Sunday, July 15, 2012

Learning to Want, Part IV

In Part III of this series, I talked about some of the steps I took to improve the environmental influences that contributed to my consumption driven lifestyle. As I said there, just the awareness of how much advertising and social pressures affected me was an incredibly powerful skill to develop. While on this journey, I also learned some other lessons that helped me address some of the internal barriers to implementing my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Sometime in my late 20s, somebody recommended that I read Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D. I wasn't battling with depression or anything like that, but I was caught up in some negative thought patterns that had me stuck in a rut. While I don't even recall much of the book today, I did find it very helpful at the time and one phrase that still resonates with me was this:

Only your thoughts can upset you.

While obviously this principle has some limitations like severe physical pain or when a real tragedy has occurred, there are really very few situations in my life where this principle doesn't apply. Let me take driving in traffic as an example. I used to get furious when people cut me off or did something rude or even thoughtless. I'd lay on the horn, throw out a string of expletives or simply wish them an early, gruesome death. I've been a passenger with enough other people over the years to assume that I wasn't at all unlike the majority of people.

Other than the one time that I was actually hit by another driver, none of those people had ever done me any harm. I realized that the anger and frustration I felt on the road was ultimately my choice. While I can't necessarily control my initial thought response when someone cuts me off, any further thoughts are my choice. While I still occasionally allow myself a cathartic minute of wishing eternal agony on some jackass, I've learned that I'm much happier breaking out of that train of thought immediately because ultimately, it is my thoughts, not their behavior, that make me upset. So to put the lesson in a slightly different way:

It is my thoughts that cause my feelings, not my feelings that cause my thoughts.

This wasn't an easy lesson to learn or to apply. When you're in the moment, there is such a strong feedback loop between the two that it is very difficult to take that mental step back from the situation and break out of it. For me, it was like learning to be a third party observer over my own thoughts and feelings. Initially I could only learn what went wrong by doing honest assessments after the fact. As I took the effort to do this on a consistent basis, I eventually learned to break negative thought patterns before they caused negative feelings.

I won't claim to be some absolute Zen Master over my every thought and feeling, but having developed a general mindfulness has proved very useful overall. If I'm feeling the urge to buy something new or snack on some "off plan" foods, I can usually deconstruct the thought patterns that would have driven me to succumb to the temptation in the past. Heck, I don't even see such things as temptations anymore, they're just choices which I make consciously. Sometimes I do indulge myself and when I do, I do so without guilt.

I'll close this part of the series with this final lesson:

Contentment is a choice.

I'm a lucky human who happens to live in a state of luxury our ancestors could never have dreamed of. I'm surrounded by advanced technologies that provide me with endless comfort, convenience and entertainment. To spend any of my time dissatisfied with the things I have just because other things exist is irrational, foolish and self-defeating. It's my choice if I want to be drawn into the never-ending cycle of consumerism that keeps everyone around me wishing they had the latest and greatest. It's my choice if I want to spend my time being unhappy about how unfair it is when others do. It's beyond my power to change any of that but it is not beyond my power to change my thoughts.

I'm certainly not perfect and I still get aggravated about things I know are pointless to be upset about. Sometimes it feels good to rant for a while but I do so with an awareness of what I'm doing and a new ability to let go of it. It feels much better in the long run to know when to stop and choose to be content again.

Looking back, none of this was a highly disciplined or difficult process. It was a growing awareness of how my environment and thoughts influenced my feelings and my behavior. That awareness coupled with a willingness to make different choices was all it took to make some significant changes in my life. It's a subtle, yet powerfully different thing when you change your behavior by modifying your underlying impulses rather than trying to exert your willpower to thwart them.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Lessons Learned from an Intentional Plateau

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had dropped below 190 lbs. at the end of April and decided to maintain for a while. The question I had was whether I could make faster strength gains while maintaining my weight compared to while I was losing weight. After more than two months of increasing my calories every week, I have made some strength gains but they haven't been any faster than before.

As you can see, I never actually got back to 190. I'm sure that I could eventually get there if I continued ratcheting up the calories and continued this experiment for another month but I'm calling it quits. Here's why:

1) It is becoming unpleasant

I'm increasingly beginning to feel like the subject in an overfeeding study. Breakfast is the worst. I'm generally not that hungry in the morning and I've had to make this meal bigger just to work in all the calories. My breakfast lately has been four eggs, two strips of bacon, 4 oz. of roasted potatoes and a 4 oz. burger. It looks like a deconstructed Denny's Breakfast Skillet without the cheese and as much as those used to be one of my favorite indulgences, eating this every morning leaves me feeling stuffed well past lunch time, at which point I need to work in an other meal. Then dinner time rolls along and I'm still feeling bloated. As much as I've gained and lost weight in the past, I'm shocked that overeating is actually unpleasant now.

2) I'm having to resort to added fats to get all the calories in

Just the thought of more meat and starches is becoming too much to take and jacking up the added fats has been the only way to make it more bearable. As much as I love some good Homemade Mayonnaise, it is becoming the only way I'm able squeeze in the extra calories and I dislike resorting to added fats just to get in the calories.

3) I'm not seeing the strength gains I expected

Well, that speaks for itself. Why overfeed when it's unpleasant and it isn't yielding any positive results?

