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Happy New Year! Have you made any resolutions? If you have, you’re in good company. About half of Americans make them, and by far the most popular resolutions involve making changes to diet and exercise.

Count me in that bunch! By the time New Year’s Day rolls around, I’ve been feasting for more than two months – beginning with my son’s birthday in October, through two more birthdays and the seasonal holidays. After all that indulgence, my body feels cumbersome, my clothing feels tight, and I’m longing to feel slim and strong again.

In the past I’ve turned to diets. I have always enjoyed the “chase” of a diet: the plan, the focus, the immediate positive feedback of losing weight. Maintaining the weight loss after meeting my goal, however, has eluded me, and I don’t want to put myself through that again. So, I’ve been thinking about a different way to do it this year.

The seed of the answer came from one of my favorite books from 2020. In Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, primatologist Frans de Waal writes:

“In order to survive, we need to eat, make love, and nurse. Nature made all these activities pleasurable, so we engage in them easily and voluntarily.”

Ah, the soothing neutrality of scientific prose! Of course, over-eating happens: eating is designed to be pleasurable!

What if we really embraced this fact? Two things happen:

  1. Overweight is transformed from a moral problem (I’m a bad person) to a practical one (How can I solve this puzzle?).
  2. Pleasure, rather than deprivation, becomes the guiding inspiration.

To Solve a Practical Problem, Think Like a Scientist

Define the problem and state a hypothesis

What exactly are the actions that lead to overeating? With my scientist hat on, here’s what I’ve noticed about myself over the past week:

  • I overeat when I’m stressed because stress causes me to rush and do everything in a distracted way. I had never allowed myself to notice how stressed I get at the end of the year. Between my children’s birthdays, the holidays, and wrapping up my business year, it’s a lot. Now that I am aware, I can make some changes to better support myself.
  • If I’m rushing and distracted, I’ll only stop eating after I clean my plate, because that’s what I was taught as a child. But I’m grown now, and I know differently, so I can update that programming. I can also change how much I serve myself.
  • Stress also prompts me to prioritize my to-do list over exercising. This is self-defeating, because daily exercise contributes so much to my overall wellbeing – in other words, exercise reduces my stress.
  • I realize that I think of being thin and fit as a novelty, not the norm. The thrill of a novelty fades over time, and I settle back into pre-diet-and-exercise habits. I can, once more, update my programming — which, like so much else, began in childhood — and find ways to keep body joy alive, so that I don’t seek it through food

I’m a little stunned that I never noticed these contributors before and also pleased that it took only a little sleuthing to discover them. They lead me to a hypothesis:

  • If I manage stress and increase joy, my overeating will go away.

Now it’s your turn. Observe yourself and your body this week. What exactly gets in your way of a peaceful relationship with your body? What’s your hypothesis?

Experiment and tweak the formula

When scientists experiment, they measure one variable at a time and chart their progress. What can we learn from this? Take small steps to change your inputs and give yourself plenty of acknowledgment and rest in between adjustments.

This is where pleasure comes in.

In her book The Four Day Win, Martha Beck recommends sticking with a small change for four days at a time. You celebrate each day, with a bigger celebration at the conclusion of the four-day stretch, and build gradually on your new habits.

That approach fits the bill perfectly, as it’s a combination of small adjustments and pleasurable celebrations. It’s also an approach I used last year to build a daily exercise routine that I really enjoy.

So, as stress is my primary driver of overeating, my four-day wins will focus on self-care, and my celebrations will focus on enjoying the pleasures I have withheld.

Here’s how I’ll start:

  • 10-min of deep breathing in the morning. Celebrate daily by wearing perfume – which I normally reserve for special occasions, which never come. After four days, celebrate by buying something silky.
  • Next, add 10-min of deep breathing in the afternoon, when I normally feel sleepy and go looking for chocolate to pick me up. Celebrate daily with an extra 10-min of relaxation following the breathing – which I tell myself I don’t have time for, but which feels amazing. After four days, celebrate with another silky purchase.
  • Next, make the first five bites of each meal mindful. My daily celebration will be a post-lunch dance party – which I tell myself I don’t have time for, but which I adore. After four days, celebrate with another silky purchase. (I have a backlog of desire for silk, so this four-day win will cover me for a while).

You don’t have to know all your steps in advance, just the first two or three. Trust yourself to know what comes next.

Now it’s your turn: Brainstorm 20-30 ideas for wins and celebrations and start with what feels best.

When you allow a problem – even an intractable one – to be practical, rather than a moral judgment against you, you free up energy to solve it. When you approach the problem solving with curiosity and a belief that the process itself – not just the outcome – ought to feel good, you set yourself up for lasting success.

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