Master consistency by understanding one thing
written by Philip Stefanov | JULY 12, 2022
Have you ever planned to do something, feeling excited and motivated? Maybe you wanted to lose fat, master a calisthenics movement, or quit drinking alcohol.
Things would go well for a while, but you would eventually experience the urge to do something that goes against your goal. In the case of weight loss, you might feel hungrier than usual and decide to treat yourself to a cheat meal (or day).
These pivotal moments of weakness often lead to failure because we get disappointed and decide to give up. Why bother trying to lose fat when you’ll eventually cheat on your diet and erase the progress?
Luckily, research has looked at the issue to conclude that urges are normal. It’s how we perceive and handle them that determines our outcomes.
The Empathy Gap
The empathy gap refers to our tendency to underestimate how different moods and mental states influence our behaviors. It also includes our readiness to make decisions that only satisfy our current state. For example, you might choose to have a massive cheat day and reason that you’ll make up for it in the upcoming days by eating less. The issue here is three-fold:
- You’re making a decision that solely satisfies your current hedonic desire to enjoy a lot of tasty food.
- You’re burdening your future self with repairing the damage you cause with your actions.
- You rely on your future self to make the right decision despite being unable to predict how you will feel later.
Years ago, when I struggled with binge eating episodes, I often rationalized by telling myself that I would diet for a few days to enjoy a few hours of eating myself into oblivion. It’s easy to fall for the mistake because you don’t have to put any effort in now; the work comes later, and it is therefore easy to underestimate just how much effort we would have to put into making up for our mistakes.
The empathy gap is widespread in fitness because it is based on sacrificing short-term desires and making difficult choices to reap benefits in the future. Working out can suck now, but you’ll be glad a year down the road when you’re rocking six-pack abs and guns of steel. The question is, how can we stop ourselves from falling for the empathy gap and lying to ourselves?
Make It So You Can’t Fail
The first step to not falling victim to the empathy gap is realizing that emotions do impact our behaviors and that we aren’t always rational when making decisions. Solely relying on willpower to power through and stay on course is a good way to get sidetracked.
An excellent way to avoid poor decisions is to consider how you might feel in the future. For example, you might be considering a cheat meal now because you’re hungry and craving junk food. You might reason that you’ll make up for it by dieting tomorrow and two days after. But think about it objectively:
Will you be able to diet for three days, and won’t you feel just as hungry tomorrow as you do now? More importantly, is it possible that you will come up with excuses to avoid dieting tomorrow?
You should also plan for situations where you might make a mistake and adjust the variables within your control. For example, if you know that you might eat a lot of food when out with friends, have a big salad or a few servings of fruits before going out. That way, you won’t feel as hungry, and the risk of overeating will drop.
Alternatively, eat less food that day (or for a few days leading up) to create a calorie ‘buffer’ you can use to enjoy yourself. The tactic is essentially the same as dieting after binge eating, but you reverse the two. That way, you do the work first to earn your cheat meal.
If you know that you struggle to control yourself around specific foods, don’t buy them. Even when you’re at the store and thinking, “I can control myself around this box of cookies.” remember that your current state doesn’t necessarily reflect how you might feel a few hours or days later.
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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