends, individual or group therapy, a 12-step program, Weight Watchers meetings, or a class on managing my finances. Or perhaps something even simpler would help address those needs without food, like a bubble bath, listening to music, taking a walk, calling a friend, or conversing on Twitter. Unfortunately, a side-effect of dieting can be obsessing over food, so remembering to consciously place your attention on things beyond food part of the time is essential.

But here's a key point about food and distraction: focus attention away from the food you want to avoid--extra helpings or unhealthy choices--but not from all food. Pay attention to what you actually eat and the choices you make as you are eating. It may be helpful to distract yourself from the leftovers after a meal by engaging in another activity away from the remaining food. But don't distract yourself from a meal that you are in the middle of eating. If we want the food we eat to satisfy us, we need to eat it slowly and mindfully, savoring every moment. Enjoy not only the flavor, but the colors, textures, and aromas. Notice when you begin to feel satisfied and stop before you feel too full--even if there is still food on your plate or nearby. Once we have had enough to eat, then it's time to shift our focus completely to something else and physically remove ourselves from the presence of additional food. Mindlessly plowing through a bag of chips or box of cookies is far too easy to do in front of the television or computer or while curled up with a book. So, when you eat, eat; when you are doing something else, don't eat.

Finally, we need to learn to be gentle with ourselves. Self-compassion is more important than we tend to acknowledge. It's tempting to slip into a punitive mindset while struggling to set appropriate limits regarding our food, but when we punish ourselves for overindulging, rather than consciously deciding what would best support us in achieving our goals, we set ourselves up for failure, disappointment, and shame. Punishment leads to misery, retaliation, or worse. Is that really where you want to go? Instead, be kind to yourself. Withholding kindness until you finally meet all your goals only intensifies feelings of deprivation and hopelessness, and the potential for rebound eating under those conditions is tremendous. Be kind now--whether or not things are going well. In fact, be extra kind when things are not going smoothly. We respond so much better to kindness than cruelty.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for motivating us to do what we need to do, but a prudent approach always involves paying attention--in this case to our needs and to the variety of ways we can adapt to them. Mindfulness may not be a magic wand, but paying attention can initiate miracles. And miracles are worth getting motivated about.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Take what you need, and leave the rest.

What a loaded little statement.

How much better might our world be if we would only take what we need and leave the rest? More to share. Less poverty. Less waste.

Adopting a generous interpretation of the word "need" to allow for what we require in order to thrive rather than merely subsist, this single concept could dramatically improve our lives and our planet.

To live by this rule, however, we would have to recognize and acknowledge the true nature of our needs. If much of our hunger is actually for love, acceptance, beauty, God, belonging, relief from pain, or triumph over adversity, no amount of food will fill that void. Many of us don't need as much to eat as we think we do, yet the very thought of being deprived of the food we want is enough to trigger all manner of hoarding and binging.

It's not surprising that someone like me who is carrying excess weight might have trouble following this advice in multiple areas. When in doubt, I tend to adopt a more-is-better approach. If I visit the napkin dispenser in a fast food restaurant, I almost never take just one napkin. My core assumption revealed in the moment is that it is safer to have too much than too little, so I've developed the habit of taking "a little extra."

Of course, my assumption flies in the face of the whole, 'tis-more-blessed-to-give-than-to-receive thing, but I've never been one to let a little cognitive dissonance stand in my way.

I've occasionally heard speakers or authors preface their words with a version of the take-only-what-you-need adage, giving permission and even encouragement to extract from their work what we find useful and disregard the rest, understanding that at another point in our lives we might take away a substantially different message from the same presentation.

I'm reading Geneen Roth's excellent book, Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything.

It's my second try.

I checked out the same book from the library last year and didn't get very far before I hit a pothole. Something Ms. Roth said revealed a view I don't necessarily share, and from that point forward, I found it hard to concentrate on anything she had written. As I continued with the book, it became increasingly evident that the author and I see the world through somewhat different lenses, and--largely on that basis--I found myself questioning her credibility.  Although I thought she made some good points, I returned the book to the library without finishing it. There lingered, however, a vague sense that I might have missed out on something valuable.

Fast forward about a year: a great deal of personal and professional strife has mercifully eased since last summer, and I'm feeling calmer, less afraid, and better able to concentrate. I'm now ready to get serious about healthier eating.

