Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughts on dishonesty and weight loss (via Dan Ariely)

Tonight I went to another amazing lecture at the JCCSF here in San Francisco, the launch of their 2012-2013 Arts & Ideas lecture series. The speaker was world-renowned Behavioural Economist and TED speaker Dan Ariely.

These lectures are so fantastic and enjoyable, but also a fantastic opportunity for some introspection and analysis on how the ideas discussed might apply in your own life. This lecture was particularly relevant to my (now, year-long) adventure in getting healthy. (I'd say "weight loss", but it's been a lot more than that at this point). I've lost 35 lbs in the past year, dropped my cholesterol in half, and conquered the Inca Trail in Peru. It's going pretty damn well so far!

Dr. Ariely's lecture was fascinating, and he spoke about some themes he explores in his new book, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty". He discussed several issues that lead people (across all cultures) to act more dishonestly, including:
  • Systems with "fuzzy rules"
  • The person's distance from the direct situation (eg. the "everyone else is doing it" idea, where something appears socially acceptable due to a follow-your-crowd mentality)
  • Rationalizing
He related it directly to the mortgage-backed security loans sold by Wall St., which has a very direct and clear connection, eloquently described (he is an epic Behavioural Economist, so naturally that is to be expected!) But one thing that really made my ears prick up was when he mentioned that "dieters can be very dishonest about their dieting"... that was enough of a spark to get his ideas swirling around in my brain and making connections to my weight-loss/healthy-eating experiences over the last year. Why on all other times when I "tried" (I use that word very lightly in this case) to lose weight did I fail so miserably? How come it worked so well this time? Walking across San Francisco in the late-night fog tonight I pondered these 3 points from the lecture and their relationship to my weight loss. Here are some thoughts.

If I want to do some weight loss analysis and think about why what I am doing now is working, I need to look at both the positive decisions I am making actively now, as well as the negative issues that caused me to fail in previous half-hearted (or, should I say, half-assed) attempts.

Systems with Fuzzy Rules
Dan said in the lecture tonight that Orthodox Jews who smoke don't crave cigarettes on Shabbos, the same way they don't crave Cheesecake after a meat meal (not mixing milk with or directly after eating meat). I learned 2 things here: 1. that smoking cigarettes on Shabbos is not Kosher (something that clearly has never come up in conversation with anyone I guess! I just assume it's always un-Kosher - at least for your health) :) and 2. As Dan suggests, Strict rules as opposed to fuzzy rules are necessary for honesty in a system. When it isn't ok to give up on your plan/morals/behaviour/eating habits/kashrut etc., you are much more honest than if it's "OK, sometimes".

This was fascinating. I wonder, truly, if this is why it's been relatively easy for me to "flip the switch" to healthy behaviour and really stick with it.

Back in February, I posted this blog entry ("Lifehacking: Thoughts on smart eating and exercise changes") about my cut-and-dry plan for myself. I had already been exercising 5 times-per-week for about 3 months at this point, but I had more plans up my sleeves too. Perhaps this blog post was so decisive due to my ENTJ personality type (98% "J" - Judicial, i.e. Decisive), but in any case I can look back on this now and really see the seriousness and lack of wiggle room in my plans. It is straight-up, no screwing-around, don't-you-dare-mess-this-up. I am very clear about what I am doing now, what I am not doing anymore, and that these are permanent, life-decision changes. This is "not a diet" as I say in there. And, more than 6 months later, I'm happy to stay I am sticking with this like a champ.

I wonder if part of the reason that attacking the problem this was is working for me is due to my Kosher rules. I am not super hardcore about it (so, I suppose there is SOME wiggle room there), but I have never eaten pork or shellfish and I know that's something I'm not tempted to do either. I sortof "get" the popular bacon craze that people seem to have these days, but I'm not drawn into it or anything. For me, this is like the Orthodox Jew not smoking on the Sabbath, I feel the rules for me are something where it is not fuzzy, and I don't feel comfortable pretending there is wiggle room for these specific Kashrut laws. (Side note: Of course I'm not making any judgements here about other fellow Jewish people's decisions in the Kosher realm, I feel this is incredibly personal and not my right or responsibility to encourage other people to see Pork or not-Pork the same way as me, this is just how I do it). My point in bringing this up is that I think I am really used to the idea of filtering something through my "can I eat this?" filter before it touches my mouth. That extra buffer-zone of filtration means that adding the more philosophical "should I eat this?" is not too far of a stretch. So I wonder if (at least, my version of) Kashrut has made it easier for me to adopt healthy eating principles.

Everyone else is doing it, so I guess it's OK
This is a fascinating concept when applied to my recent weight loss too. I heard once that San Francisco has more restaurants per-capita than any other city in the USA, and I'm not surprised. There is SO much good, fancy, expensive, tasty food here, that you could literally eat dinner at a different restaurant every night for a year and still probably not even hit 1/5th of the good spots in the city. That's nuts. So you can imagine, my love of food combined with my new-found non-student/recent-graduate wealth and freedom, paired (as it were) with this slew of epic eateries... well, this was a dangerous combo. Add to this my highly extroverted/social personality, and the joy of sharing in big, fatty, oily, tasty restaurant meals with good friends was a common occurrence. FOR YEARS.

