All right, I said I was going to handle weight maintenance in a certain way, and I'm officially going back on my word.
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So when I first got near my goal weight, you may remember, I was going to chart my weight on a little chart that Mark made for me modeled after a statistical process control chart. Cue the theramin music as we go back, back in time to early 2009...
Mark made up the chart, and the "rules" at the top.
It's like this: I am supposed to begin doing something to bring my weight back to the middle whenever any of the conditions described in the rules are met. I cannot return to normal behavior until the running average of five measurements in a row crosses the midline again.
This is great, except that I have not gotten around to defining "normal behavior," nor the positive and negative types of "doing something." Right now "normal behavior" is "more or less eat what I want" and "doing something" is "eat less than I want." (I have only slipped into the land of underweight-must-eat-more once.)
Yes, that was the plan. Watch the weight wiggle back and forth between the control limits, and if it creeps up too far, add "habits" until it creeps back down again.
After many months of frustrated struggling at an average weight a few pounds higher than my target, I am now officially renouncing this strategy.
It looks too much like "going on a diet" and "going off a diet" and "going on a diet again." It messes with my head.
On the surface it seemed like a good idea: toggle habits on and off, to turn the balance one way or another, and keep the weight under control just exactly as if I were a manufacturing process. But I, unlike a collection of heat exchangers and reactors, have a psychology, and you know what? It kind of sucks to tell myself, "Well, I won't have any wine, or desserts, until I get five weight readings in a row below such-and-such a weight." It makes me feel deprived and dejected, and do you know what? Once I got the five weight readings in a row, and toggled my "habits" back to "maintenance level," the weight did not stay down. I was not aware of it, but I must have been overreacting in the other direction: indulging to pay myself back for the deprivation.
This is not the way I want to do things.
And anyway, the terminology should have been a clue. Hello -- "toggle" habits on and off? If you do that with a behavior, it isn't a habit! I don't want to be in an endless cycle of deprivation and indulgence. That's what I tried to give up.
I want sustainable living at a sustainable weight.
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So, right around Thanksgiving, I abandoned that approach (though I'm still making the weight chart, and it's still important, as you will see.) And remarkably, as soon as I did, my weight returned down to the target level, and I've been maintaining it with much LESS effort since then.
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Here's my new strategy:
Watch the scale, and if the weight begins to creep out of the comfort zone, re-evaluate habits and eating behaviors, through trial and error -- one or a few at a time. But adopt and evaluate habits as potentially permanent lifestyle adaptations. If I do not think I could sustain a habit for the rest of my life, it probably is not a good habit for me.
No more of this "I only have to do it until my weight comes back under control." Only: What I do, I do from now until it doesn't make sense for me anymore.
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A caveat: A habit "for the rest of my life" doesn't mean "every single time." If I am in the habit of not having bedtime snacks, it doesn't mean that I never choose to have one. It's more of an "almost always." Let's take it as a given that occasionally I will splurge. But not often enough to make a new, not-so-good habit.
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Another thing that's kind of weird about this is that it requires a little bit of double think. Because I have to be open to changing the habits if necessary. See, my environment constantly changes: my children are growing, the seasons are turning, my schedule is different every semester, my own body is aging from year to year. It stands to reason that the helpful habits of today might be less helpful in a future time. So I know that it's not really true that any given habit is being adopted "for the rest of my life."
But I cannot work with a habit that I wouldn't be okay with "for the rest of my life." If it's too hard to do "for the rest of my life" then it's going to make me suffer, and long for release, even in the short term.
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So what did I do back then around Thanksgiving? Well, this sort-of-New-Year's post about the turkey roasters and the puppies is getting at the distinction:
Here is my husband's idea, which has merit: "Make a list of habits that you can add or subtract as necessary. Put them in order from the easiest and most painless to the most difficult and annoying. Then, if your weight spikes up, start adding habits in order, only one or two at a time. If that doesn't help, add more until your weight goes down again, and then you can stop the habits, starting with the most annoying ones."
The idea of ranking behaviors by annoyance level was a new one, and I thought I would give that a try. I started making a list of things like "don't eat sweets" and "keep the serving dishes in the kitchen" and "put a stick of gum by my plate at dinner" and "one egg is enough eggs for breakfast" and the like.
But as my list of former and current and potential weight-controlling strategies grew longer, I began to feel uneasy about calling them all "habits." And as I began to shuffle them around to figure out which ones I enjoy the least ("no wine with dinner" and "pre-count every calorie" are two examples of behaviors that work extremely well but that exemplify the life I do NOT want to lead), I became even more sure that "habit" is absolutely the wrong word for many of these behaviors.
What Mark is suggesting is not a ranking of habits, but a hierarchy of compensatory deprivations.
A habit is not like a toggle switch; it is more like a houseplant or a tropical fish or a puppy. It requires care. Yes-no choices do go into it, though. Choose often enough to feed it and it thrives; choose often enough to neglect it and it withers. Useful habits are habits to live with: not necessarily permanently, but for long periods. They can be tried for a while to see if they are pleasant to live with and if they have desirable effects, but this is not the same as toggling them on and off; it is more like a temporary adoption, to see if an attachment will deepen.
Compensatory deprivations are less like a companion pet and more like a spare folding table or a turkey roaster: an unwieldy, occasionally used piece of furniture or appliance that you get out of the basement from time to time when necessary. (e.g., at the holidays.)
What I've decided is that I'm done with turkey-roaster dieting, for the most part.
Anyway, I went on the next day to spell out some of the habits I was thinking about trying on:
I think a lot of people slip up by resolving to deprive themselves permanently or indefinitely of something they really enjoy that is ordinarily harmless, or at least it is harmless in moderation. It would be better to identify habits that are really desirable, and try to set yourself up to fall into them, so to speak.
As for me, my biggest problem right now is that I have slipped into an indulge-gain-deprive-lose cycle, and I really need to get out of it and into a more balanced pattern. That calls for a look at habits I would like to re-establish for the new year: permanent changes that I really want to have.
So I made a long list of potential behaviors, and then I carefully considered each one. If I found it appealing, I put it on my list of "habits to try." If I didn't, I put it on the list of "compensatory deprivations" -- and I don't intend to touch those except on rare occasions, such as the morning after a day full of bad food, or as a needed kick start.
The three habits I started trying were very simple:
- "Half a sandwich is enough sandwich for me." When faced with a sandwich, only eat half.
- A normal portion of sweets is a two-thumbs-sized rectangle, or (if it's scoopable) 1/3 cup.
- Have only a small portion of alcohol with dinner; have more only after I've pushed my plate away.
I quit trying to deprive myself based on the scale numbers plotted on the chart; instead it was more like, "Well, the chart shows me that my current habits aren't keeping my weight well in control; I need to adopt a different set of habits that will, indefinitely, keep my weight well in control. When I find them, I will keep them, not quit as soon as I see happier numbers."
And when I stopped the panic, stopped depriving myself of all manner of things, and switched instead to reinforcing those three habits, I noticed, other habits became easier. For example, it became easier to stick to one plateful at dinner, rather than helping myself to unnecessary seconds. And the half-sandwich reminder made it easier for me to have balanced meals when I ate at restaurants.
A month later, my weight is back in control. It's in better control than it's been in for the last YEAR, I think. (Maybe I'll post the data later to show you.)
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Permanent, not temporary, change. That is what it is all about. Why do I have to keep learning this over and over again?