We’re hearing a lot these days about the value of planning: A daily schedule to impose some structure to our days. A task list to keep us focused and productive while working or studying from home. A meal plan to keep us from mindlessly grazing all day.
So we dutifully make a plan for the day…and then abandon the plan by 10am. It’s tempting to conclude that planning doesn’t work.
But here’s the thing everyone forgets to tell you about planning. The trick is not in making the plan. The trick is in sticking to the plan you’ve made.
Because I can almost guarantee you that however solid and reasonable your plan, when it comes time to execute it, your brain is going to rebel. It will argue that it doesn’t really matter whether you write that email now or later, or whether you eat this or that. After all (your brain will say to you), you made the plan. You can change the plan. No big deal, right?
And the more often you throw the plan out the window, the easier that “no big deal” moment becomes. Each time you alter your plan, you empower the part of your brain that always wants to give up.
At the end of the day, however, you’re very likely going to be disappointed with the results. A lot of the work you planned to do is still undone. The exercise session you planned somehow didn’t happen. Instead of the nice salad you planned to have for lunch, you ate an entire tube of saltines, 4 slices of american cheese, the cookie you planned to enjoy after dinner plus three more. You’ll wonder how the day got so out of control.
The problem here is that your brain has (at least) two parts: A higher brain that’s looking out for your future well-being and a lower brain that favors immediate gratification.
Which part of your brain do you want calling the shots?
In the Weighless Program, we often refer to that lower brain as our Inner Toddler. And just like a child testing limits, our lower brain is constantly testing to see whether it can get the higher brain to cave in on all those pesky, no-fun plans. But just as a child actually feels much safer and happier when they realize that there are limits that prevent them from doing whatever they want, you will feel so much calmer and more in control when you know that you can count on yourself to stick to the plan. And every time you do, you strengthen that part of your identity.
The art of planning
Whether you are planning your work schedule, your meals, your exercise, or any other habit, you may need to experiment to discover what level of detail is flexible enough to be realistic without being so flexible that it fails to keep you on track. But whatever level of detail you arrive at, it’s helpful to write it down. Because then when your lower brain starts negotiating or you conveniently “forget” what the plan was, you can refer to that document and remind yourself, “Nope, this is the plan. End of discussion.”
At the first moment of rebellion, when your lower brain starts to argue that it doesn’t really matter whether you eat a salad or saltines for lunch, you calmly tell your lower brain, “No, we’re going to stick to the plan–simply because that’s what we planned. If we decide we don’t like this plan, we can make a different plan for tomorrow. But today, we’re following the plan. “
And then you follow through. You trust that what your higher brain planned for you was in your best interests. When you’re tempted to have an unplanned snack or treat, remind yourself that your plan includes a snack and a treat. Just not this one and not right now.
So, you also want to be kind to yourself when you’re making your plans. You want to be looking out for your best interests, whether that’s finishing the work that needs to get done, or eating nutritious foods, or getting some exercise. But in addition to all of these ways of taking care of yourself, remember that your plan should also include ways of resting and relaxing, things to enjoy and look forward to.
It’s OK to plan a food treat but remember there are lots of other ways that we can give ourselves small pleasures through the day, whether it’s a call with a friend, a nap, a half hour with a book or magazine, or an episode of a favorite show. When we include treats in our plan, it makes it much easier for us to resist momentary urges–because we know we have treats coming our way.
If only as an experiment, I want you to see what happens if you stick to your plan all day long. You owe it to yourself to see what it’s like when you actually take care of yourself that way.
There may be a few bumps. You may feel a little grumbly at times. But at the end of the day, I want you to notice how it feels to have completed (most of) the work you meant to complete, to have eaten (pretty much) the way you intended to eat, just moved your body (more or less) the way you planned to, to have enjoyed the treats that you selected for yourself–and to have both the pleasure of anticipating them as well as the pleasure of enjoying them.
Does it feel better or worse than you feel when you abandon your plan because it doesn’t seem appealing or important in the moment?
If you didn’t stick to your plan, think about why your plan failed. Was the plan too strict? Simply unrealistic? Maybe your work plan needs to include an extra hour to handle unexpected stuff. Maybe the meals you planned weren’t quite enough to satisfy your hunger. Or, maybe you needed to leave a little more time for preparation. How can you adjust tomorrow’s plan to make it serve you even better?
