By T.J. Murphy
It’s the holiday season. Stacks and tins of Christmas treats are upon us. Innocent-looking land mines of sugar. I had enough of a problem steering myself away from the 10 pounds of Halloween candy offered up at the shared office space I work at in Boston, in that my success rate was nothing to brag about. I was constantly reminded of a lecture I attended on the mechanics of willpower. After a night of good sleep, a human being wakes with a brain biochemically fueled up with a finite amount of will-power. Then as you go about your day, you burn a little bit with each choice you make. Make the bed now or later? Swimming pool or hop on the indoor trainer? Do I ignore this email, reply now or later? Each decision requires thought-energy and stress in a way that it sucks up and burns a dose from your daily allotment of willpower.
So each time I vectored near the Halloween candy, or now the plate of Santa Claus cookies, I tap a bit of the willpower tank when I see them and say no and walk on by.
And this has happened to: I talk myself into having one. Or two. And who knows how much brainpower I then spend riding the guilt roller coaster. I’m not so worried about putting on weight (although that’s part of it), I am worried about the problems associated with insulin production and insulin resistance, as blood tests have proven to me that I am predisposed to hyperinsulinemia, the royal road to type-2 diabetes.
One of the most profoundly simple yet important tactics that I’ve learned from Robb Wolf, bestselling author of The Paleo Solution, is that being suckered into eating junk food is not necessarily a signal that I am of especially weak character undone by low impulse control. Rather, there is hard-wiring involved of the evolutionary biology kind. Consider the driving forces of survival pulsing within the depths of the human genes that allowed humanity to survive in harsh environments where there wasn’t exactly a Taco Bell in range of the cave dwelling home, it’s no simple thing to walk by a cookie.
I recall six-time Ironman champion Mark Allen talking about the challenge he had in breaking a habit he had of buying and eating chocolate chip cookies. Here was a guy training more than 30 hours a week and winning not just Ironmans but just about every triathlon he entered. Surely he had the willpower to buy a batch of freshly-made chocolate chip cookies from the aromatic artisan shop where they baked them on the premises and limit his consumption to one cookie per day, so the batch would last a week. Or—hey— at least a few days.
He’d have one and then…well, what’s one more cookie? Or then, swoosh, all gone, hours within their purchase. Allen had to apply his talents for strategy and stamina to slowly break himself out of the chains of the whole chocolate chip cookie deal. The hard answer was to not have them in the house at all. He went through some withdrawals, as I recall. But in time, the cravings departed and he ate the real-food diet that he had come to rely on for health and performance.
This gets to Wolf’s key advice: If you really want to eat a good food, the first and most important step is only have good food around. Don’t just hide the junk food, expunge it from your local universe. Don’t think that putting that box of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Cookie Stars on a top shelf is going to do anything but drive you slowly insane until you crack and rip open the box.
In other words, if you’re serious about changing your diet then you have to fire up your bullshit-detector and get real about the most obvious things. Like clearing out the cupboards. Get real about it. I think Wolf offers the phrase, “Giddy-up Buttercup!”
Another great tactic I learned is from Greg Amundson, author of Firebreather Fitness, who remarkably and consistently practiced a Paleo/Zone Diet for around 15 years. It’s about applying preparation and ritual.
What Amundson brings to the health-and-fitness conversation is a hard-earned understanding of various skills and drills that sharpen the mental and spiritual dimensions of performance, even with the complications of stress and time demands. Sheriff, SWAT, DEA Agent—these were some of his roles. His discipline with food was (and is) a great example. Early in his law enforcement career, Amundson worked a long, challenging shift that went deep into the night and early morning. He earned the nickname Tupperware Man because of his penchant for shopping and preparing all of his meals and snacks in advance so that he could be in control of his hunger rather than his hunger being in control of him. Amundson was a master of ritualizing those things most important to him, and he turned a simple trip to the grocery store into a masterpiece of ritual. He knew exactly what to get, where to get it from the store, how much to get and what it was going to cost.
So these are the things I had in mind this week when I cancelled my membership at the shared office space complex and am building a new home office. It wasn’t just the Halloween candy or the sugar cookies. This is Boston, so apparently an office isn’t an office unless someone puts out a tray of Dunkin Donuts once a week. I’ve tried to Giddy-up, in other words. I know my limitations.