This year, I will lose weight. Definitely.
This resolution, or some variation of it, is the most popular around the world every new year. It would also be a fair guess that, for many folks, it is a repeat. That is, we have made this promise before, and having failed, we give it one more go as a fresh, new year presents itself. Along the way, we have probably beat ourselves up, with a healthy dose of guilt thrown in for good measure, as we stare dejectedly in the mirror at the rounder-than-desired shape staring back at us.
Why won’t these kilos go away? Sigh.
We’ve tried. In good faith, we signed up at a new gym, and even went, devotedly, a few times. We got up a little earlier, fumbling alone in the dark, cold mornings to prepare the carrot sticks that were to be our healthier snack during the day. We sacrificed dessert.
And then, one day, sure enough, we discover we’re back to our old habits.
We happened. To ourselves. Our brain, it turns out, doesn’t like to do things that feel unnatural. And so, it shrewdly sabotages us in our effort to do them.
As anyone who has tried it knows, losing weight is hard. Really, really hard. We have to change what we eat, how much we eat, and how often we eat, giving up what we love for what we must. We have to make time for new workout routines, and we have to actually do them then, exerting complacent muscles and suffering soreness and tremendous pain in the process. The whole time, we have to exercise restraint in some areas and push aggressively in others to maintain the right balance of a healthy lifestyle.
It’s a lot of effort. In this effort, ironically, lie the seeds of our failure.
According to cognitive psychologists, when we do something that requires self-control and effort, we are left weaker for subsequent tasks. So, when I dutifully eat my boiled veggies for dinner, I am less able or willing to resist the chocolate cake offered for dessert. Ever wonder why we can enjoy eating wholesome fruit at mid-morning, and then reach for the junk candy jar in the afternoon? Or why we faithfully eat our low-fat lunch from home, and then munch on the deep-fried samosas and sugary biscuits in the afternoon meeting? Or why, in general, we are better behaved on Monday mornings than Friday afternoons?
It’s called ego depletion. Simply put, our brain gets tired, and then we give in to temptations more easily. We fall off-track.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re programmed to fall off track.
So, go easy on yourself. If you find yourself sticking to your diet in all ways except that darned dessert that does you in, you know now, it’s not you. It’s your brain, telling you it doesn’t want to work hard anymore.
Does this mean we’re doomed to fail at losing weight, or other worthy goals that nevertheless don’t come naturally to us? Absolutely not. It does mean that we can stack the system a bit more in our favor.
We can tread a bit more lightly into new habits, taking our resolutions slowly, perhaps one at a time and in smaller chunks, rather than overhauling our lives in one go and straining our brains to the max.
We can be more aware of when we are doing work that demands a lot of effort and focus from us, because that’s risky territory for our resolution. Like, the presentation deck that needs to be shown to the boss in 10 minutes. Or when we have to exercise self-control, like being around colleagues that make us bite our tongue for fear of saying something inappropriate.
In such situations, we can make sure we aren’t around temptations. Don’t keep the candy bar or chips bag handy, you are bound to reach for it. Or make them really, really hard to get to, so they’re just not worth the effort.
We can make it easier for our brain to choose better. You know that suggestion to carry nuts and dry fruits with you? They are really handy for the long and boring afternoon meeting: paying attention is going to be a tough ask, and you now know your brain is going to reach for unhealthy snacks of you don’t have a better one available.
Our brain sometimes works against us, and we seem to be programmed to fail at adopting unnatural behaviour, however beneficial it might be. Knowing this, maybe we can reprogramme ourselves so that this year, we do indeed lose weight.
I’ve drawn from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahn’s “Thinking, fast and slow” in writing this. He explains wonderfully the concept of ego depletion and how our brain works. I’ve also simplified some concepts about the brain, though I hope not too much. I highly recommend reading Professor Kahn’s book to understand ourselves better, including why we make our choices the way we do.