Are you up for an experiment? It will show how strong your willpower is. What do you think? Up for the challenge?
All right, let’s do this.
I want you to not think about kicking a dog.
Yeah, that’s right. Don’t think about kicking a dog. Okay?
Good. How was it? What were you thinking about? If you found it rather difficult to make sure you were not thinking of kicking a dog – don’t worry. It’s okay. Even if you actually did think about kicking a dog (you evil person!), hey, that’s okay too (in fact – if you’re like most people, you imagined kicking a dog, even if you felt really guilty right after that).
Now let’s try something else: Think of swimming in the sea. Greece in August, blue sky, water at perfect temperature – and you are swimming in the sea. Got it?
Let me ask you a question. Were you, by any chance thinking of kicking a dog now? Chances are – you were not. Of course, you were thinking about swimming in the sea! In Greece! In August! (Note: If you still were still thinking about kicking a dog, maybe you have hidden inclination to violence towards animals and this is something you can discuss with your therapist.)
It’s extremely difficult to think of not doing something. In fact, our mind can’t really do that.
As I’m writing these lines, it’s 10:45pm. And a few hours earlier, I was in a pub drinking beer. A few months ago, at this time of night after having drunk a few glasses of beer, I would have been sure to get in the kitchen and start stuffing myself with bacon, cheese or chocolates, whatever was available. Today – I didn’t.
Here’s what changed:
In spring this year, I decided I would start eating in a more healthy way. Eating late at night was obviously one of the bad eating habits. Pringles, peanut butter and chocolate cookies just before going to bed. I knew that I “should not eat late”. But knowing that was not enough. I kept doing it.
Solution came from a man of the most unexpected profession. From a cartoonist. In summer, I read the book How to fail at almost everything and still win big by Scott Adams, the author of the Dilbert. One of the topics Scott gives advice on is diet (with a loud disclaimer that you should always consult health advice from a cartoonist with your physician).
Here are Scott’s ideas that caught my attention:
“When I feel like eating something, it’s not always because I’m hungry”
Scott identified one such case for himself as Social eating. He describes the situation in the book:
“I often find myself doing social eating just because someone else in the family happens to be snacking in the kitchen. I wander in and start a conversation and the next thing I know something unnecessary is heading for my stomach. It’s almost automatic and mindless.”
I happen to be living alone, but guess what, in the evening I am happy to snack socially in my kitchen even if I’m socializing only via WhatsApp. For some reason, no matter how big my dinner is, late at night I always get this strong urge to “eat something”.
So what should I do when it’s not because I’m hungry?
“I have just enough awareness to steer myself toward the lowest-calorie items. I don’t need nuts or cheese because I’m not actually hungry. I just need something to do while I hang out. So I go for the celery or carrots or cucumbers.”
Well Scott, I’m not a fan of celery or carrots (well, at least not yet), but the cucumber – yes, let’s try this! Actually I still don’t love it – but at least I don’t hate it. I can make myself eat it!
Here, Scott adds one more point:
“How to Make Healthy Food Taste Good”
“Perhaps the biggest obstacle to healthy eating is flavor. (…) I find that most people who have poor diets believe healthy food has bland or unpleasant flavor. (…) Everything in life is a calculated risk, and I’ve decided that using salt as much as I want allows me to thoroughly enjoy some healthy foods that I wouldn’t otherwise eat. For example, a salted carrot is delicious but an unsalted carrot is like chewing on a stick.”
Chewing on a stick – life is too short for that, thanks a million Scott! Salted cucumber for me, please!
Long story short – it worked for me. Now (for the past six months or so), as long as I have a cucumber in my fridge, that’s what I go for when I find myself feeling like eating something late in the evening. Implementing this change was as easy as if it was some magic. Cucumber magic. All it took was to change the “Don’t eat late in the evening” to “Eat salted cucumber”.
Improving my diet had to go way beyond cucumbers of course. I used the same approach for lunches. It was able to make a sustainable change only when I replaced “Don’t eat junk food” with “on a weekday, have a salad in Delmart for lunch” and when I replaced “don’t overeat in the office” with “Morning snack at 10am – 5 brazil nuts” and “Afternoon snack at 3pm – 5 brazil nuts”.
You can use this approach improving your habits way beyond your diet. But no matter what bad habit you are trying to get rid of, remember:
It’s hard “not to kick a dog”. But “swimming in the sea” – you can do that!
Now tell me: Which dog are you not kicking?