When I was first practicing as a nutritionist, I worked with a lot of people who had health problems related to diet. They were overweight. They had high blood sugar or high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
They (or their doctors) believed that they just needed someone to tell them what to eat and what not to eat. But as I quickly learned, the problem for most people is not that they don’t know what to do.
They know what to do. They just don’t know how to get themselves to do it.
They know that after dinner snacking is resulting in unwanted pounds. They just don’t know how to break the habit.
They know that they are eating a lot more sugar than is good for their bodies. They just don’t know how to stop.
They know that prepping healthy snacks or getting more exercise would be healthier. They just can’t seem to be consistent.
Now, not knowing how to do something is nothing to be ashamed of. But so often, even when people go looking for help, they tend to look in the wrong places. They look for something that will provide motivation or accountability. They look for someone with a new and different solution. They look for someone who will tell them what to do–only louder.
But none of this answers the real question: How do I change my behavior?
And this is the question that the year-long Weighless program is designed to answer.
Of course, as nutrition and fitness professionals, Brock and I have created a program that will help you figure out what eating and movement patterns work best for you. But much of the weekly curriculum and group coaching is devoted to helping people understand why they do the things they do and how to change the things they want to change.
Enrollment for the year-long Weighless program is currently closed. But you can get a jump-start on our approach to behavior change by tuning into our Change Academy podcast. And if you are thinking about joining the cohort that will begin in the Spring, be sure you’re on our mailing list.
A member of our year-long Weighless Program recently approached us with a dilemma. “Hannah” prefers not to eat animal products, due to ethical concerns. And yet she is finding it difficult to get enough protein without getting too many calories.
“It sounds like the protein requirements will only get higher as I get older, while my calories needs may get even lower. If I don’t want to sacrifice my health or muscle mass (or even if I just want to weigh less right now), am I going to need to eat chicken and/or fish? “
I don’t think we need to choose between our health goals and our values. But there will likely be some tradeoffs. After all, we’re solving for a lot of bottom lines here:
desire to avoid animal products
desire to maintain muscle mass
desire to weigh less
desire to enjoy life
Optimizing for any two of these (much less all four) is definitely going to be a balancing act.
It’s certainly possible to get enough protein without including animal products in your diet. But plant-based sources of protein tend to be significantly higher in calories than the same amount of protein from animal sources. So you’ll probably have fewer discretionary calories to spend on food choices that are not simply about meeting nutritional needs.
Fortunately, this is not an all-or-nothing situation. Even if you’re not getting the “ideal” amount of protein at every meal (or ever), getting a bit more protein, more often, can move you toward your goals. If you can tweak the protein content of your typical meatless meals from 5-6g to 18-20g (or even 10-12g), that’s a major gain in terms of muscle protein synthesis.
Keep in mind that the amount of strength training and weight-bearing exercise you do is also going to have a big impact on your lean muscle retention, independent of your protein intake (although the two definitely work together).
For more on fine-tuning your nutrition, movement, goals and values in mid-life and beyond, check out our 50,000 Mile Tuneup podcast series
One of our Weighless members recently shared that, despite her success at becoming someone who weighs less, she was feeling a lot of anxiety about backsliding. (She had done this many times in the past.)
Others who are not quite as far along in their journey are feeling anxious that they might not succeed…because all of their previous attempts had failed.
It makes sense. Our expectations for the future are based on our past experiences. Except that this doesn’t take into account what’s changed.
New tools create new results
Brock offered a great analogy:
“In the past, you were like someone who was given the keys to fly a plane but had never been trained to be a pilot. So of course you struggled. It makes total sense. But now you have read the manual, done the training, and are ready to do some solo flights. Sure, you may still make some mistakes, you will have moments of doubt, but you will not crash the plane.”
Brock then invited her to make a list of all the tools that she had at her disposal the last time she was attempting to maintain a weight loss. She immediately got it.
“There were no tools! There were just systems that I was either on or off. So yes, this is different. I need to acknowledge the skill layers I’ve built through Weighless. This is definitely an aha moment and a big confidence builder.”
Letting go of past failures
One way to combat anxiety about the future is to understand–and then let go of–our past failures. We can’t blame our past selves for failing at something we had never been shown how to do. Then, we need to acknowledge the steps we are taking to create a different outcome. This allows us to face the future with confidence.
We may face some turbulence. But we will not crash the plane.
What steps are you taking to create a different outcome? What would make you feel more confident about your future?