You'll notice one of my weight-loss strategies in that earlier post from February was this section:
  •  I am not eating out at restaurants with friends
    • As much as this particular item sucks, I have almost completely dropped the "dining out for dinner" thing and restaurant lunches at work.
    • The social aspect is awesome, but the food is about 2-3x more calories than I would eat at home
I made a non-fuzzy choice to (almost) completely drop the restaurant/eating-out scene. Since then I get salad at work (almost) every day. Note the "almosts". When I do occasionally get bored of salad, I switch to something else reasonably healthy - the sushi bar, a small sandwich, the vegetarian tofu station. Once a month (or less) I get a burger, cause you still have to "live". But I don't see those rules as fuzzy in this case, I see them as intentional planned treat, not a departure from an otherwise tight plan. I make an educated decision given my plans for further exercise that day, to have something I am really excited about. I also make sure that, as I said in a previous post, that "the average of my behaviours must be excellent."

The occasional burger isn't going to de-rail me, and I want to keep this healthy eating a positive thing in the mental realm, too. If I sware to NEVER touch a burger or even THINK about it, I'm treating myself like a high-schooler who is told they can't go to that cool party at their friend's house. One day, I'm gonna do it, and I'm gonna binge like crazy. So I feel it's much better to make healthy choices 99% of the time, and make intentional departures when the time feels right to keep this thing based in reality and make sure I can stay consistent with it.

That was a bit off-topic. Anyway, I really see the restaurant thing every-night and every-day for lunch in SF as an "everyone else is doing it" kind of thing. It's sort of the acceptable social norm here, and it's reeeaaalllly good, so it's very enticing. I am just now trying to see it as, though socially acceptable, not something I want to do every single day (like I was). I am not *never* going to do it, or this healthy lifestyle thing is not going to last. But I am going to be careful and measured in the times when I decide to go all out. And when I do, I'm gonna make sure to enjoy the heck out of it.

Special events are just that - special. And to keep the special, doing them less often and making a conscious decision to do something rather than not is incredibly satisfying. When I was at a friend's wedding a month ago, I knew the eating and drinking would be over-the-top. So I went to the gym and did laps in the hotel pool in advance, making sure to pre-plan for the over-eating with some exercise. It was fun and I felt good that I was doing it. And then when the wedding reception started, I went to TOWN. And back!!!! I enjoyed every moment of it, ate like a crazy person and didn't feel guilty for one second. Why would I? It was time to enjoy it, and I didn't hold back for a second. But back to San Francisco after the wedding, the next day was back to my usual habits. The average of my habits must be excellent. But that doesn't mean I can't party like crazy at a friend's wedding, guilt-free.

On Dan's final point, I can see now that I was rationalizing a LOT of stuff when I "just couldn't loose weight." I would order delivery Indian Food because it was a cold and foggy SF night and I was tired from a long day. Perhaps I had worked sooo hard and maybe I felt I could use a hand and have someone else make and deliver a warm meal after a long day. Sounds nice. But... the CALORIES!! Ahhh! I loved to get this Thai Beef and Coconut Rice thing delivered and it is amazing but WOW I would eat the entire thing. Probably 2 cups of rice (ouch) and definitely a major portion of curry. Probably an entire day's worth of calories just at dinner. And there were times I remember when I had maybe eaten Pad Thai for lunch or had a burger or something AND bought this kind of thing for dinner. Totally crazy now that I know how many calories are in things I eat. Crazy.

But I think the rationalizing goes a long way. I used to say, "Oh, this is just a small treat" when getting a chocolate bar or doughnut or something... and that's not a "small" treat, that's a huge one that should probably be shared with someone else. I remember walking home with my buddy Matt and always being keen to go to the (fantastic) Bob's Donuts on Polk St. It is so good there. But, I remember we'd even sometimes get 2 donuts EACH. Must be like 600 calories. Ugh. I have been back there once I think in the last year of my healthy focused life, and I remember it was one of those planned-for treats, and I enjoyed it even more. I had a small one, and I enjoyed it. And it was more that enough, I didn't need to get 2 or think about how sad I was that I didn't go there once a week anymore. It was a treat, and a real treat because of the infrequency of it. Having these little things I think is far from rationalizing, it's just making sure the healthy choices stay at the forefront because you don't unrealistically give up on everything all the time. Heck, I even got a slice of Pizza last week. (Again, it was only 1 slice, it was thin crust, and I ran for 45 minutes afterwards) :)

Dan's book is about dishonesty, and it was fascinating to think about his concepts and apply them to my own failed attempts at weight loss in the past. Looking at it through this lens, it really does feel like I was being incredibly dishonest with myself: about how much I needed to eat, about how "hard" it is to make dinner after a long day at work (it's not), how much I needed just a quick delivery of food tonight since I was getting home too late (no, you don't), how fun it is to eat out at restaurants with friends all the time (it is, but not worth the unhealthy overeating if you do it as much as I did).

I'm really glad I finally made some clear and "non-fuzzy" choices to move forwards in such a healthy direction, and I look back at photos of myself from a year ago and I hardly recognize myself. It's really crazy to imagine how I was comfortable with those choices. I guess I never really thought it was a big deal. But it really was, and I'm so glad to have made these positive moves towards good health.

Dan Ariely's lecture was fascinating, and I really love that the JCCSF offers these lecture series. It's really inspiring and amazing, and I love the opportunity to soak in some brilliant ideas from some brilliant minds. It gives me a great opportunity to learn, expand my view of the world, and look inward at some of my own decisions... consistently aiming to move closer and closer to a better version of me.

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