This time, I bought the book.

This time, I didn't bristle when the author expressed a belief or conviction which I don't happen to share.

This time, I'm taking what I need, and leaving the rest.

Among other things, the book is reminding me to notice before I eat whether or not I am actually hungry, and, when I am, to note the specific nature of that hunger. I have also been challenged to consider how often the pain I try to avoid or dilute by overeating is not from a current threat, but rather pain which has already occurred--sometimes long ago. Present day eating cannot possibly alleviate the pain from a story of my past. The book goes on to outline a non-judgmental method of compassionate inquiry into whatever we are currently experiencing in our bodies.

One of many sentences I have underlined in the book is a Pema Chodron quote: "Never under-estimate the inclination to bolt." Although Ms. Roth introduces the quote in the context of attendees at her weight loss retreats suddenly deciding that they have to leave, it was not lost on me that when I tried to read her book the first time, I also bolted.

My history differs from Geneen Roth's. I haven't worked with hundreds of people in dealing with their compulsions, and I will admit that one or two of the conclusions she reaches about food and eating, based on her experience, seem a bit bold to me. But whether or not you are ready to accept everything she says, there are such important insights in this book that I would recommend it to anyone (male or female) who has struggled with weight or compulsive eating.

Just take what you need and leave the rest.

Disclosure: I've signed up for Amazon's affiliate program. I'm new to it and not entirely clear precisely how it works, but (assuming I've done everything correctly) if you buy something from Amazon via one of the links on my blog, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Step By Step

There are a few time-honored stories which have always bugged me, including several from wisdom literature.

The biblical story of the prodigal son gets under my skin because I relate to the brother who stayed home and did as he was told.

Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare doesn't set well with me either. Like the hare, I tend to accomplish things in bursts of energy, often preceded by procrastination and immediately followed by exhaustion (and occasionally a sizable dollop of self-loathing). With considerable effort, I can make myself work systematically on a project if I believe it's absolutely necessary, but slow-and-steady has never come naturally to me. I know who wins the race, but there just doesn't seem to be much tortoise in me.

My hare-like tendencies are all too well suited to yo-yo dieting. Perhaps my one saving grace is being such a picky eater that I've not been tempted by most fad diets. Nonetheless, I have a history of putting off exercise and healthy eating for fairly long stretches, punctuated by bursts of nutritional perfectionism which I cannot hope to sustain.

I'd really like to step off that roller coaster.

I'm taking it slowly this time and trying to be mindful of the whole process--not only what I eat and how I move, but also my thinking. I want to be honest with myself about what I can and will maintain and allow the time and space I need to establish habits I'm not bound to abandon as soon as I've hit some magic number on the scale or desired dress size, and to incorporate any underlying emotional work I have to do along the way.

I'm also considering realistically the consequences of further procrastination and inaction on my part. Taking good care of myself may not be as fun as eating all the fudge I want, but the ultimate consequences of neglect are hardly appealing. At my age, the word "ultimate" isn't way off in the distance any more. I'm already dealing with some of those consequences, so I'm ready to gently but firmly set a healthier course.

It's time to summon my inner tortoise and get more comfortable with the part of me who appreciates taking things slowly and thoughtfully, recognizing that healthy living is not a short-term project. At the same time, I can make peace with the fact that my approach to things may always be somewhat non-linear and a little bit lumpy.

Change is not only possible; it is inevitable. The question is how active a role I will take in that process. I don't have to watch helplessly as entropy takes over. Neither do I have to make everything into some enormous uphill test of strength or resolve.

All of this sounds pretty reasonable in the abstract, but I'm not yet sure what it will look like in real life. The elusive quest for balance is certainly nothing new and extends well beyond the realm of diet and exercise. The great thing about letting go of my hare persona, though, is that I don't have to figure it all out at once. I can work on it gradually, as I go along. The main thing I need to do at this point is to simply keep taking the next step in the general direction I want to go.

I may run into a few roadblocks and take a detour or two. I'm sure I'll need to make some mid-course corrections, but that's not such a big deal when you aren't charging ahead at 90 miles-per-hour.

The way of living that I establish for myself is more important to me than the number of pounds I lose or the size clothes I wear. So I'm going to take the time I need to pay attention to what I'm doing, as I keep putting one foot in front of the other. I intend to make the most of this journey.