Why saying, “I want to eat less” doesn’t work


I’ve become an expert on what doesn’t work. That’s even less glamorous than it sounds. My credentials? Experience as both a coach and a human. I’ve dropped countless balls in each domain. However, I’ve also seen how they bounce.

Whether it’s about nutrition, exercise, or anything else, most advice on behaviour change isn’t useful. SMART goals. Vision boards. You name it. Sorry. It is what it is. I know this because I’ve tried it all—personally and professionally. I know the research and I know humans.

I want to eat less X… Or maybe Y more
I want to eat less junk food.
I want to spend less time on my phone.
I want to listen more and talk less (double difficulty points!)

Great aspirations—one and all—but not formulated for success.

How soon is now?
How much is less? It’s like a Zen koan that only appears once the bag of nachos has attained emptiness. The first real problem with a do more or do less goal is its fuzziness.

Fuzzy goals don’t work very well
A do more or do less goal is doubly-fuzzy because both the start and end are pretty vague. When do you remember to do the thing? And then what exactly does that thing look like? A bunch of fuzz, that’s what.

Learn to play the odds
Systems thinkers are familiar with the idea of attractor wells. Roll a ball over a landscape and it is simply more likely to settle in certain places. This concept also applies to behaviour. It is easier to do some things than others.

In the case of electronics and tasty, tasty foods, it is easy to consume. This is by design. Once that behaviour ball is rolling over the cusp of an attractor well, it’s probably going to drop. That well could be crafted by Willy Wonka or Mark Zuckerburg (both kind of unnerving). The patterns are the same. Motivation will sometimes speed the ball right over a well but—statistically speaking—gravity has a real advantage.

Remembering to do the thing
As I alluded to with the bag of nachos, we tend to only remember our aspiration after we’re in the bottom of a well. Next? Cue guilt.

Wipe out the fuzziness (and bad vibes)

Image credit: Mr Lovenstein

The first thing you need to wipe out this fuzziness is a good prompt. A prompt is how you remember your aspiration in the first place. You have to remember a thing in order to do it. Yes, you can set a calendar reminder but you’re more likely to be successful if you can attach it to an existing habit. That habit becomes your anchor. As an example, you might remember to listen actively for at least 10 seconds as soon as you make eye contact with someone else.

Here’s the trick: the prompt has to come before you’ve dipped into that attractor well. Trying to remember

to listen mindfully after you’re already flapping your gums is a tough one. So, practicing a moment of mindfulness before gravity kicks in will serve you better. Trying to hate-scroll Twitter less is much harder once you’re midway through explaining (fruitlessly) that science is not a conspiracy. And, of course, trying to eat less once you’ve had half of an ice cream cone is… Well, let’s be real.

Clear prompt? Check. Clear action?
To further wipe away the fuzz, you’re going to need a clear action. It could be as simple as saying, “I will slow down 10%” or as complex as a developing a whole new habit. Once you’ve eradicated all fuzziness, your chances of success are astronomically higher.

If you’ve struggled…
Odds are that your willpower or discipline have not been the issues. Rather, you simply haven’t set yourself up for success. So, while there’s still plenty of experimentation to do, it’s my hope that you now know exactly what traps to avoid.

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