Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Willpower / Won't Power

Today's story will be replaced by a lengthy rumination, of the kind that originally won me so many followers. Tune in tomorrow for more drabbley goodness. Or maybe the day after.

The Abigail will be mad at me for writing this, but I'm a fat guy.

I'm not blubber-dripping-off-the-bones fat - I carry the weight well, I think - but I've spent my entire adult life, so far, between 60 and 70 pounds overweight. That's enough to fit the medical definition of obesity, though I'm not what you think of when you think of obese. As I wrote, I've got a big frame and I carry the weight well, and most people don't realize that the medical definition of obesity starts at a much lighter weight than the conventional definition. That said, I am at the point where health problems like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and potentially even dementia await me in the future if I don't make a change in my life style.

Or maybe not. That's how health problems roll.

Anyway, I've tried a lot of methods to lose the weight. I tried "feel crappy all the time and just don't think about it." That didn't work at all. I tried "just go to the gym already." That got me feeling a lot better, but didn't do much to help me get rid of the fat (apparently increasing your activity can only do so much if you're still eating poorly). I tried WeightWatchers. That worked for a while, but then they switched to a new method, and I got older, and it stopped working. Then I tried "give up in despair." Predictably, it didn't help.

Now I'm trying the South Beach diet. I'm also going to the gym regularly, where I see a personal trainer - and it's doing great things in all the ways that going to the gym are supposed to - but what I really want to talk about is the diet.

I get really weird reactions whenever I mention my diet. Nine tenths of the people I speak to fall into one of three camps:

  1. "Oh, I could never do that - I don't have the willpower!" One guy even quipped "I couldn't ever go on a diet; the best I've ever done is two days without having a beer."
  2. "How's that work?" and other expressions of curiosity.
  3. "You don't need to diet, just go to the gym more!"

It's the first and second positions that I find most interesting. The third... it's well-intentioned, but just wrong.

Anyway, the thing I've learned is that dieting isn't really not that hard, once you're committed.
  • Step One: Decide that you're going to do something.
  • Step Two: Figure out what you need to be successful and what obstacles could stand in your way.
  • Step Three: Gather all tools, eliminate all obstacles.
  • Step Four: Profit.

Having a wife as awesome as the Abigail helps. You can't have mine.

It seems to me that this process applies to everything there is to do in life. I've seen it applied to (and done it myself, in some cases): job searches, job applications, surviving cancer, and becoming a serious writer.

That's not to say that I don't have sympathy for the difficulty in making a lifestyle change. The hard part rests in the sentence before "Step One." First, you have to be committed. You have to want it badly enough. Look at my own history. When I was trying all those methods that didn't work - "don't think about it and feel crappy all the time" and "give up in despair" - I didn't want it bad enough. Oh, I wanted badly, but what I wanted wasn't to lose the weight. I wanted to stop feeling shitty and helpless, I wanted the pain to go away, more than I wanted to solve the actual problem,

And then, there came the point in my life that this changed, and the problem was the problem, not how I felt about it. And that was when I said "let's get a gym membership" or "let's try WeightWatchers" or "someone mentioned the South Beach diet - let's give it a shot!" Becoming committed is the problem, staying committed is the challenge.

But willpower? This thing that everyone says they lack? Willpower is an illusion.

A lot of people seem to define willpower as the ability to continue doing something you don't want to do. But really, aren't we always doing what we want to do? What we chose to do? Even under duress, your choices are your own. Maybe it isn't fair, maybe there are extenuating circumstances that make a terrible choice excusable, but the choice is still yours. If willpower exists, it's more likely the ability to do things you do want to do - to follow through on your choices - despite hardship.

And does dieting really include hardships?

Come on. Watching my wife eat a sandwich is not a hardship. Refraining from stopping at the local steam bun joint for a Chicken Combo Bun (70¢) is not an obstacle. Not if you're really committed. Now, discovering that we're unexpectedly out of vegetables, or that the only protein in the house is deliciously fatty bacon. Those are obstacles. Those are hardships. And to prevent them, you plan ahead of time - something that the Abigail fortunately excels at, because I suck at it.

As I implied above, all of this applies to writing, too. You don't need willpower, unless you're trying to write while jackhammers work outside, or while experiencing explosive diarrhea, or shortly after having a child (I've done two out of three of those...). Whether you're trying to lose weight or gain words, you need commitment, and you need a plan.

Me? I need more peanut butter and celery. Catch you later.


Anemone Flynn said...

Awesome post. I made a commitment in January of 2011, lost 25lbs, gained 10 back from an appendectomy plus holidays at the end of the year, and am back down to 20lbs total loss as of last week. It works if you stick to it and make those moment by moment choices. I use a website called, which is strictly calorie counting, but has some handy tools for measuring progress and tracking nutrients like sodium, cholesterol, protein, carbs, etc. You might give it a glance if that's something you're tracking - I never could get used to the old pen & paper approach, but having a website at my fingertips 24 / 7 really gives me the perfect ability to track and keep tracking over longer periods of time.

Abby said...

I'm posting this here rather than saying it to you because it only just occurred to me to tell you. I was on the phone with Jon the other day, and we were talking about the moment someone actually starts losing weight in a way that works, and what it looks like. Jon said something to the effect of "basically it looks like integrity" (in the Landmark sense). You just start doing what you need to do, no bullshit. (Jon, if you're reading this, feel free to explain this, because you said it way better than I did.)