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My Struggles with Eating Boring Food

My month without food reward, which was the May challenge in my Year of Living Without, was a rousing success.

That is, a success if the idea was for me to learn from my failures.

Which it was. I didn’t expect to hold myself to perfection, but to see what happens when I try to go without any kind of rewarding food: nothing salty, sweet, fried, etc. I ate the same things each day: boiled unsalted potatoes, plain unseasoned seitan (usually microwaved), unflavored plant protein shakes, and plain vegetables. My daily exception was a glass of red wine at night, and I had a planned exception day each week.

It went pretty well for the first few weeks — I had some small cheats for various reasons, and while I struggled from time to time, for the most part I was able to stick to the challenge.

Then we moved to a new home, and that took several days of packing (I did fine during the packing stage) and then a big moving day followed by several days of unpacking, moving furniture around, hanging paintings, fixing little broken things, etc. It was exhausting and my self-control reserves were wiped out and I didn’t plan my food well so that I just ate whatever I could get my hands on.

Then my head was out of the game, and I just couldn’t get back on track, so I gave up a little before the month was over.

Still, I learned a lot, and I’m really happy with some of my improved skills.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. We are so used to pleasure from food that it’s depressing when you remove it. You don’t really realize this until you remove food reward, but we really expect to have some kind of happiness from our food. I think it’s one of the reasons we struggle with weight issues, now that I’ve observed this. When food has no pleasure, we feel withdrawal, we are unhappy, we feel like something important is missing. Think about it: what if you could only eat unflavored lettuce for a month, nothing else (putting aside nutrition issues)? You’d probably rebel, or get depressed. It felt a little depressing to me for about a week.
  2. I can adjust to anything. Amazingly, after about a week, my flavorless food tasted fine. I didn’t whoop with pleasure, but I didn’t think it was gross or boring anymore, and I actually enjoyed the food. Eating the boring food wasn’t a problem anymore — the problem became when I had the option of eating pleasureful food. But my adjustment to this flavorless food really amazed me, even if I’ve made similar adjustments many times over the last 8 years.
  3. I was constantly renegotiating. When there was a flavorful food around, my mind wanted to have some, and it really worked to try to get it. I would often just go to eat the food without thinking, then stop myself before actually eating it, then rationalize why it’s OK just this one time, then tell myself that’s just a rationalization, then come up with a new rationalization, then let go of that one, then say how about just one bite, that won’t hurt? And so there was a constant struggle taking place in my mind. I found that fascinating. It also took lots of energy to win.
  4. I would give up the negotiations when I was tired. The times I cheated were almost always when I was physically and mentally tired. If I had a long day, and I was spent, I would just want to eat something, and I would start the negotiation process, and then just give in because I didn’t have the energy to fight. And then feel guilty.
  5. I have some recurring rationalizations. Some of the things my mind says to get what it wants: it’s OK just this one time, no one will know, you deserve this reward, just a little won’t hurt, you need a break, it’s going to taste really good, if you cheat this time you can be more disciplined for the rest of the day, it doesn’t really matter if you stick to this or not, you should just quit because this is too hard, why are you making yourself suffer, this is much worse than I thought it would be, why not?
  6. I wasn’t fully committed. I realized that the constant negotiations were happening because I wasn’t really committed. Amazingly, posting that I’m going to do something in front of hundreds of thousands of people on this blog isn’t a full commitment for me. I really thought it would be, but the mental negotiations showed me it wasn’t. If my wife or kids’ lives were at stake, there’s no way I’d even think of breaking my commitment. There would be no negotiations.
  7. I could commit myself more. I actually tried pretending that my kids would die if I ate tempting food. And incredibly, it worked for a day. The next day I forgot to try it again, but for a day it really did work, even though I knew it was false. Another day I committed to Eva that I couldn’t drink wine in the evening if I cheated that day, and that worked too. But then I didn’t recommit for the next day. So I really should have stepped up my commitment in some big way if I wanted to stick to this, but I didn’t because I think I didn’t really want to stick to it perfectly.
  8. Distraction helps. When my mind starts wanting something, I can distract myself for awhile and I don’t think about it. I have to remember to distract myself though.
  9. Being busy or around other people helps. On days when I had lots going on, or I was meeting with other people, I didn’t even think about tempting food. I just stuck with the plan. It was when I was bored or alone all day that things got hard, because I’d think about food much more often.
  10. I got better at seeing my mind’s patterns. Towards the end, after weeks of observing my mind, I would see the mental patterns as soon as they started. The patterns of “you should go have a fruit, no you should stick to the plan, no it’s OK this time, no it’s not, yes just have a little it won’t hurt,” and so on. I’d see this pattern, and it wasn’t, “Oh this is interesting,” but more, “Oh this again.” I actually got weary of my mind doing the same thing over and over again.
  11. If I saw the patterns, I could let go of them. Once I saw the pattern happening, I could just say, “OK, that’s enough of that” and move on to something more interesting. It was when I wasn’t conscious of the patterns that they actually had influence on my actions.
  12. Once I’m out of the game, it’s hard to get back in it. Once I had a big multi-day break from the flavorless commitment, I tried to get back into it but I didn’t really feel like it. I wasn’t motivated. So that’s a good lesson for the future: if you let yourself take a break on a challenge, you’re not likely to come back.
  13. Having multiple challenges going at once makes each one much harder. I constantly advocate “One Change at a Time” on this blog, but I often break this rule myself. And whenever I do break it, I realize how much of a mistake it was. I had this No Food Reward challenge going on in May, but I was also trying to follow a workout and diet plan set by a trainer friend of mine at the same time. And work on a major book project, improve my Sea Change Program (we did an overhaul of the membership/payment system, among many other improvements in May), move to a new home, give a speech, prepare for a big summer trip to Guam and Japan, etc. Having all of that going on made each one much harder — I didn’t follow the No Food Reward challenge, actually fell off the other diet plan (though I stuck to the workouts), and have struggled with the book project a bit. I did well with the other things but I can’t excel at everything at once.

That’s a lot of learning for one month, and I consider that a success.

Read about my month of No Procrastination in June, which is my final month of the Year of Living Without.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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