Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing
I think that picking the right behaviors is the most important thing you can do in life.
Let me show you what I mean.
In 2012, I decided that I wanted to get serious about diet and exercise.
Those were both areas I had put little thought into throughout my life.
I ran cross country and track in high school because I liked it, and I ate anything that tasted good… because why not?
I was running up to 35 miles a week, so extra weight was never an issue.
But then, in college, I took my svelte figure for granted and started to party (as college kid are known to do).
Slowly, I started to develop a thin layer of protective cushioning… once centimeter at a time.
Belt sizes went up. Cheeks got chubbier (in a cute way, right?!).
But I didn’t really notice it; for a long time, at least. When you look at yourself in the mirror every single day, the changes are too small to detect… and you get used to your new, slightly puffier look along the way. This is why the best way to learn how much you’ve changed is by paying attention to the reactions of those who haven’t seen you in awhile. Their last mental snapshot of you is from 6 months or a year ago, so any changes are obvious.
It wasn’t until the early months of 2012 that I had the realization that diet was something that tens of thousands of people have actually scientifically studied, and that there were alternatives to the “eat whatever is within reach and looks good” school of thought.
This is how I discovered Paleo.
As an evolution nerd, it appealed to me intellectually. But it also appealed to my taste buds.
“You mean I can eat a pound of bacon a day!?”
So I cut all sugar out of my diet and started to only consume spinach, kale, assorted veggies, and meat.
Bacon, steak, and ground beef were my staples, but I also threw in a chicken or two here and there. I also slathered everything with delicious butter.
It was amazing. I was in heaven.
This was a “diet”, but it didn’t feel like a diet.
Getting my behavior to change to be in-line with this new health philosophy was incredibly easy. Why? Because it was enjoyable. I was eating copious amounts of foods that I loved, and I felt good, too.
I didn’t need to do any “behavior hacks” or come up with cute little gimmicks. I made the decision, started eating these new foods, and it stuck. Simple as that.
And the pounds melted away. I got fit. I felt good. It was one of the most successful health behavior-change experiences I've ever had.
It was that experience that convinced me that choosing the right behavior is at least half the battle.
If you pick behaviors that fit well with the person whose behavior you want to change, your program will probably work.
If you pick behaviors that don’t fit well, your program will fail—miserably.
Which brings us to the question: How do you figure out which behaviors “fit well”?
That’s a great question, and one that I won’t be able to answer in this email. The topic is too big for a measly 800 word note.
But let me say this: I believe that in many areas of life, there is a small subset of correctbehaviors and a small subset of wrong behaviors.
This is most obvious in the health domain. Currently, our understanding of nutrition is quite poor, but there is quite good evidence that certain substances are better to consume than others.
Let me give you an example: vegetable oil. Decades of biochemical, animal, and human research has painted a pretty convincing picture that unsaturated oils are one of the main drivers of a number of diseases. A diet that minimizes these will do a better job of supporting human health and energy than one that doesn’t.* These oils also will often make people feel nauseous or sick—especially if they’re used for frying and/or are rancid (which is often the case with restaurant food).
So, let’s say that you’re trying to get someone to lose weight and you give them some dietary guidelines as part of that process. You want them to change their eating behavior. “Stay away from meat and saturated fat, replace all butter with vegetable oil.”
They start cooking everything in veggie oil, and start to feel a little more sluggish. And sometimes they feel a little gross and heavy after their meal.
How likely is it that they’ll stick with the program you gave them?
It doesn’t make them feel good, and it’s actually not moving them in the right direction. They want to lose weight and gain energy. This isn’t helping with that.
So their adherence to the program will be quite bad… but, in this case, for good reason. The behaviors you were asking them to do were wrong.
I actually think that this is why the entire field of health behavior change is such a disaster: in most of cases we don’t know enough about what’s actually good for the human body.
Just look at what happened recently with flossing. Everyone thought that was the path to good oral hygiene… but it turns out that the evidence for flossing is scant. Maybe people were right to not like an activity that hurt and made their mouths bleed—their bodies were saying “Hey! I don’t think this is the right behavior!”.
Then look at all the controversy around cardiovascular exercise. There’s bickering going back and forth, but it looks like even that might not do a body good. It seems like weighttraining is the way to go.
The point being: If a habit or program doesn’t stick, the behavior that you are trying to ingrain might be wrong.
And, if you just have an aversion to a behavior, no matter how hard you try to make it work, it might be your body sending you a message. Not everything that the crowd believes (and that experts say) is true.
*This is a simplified picture. The form of the oil and source of the oil matters, as well. For example, unroasted nuts have a good amount of unsaturated fat, but they also contain vitamin E (which protects against the ill effects of these fats). It’s complicated.