Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 15

Season's Warnings

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com.

The holidays are upon us. In the US, we just celebrated Thanksgivings, and a few weeks before, Halloween. Christmas, the big one, is right around the corner. It's a wonderful time of year, but not for diet and exercise.

Why is that? It's only a few days. If you count Christmas eve as a legitimately excessive day, just 4 days, counting from Halloween. Halloween, Thanksgivings, Christmas eve, Christmas. It shouldn't make that much of a difference.

Well, I think the answer is that it isn't just 4 days for most people. If it were, there wouldn't be a problem. But because of all the leftovers, people continue eating at celebratory levels many days after Thanksgivings and Halloween. Then they go to a gazillion Christmas parties and overeat there. And even when they aren't staring at leftovers or bowls of eggnog, they think, "I've overeaten so much already, why restrain myself now? I might as well cram it all in until it's time to get virtuous again for my new years resolution."

I actually think the latter part of that, the "why bother? I messed up, might as well wait till new years to fix it" is the bigger problem. The leftovers and Christmas parties are a bit of a problem in themselves, but they're mostly just an excuse for this flopping out altogether. They're pretexts for outraged perfectionism and laziness to seize on. Still, they are problems, even if largely as excuses, so we have to deal with them. And I'll talk a bit about them first before I get to the more important flopping out part.

The way to deal with leftovers and holiday parties is very simple: clarity. As far as possible, keep the 4 days 4 days. This is where the N-day/S-day structure that I talked about for the no-s diet and shovelglove is particularly useful. Even if you aren't doing full blown no-s, you might want to consider using this structure for the holidays to keep you in line with whatever diet plan you're on. In case you're just tuning in, the structure works like this: you strictly follow the rules of the diet on weekdays, you can eat whatever you want on days the start with S: Saturday, Sunday, and "special days." Special days are major national and religious holidays. For short, I refer to days that start with S as S-days, and non-s-days as N-days.

Decide what your S-days are up front, and stick with them. Write them down, if you think it will help. Mark them in the calendar. Just the fact that you've made a clear, firm, reasonable decision is enormously powerful. It's not going to solve the problem for you, but it's a lever that makes it possible for your puny daily willpower to succeed.

In terms of clarity, leftovers are easy. If you're doing no-s, you clearly shouldn't eat them, except, if they're not sweets, as part of single plate meals. If this clarity isn't enough, get rid of them. Better the trash can at the curb than the trash can of your stomach. Throwing out food is hard for some people, I understand this. I don't like it either. If the trash can is too harsh, give it away. Bring it to work and inflict it on your coworkers. Freeze it. Put it in a basket and float it down the river Nile. Slap yourself and realize how unreasonable it is to prefer abusing food by overeating to merely wasting it by throwing it out. You have to either learn to resist leftovers, or to get over your squeamishness and throw them out. If you don't want to be fat, you have no alternative.

It's the social events that can get really tricky. There will probably be a day or two besides the big 4 I mentioned that you'll more or less have to take as S-days, a special family get together or an office holiday party, maybe. And that's OK, in itself. A day or two more isn't going to kill you. The danger is the damage that that extra day or two can do to your clearly defined boundaries. So take the days, you probably really don't have a choice, but keep your eye on those boundaries. You want to make these exceptions without smudging the boundaries. It's tricky, and it would be better if you could avoid this problem altogether, but it's likely to come up, at least some years, and it is possible to solve, if you're careful. One way to do this is to just count the extra days, beyond the big 4. If the count goes over 2, slam on the breaks, a little social awkwardness might be in order at your next get together. Generally speaking, I'm against counting stuff, and I don't do this myself, but if you think you're likely to be derailed by excessive Winter S-days, it's not a lot to keep track of, just one low count, and the payout in terms of self discipline might be worth it. And if you're using the habit traffic light that I talked about previously or negative tracking, you already get this.

OK, so much for the excuses. Now for the harder part: how to avoid the flopping out till new years if you run into trouble. You might have a day or two when you've just screwed up, and your morale is in the toilet. You'll think, I messed up my winning streak, my sense of perfectionism is outraged, why not just throw in the towel and wait till new years, when father time comes around to wipe the slate clean?

You know all the merely rational arguments already. But when when you've fallen off the wagon like this, reason and enlightened self interest often aren't enough, so here are some tricks.

First off, before you get to this point, adjust your expectations going into the holiday season. Do not expect to lose ANY weight. Your goal should be maintenance. This is reasonable given the temptations, and the weather, which is not conducive to calorie burning activities. And I think it's actually ambitious given that most people gain weight over the holidays -- just by standing still you are zipping past the Joneses. Most importantly, it will tone down your disappointments. A minor setback will be much less likely to turn into a route. And if you do actually lose some weight, bonus, you'll be that much more thrilled.

Another trick is stop making new years resolutions. They're a terrible idea. For one thing, they almost never work, because it's very hard to plan at such a large time scale, but the worst part, worse than their mere inefficacy, is how they serve as an excuse for putting off necessary self improvement projects. Get rid of new years resolutions, and you can't say yourself "I'll just flop out till then," you have to fix the problem now. When you fail, you have to get right back up, there's no time out to just lie around on the ground, waiting for your perfectionist tabula rasa to get reset.

Monthly resolutions are a much better structure for trying out new behaviors. And I'll talk a little bit about them next week.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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