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Significant Reductions

Personal Improvement

I'm trying some dietary changes using feelings, not rules.

Two weeks ago I wrote about streaks and how I use them as a motivational / habit-control tool.

They are powerful, those streaks. But the problem I raised in that post was that they rely on 100% compliance. Like monogamy in a marriage, their power comes from never straying. On being god damn perfect. A streak is a rules-based system in which the main rule is don't miss a beat.

I love streaks. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked them as a self-improvement tool. They are an ideal scenario that set you up for failure. Once you break the rules, it's a slippery slope and you slide all the way down.

I failed when I tried to limit snacking. I failed when I tried to use snacking as motivation to learn a new language. Eventually, I would break the rules and the rules would slowly fade away.

(To be fair, I didn't fail. They were both experiments that I chose to end but the result was that they didn't have any real lasting impact. Je ne peux toujours pas parler fran├žais.)

So when I was trying to improve my diet lately, which has slipped a little too far into frozen pizza territory over the winter, I decided not to set up any rules like "no frozen pizzas." I went the other way. No rules at all. I'm aiming for just a feeling: I want to feel like I've significantly reduced the amount of processed food I eat and that's it.

Without strict rules, when someone offers me a chip I can take one without worrying about breaking a diet rule. "I really shouldn't!"

The result I want is a reduction in the amount of salt and sugar I eat. It's one of many ways I'm trying to control my general stress level. I reason I can't use strict consumption rules? Paying close attention to salt and sugar content in everything you eat is bloody stressful.

Strict diet rules, for me, go against the other tenets of stress reduction, like accepting the way you are and the things you desire and the way you feel.

So I'm trying to feel my way to a better diet. I'm relying on visual cues, like looking into my fridge and seeing more vegetables than anything else. Or seeing food with ingredient lists as "generally bad but not forbidden."

Here's the even weirder part though about this attempt at loose habit building: I don't think it will be a permanent change. It's a lane correction. Like when you spend too much time looking at the radio and you drift over the white line and your peripheral vision catches it and you panic and jerk the wheel back to centre.

This is my way of jerking my wheel.

Before long, I'm sure I'll drift over the white line again and eat terrible things. (I love you, Sour Cream 'n Onion Rings, and nothing will ever keep us apart!) But I'll have stronger instincts directing me back to the middle.

If you want a really long read about our society's biggest streak, check out this New York Times special about open marriages.