The alarm on my phone goes off: I guess it’s time to get up.
Belle’s sitting in her cage, staring daggers at me: I guess I should feed the dogs.
The doorbell rings: Hide! It’s probably someone selling something.
Oh, wait! My butt is buzzing: someone loves me (get your mind out of the gutter, it’s just a text, people).
All of these? Cues. Things that happen that cause something else to be put in motion. The meat of any habit, cues let our reptile brain make decisions without any conscious decision-making taking place. It’s that innate urge to go get a snack while watching a movie even if you’ve just finished eating and have already unbuttoned your pants to get more breathing room. You don’t know why, you just know you need it and have to have it. Right now.
Of course, not everything in our lives is defined by cues and habits, but think about it: most of the things we want to change about ourselves? Habits. It’s the unconscious, unthinking non-decisions that pave the path of least resistance. For me, habits are at least part of the cause of my overeating. Damn you, habits!
Growing up, I was in love with books and invariably, while reading, one hand would be holding the pages open while the other was dug into a bag of pretzels. We weren’t allowed candy or anything sweet, nor were we allowed potato chips or Fritos, but pretzels were a sanctioned snack. And so what do I do now? My love affair with books endures and so everything else is much the same except with more grey hair, a Kindle and anything from pretzels to cheese to chocolate to Poptarts (those same sanctions obviously don’t exist in my own household).
As soon as I sit down to read, the urge starts. I begin to salivate. My brain takes inventory of what tasty treats are in the house. Restless, I have a difficult time concentrating on the words in front of me. And without any thought towards whether I’m actually hungry or not, like magic, food is next to me — and now I can finally make some headway on the book.
In the past, I’ve circumvented this highway to treats by tracking every calorie. And it worked! It forced me to consider every morsel I put into my mouth. Okay, let me amend that a touch: counting calories worked — but only for a little while. Do you know what a pain it is to log every little thing? Take my word for it — it’s a huge pain. And plus, calorie tracking made me a little (more) crazy because then I’d hate to eat anywhere that I couldn’t get an accurate calorie count of the food I was consuming. Sounds like a healthy lifestyle, doesn’t it?
Now I’m trying something different: my little black book. Except instead of putting names and numbers of romantic possibilities, I put the names of foods and a 1-10 rating of my hunger level (yea, not nearly as much fun). The goal is twofold: first, the act of writing down the meal makes me pause just the slightest bit and that short breath is sometimes all I need to stop the action. Second, I rate my hunger on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being “please just roll me to bed because I’m too full to move” and 10 being “Donner? Party of 2? No? Only 1 now?”
Sometimes it’s enough — it’s my way of forcing myself to check in and see if I’m actually hungry or if I’m feeding something other than my body. And the little black book doesn’t judge; no matter what I write down, there are no regrets or recriminations. It’s just data to be mined.
So, like I promised last week — it all comes back down to developing practices that encourage mindfulness. My body knows how much food it needs and it’s just a matter of listening to it rather than hitting the override button without any sort of consideration. If I only eat when hungry and stop eating when I’m satiated (but not yet full), I don’t have to worry about what I’m eating nearly as much. There’s room in my life for cookies and sweets and pizza, as long as it’s preceded by true hunger.
And I’ll tell ya – that’s the kind of life I’m happy to live in.