Last night, Brock and I were coaching some folks who are working on impulse control. And more than one of them described times when an urge to eat something felt almost like an addiction. The more they tried to resist, the more overwhelming it felt. Sometimes, giving in–even though they knew they’d have regrets–felt like the only option.
But framing a desire as an addiction can make us feel really powerless. It also shifts all the focus onto the object of our desire, rather than our own thoughts and feelings–which is where the action really is.
It might be more helpful to think of that part of ourselves as our inner toddler rather than our inner addict.
When your inner toddler throws a tantrum
Deciding to resist an urge or craving can easily trigger a temper tantrum from your inner toddler. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an actual toddler’s temper tantrum, you know how easy it is to get caught up in that emotional storm–and when you do, you have lost control of the situation.
But if we can step back and access our mature adult brains, we realize two things:
We can see that the drama is totally out of proportion to the reality. For the toddler, getting the thin g they want literally feels like a matter of life and death. As adults, we can see that it is merely a passing squall. We may even be able to see the humor in the situation, which allows us to respond more gently.
We may also be able to see that the toddler needs something–just not the thing they are demanding. Perhaps they need a nap, or a cuddle, or less stimulation, or something more interesting to do. This can turn irritation into compassion and allow us to care for our toddler more effectively.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
The next time you find yourself in the grips of a desire or craving, see if you can visualize that inner toddler who truly believes that they cannot live without this thing. Recognize the adorable absurdity of it all.
And then, instead of trying to reason with your screaming toddler, disciplining them, or simply giving in to an unreasonable demand (thereby perpetuating the behavior), see if you can figure out what that little person really needs.
It’s easy to get discouraged when your goal feels too far away. And that’s why it’s so important to celebrate your incremental progress.
In our year-long Weighless program, we throw a little virtual confetti every time our members hit milestones such as losing 5, 10, or 15% of their starting weight. And one of our members recently came up with a fantastic idea for taking this a step further.
When she reached her 5% milestone, she bought a beautiful sun-catcher and hung it in the large window of her master bath. When she reached 7.5%, she bought another smaller one and added it to the window. She’s already got her eye on a larger one for when she reaches 10%. And the other night, in our group meeting, she told us:
“My plan, when I reach my goal, is to have one custom-made, maybe with a bright red cardinal, for the very center. It’s going to be a while, but I figure I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll just enjoy the periodic additions to my collection.”
How brilliant is this?
Every morning, when she steps into her bathroom to get ready for her day, she is greeted by this heart-lifting display, signifying what she’s accomplished and reminding her of her goals for the future. An ongoing, tangible celebration of her decision to be someone who weighs less.
I want you to steal this idea!
Step 1: Think of something that would bring you genuine pleasure–ideally something that you could enjoy in an ongoing way. Step 2: Set an incremental goal. Step 3: Post a comment below and tell us what your goal is and how you plan to celebrate. Step 4: When you reach that milestone, reward yourself! (And send us a picture!)
Now that our newest members are well underway on their year-long journey to weighing less, Brock and I have been thinking hard about how we can help EVERYONE in our community create a healthier body and life.
And I’m excited to tell you about a new tool that we’ve created: something we think you’ll find super useful
It’s designed to give you clarity and laser-focus on your next action steps. The steps that will move most quickly toward your goal. Because overwhelm generally leads to inaction.
Eating more mindfully allows us to get more enjoyment from our food and also to make sure that we’re not eating more than we need. In the year-long Weighless program, we have a number of techniques to cultivate mindfulness throughout our lives. But here’s one that you can try right now.
One of the key strategies in the Weighless approach is to engineer an environment that supports the changes we are trying to make. Trying to eat less junk food? Stop bringing it into the house! Want to be more consistent about movement? Bring a yoga mat and some hand weights into the TV room and turn streaming time into strengthening time. Trying to avoid going back for seconds? Put the excess food away before sitting down to eat.
(In the year-long Weighless program, we devote whole weeks to hacking our habitats!)
But what if the person you live with isn’t on board with the changes you’re trying to make? What then?
This is a very challenging — and very common — situation.
Keep in mind that when people close to you are unsupportive of your efforts, it’s probably more about them than you. The new habits you’re trying to build may make it harder for them to justify their own unhealthy choices.
Sometimes, you can negotiate some compromises. Sometimes, you just have to use the challenge as an opportunity to strengthen your own resolve and skills. And having a supportive community can definitely help.
I have some additional ideas in this video. If this is a situation you’re struggling with, I encourage you to watch it. (It’s about 7 minutes long.)
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