Even though I didn't see the results I wanted, I did learn a few interesting lessons:

1) My maintenance calories are much higher than I thought they would be

From the whole Calories In/Calories Out theory, it should only have taken 200-400 calories per day extra to get to maintenance. At the end, I was eating 900 calories per day extra. That surprised me. It feels like my metabolism picked up quite a bit when I started adding calories in and that's a good sign.

2) Real food is satiating

Looking back at the times I easily gained significant amounts of weight, I never recall feeling overfed. Those periods usually were filled with plenty of pizza, ice cream, chips and lots of fast food. I might have felt stuffed after a single meal, but never for days on end. Trying to overfeed with meat and starch, home cooked from scratch is entirely different. It's encouraging to know that not only can I feel full eating real food, I know I can feel overfull from eating too much of it.

3) I feel like I have greater control over my weight

I have never actually tried to maintain my weight before. I have always either dieted to lose weight or abandoned a diet and regained. This is the first time I have actually picked a weight and tried to hold it. I wish I would have tried it before. It made me feel like maintenance will be even easier than losing. Rather than constantly trying to lose weight, working in periods to maintain may have metabolic advantages and give psychological relief and encouragement.

Anyway, here's a recent picture of me at the gym. I'm happy with how far I've come and how much this way of eating is helping me to regulate my appetite. I'm going to shift back to weight loss mode for a few months and see how I look and feel another 10 or 15 lbs. lighter.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Learning to Want, Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series I explained how I came to the point where I decided to unwind my consumption-driven lifestyle. Now I'll finally get to explaining some of the specifics of what I did that helped me to implement what I call my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Some of these practices were accidental discoveries, and others were ones that I reluctantly adopted out of necessity. The first of these was completely accidental and actually started long before I began making more conscious efforts to reduce my impulse to consume:

I reduced my exposure to advertising.

It all started when I bought a TiVo in the mid 90s so that I could watch my shows on my own schedule. Once I got used to fast-forwarding through all the commercials, advertisements in other media began to be increasingly annoying to me. I eventually went on to cancel cable altogether, and now just about everything I watch is through Netflix Instant (using a Roku), on DVD, or on YouTube. Actually, I don't even watch that much TV anymore nor do I miss it. I've also dropped all my magazine subscriptions, and I have Adblock Plus installed on all of my web browsers.

As I've reduced my ad exposure, I've noticed a significant decline in my interest for "what's new". I have no clue what new movies are playing, whether there's a new iPhone being released or what new flavor of Doritos is going to make my head explode. I am blissfully unaware of all the new and improved, greatest and most exclamatory-adjective-laden products that are now available to make me dissatisfied with what I already own. I don't have a constant stream of professionally engineered sounds and images trying to separate me from money, only to obtain yet another thing they will make certain I am dissatisfied with before I'm even done paying for it.

Corporations spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising. For many products, a great portion of what you spend on it goes to cover the advertisement costs of convincing you to buy it. Practically every TV channel, magazine and radio station is utterly dependent on advertising to stay in business. Those corporations are not financing all that "free" entertainment out of a sense of goodwill or a charitable desire to sponsor the arts. They spend that money because advertising works. Period.

This doesn't mean I never buy new things but I'm rarely even aware of what my options are until I actively seek something out. I only do that when I am ready to buy because the old one broke or no longer meets my needs. It's shocking how much longer the old stuff remains satisfying when you don't even know that new things have been released.

Just a bit of proactive ad avoidance resulted in a significant increase in contentment with the things I already had. It surprised me, especially since I considered myself to be practically immune to advertising. The most insidious aspect of ads is not just that they are intended to promote a specific product, but they seem to stimulate consumption in all aspects of life.

I like to think that I'm a strong, independent thinker and savvy consumer. Even if I am, that doesn't make me immune to advertising and being aware of that:

I became more conscious of environmental influences.

I had heard the conventional wisdom as long as I could remember: If you're trying to stop drinking, don't hang out at the bar. If you're trying to quit smoking, don't hang out at the smoker's bench. If you want to manage your portions, don't go to the all you can eat buffet.

Even though I was familiar with the concept, I didn't really think about it too deeply before. Besides the obvious factor that I was more likely to give in to temptation I'm influenced by peer pressure, there was an other level. Even when I had the discipline to resist those temptations, just being around those environmental influences made me less content with what I had.

This is an ongoing process and I suspect it always will be. My environment changes over time but I try maintain an awareness of how it affects my contentment. I try to minimize the most negative influences. I don't want to become a complete hermit or a social outcast (well, not usually) but I find myself avoiding social situations where I know I'll be tempted by too much food and drink. When I do partake, I accept beforehand that I may indulge, even to excess. I'm learning that there's no need to feel guilty about an occasional indulgence or that it's in any way a reason to abandon all the positive changes I've made. It's a part of my life where I'm still trying to find a balance but I think I'm mentally in a much healthier place than I was before.

I found that these small adjustments to the external influences in my life were very helpful in reducing the all those unconscious impulses to constantly consume. Just being aware of the influences of advertisement and environment was remarkably powerful. Having turned down some of the external noise and pressure, I was able to listen to the internal processes that needed to be addressed. I'll talk a little bit about those in the next part.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Learning to Want, Part II

In Part I, described how in my early thirties I had reached a tough spot in my life. No, I wasn't homeless or destitute, but the easy trajectory of my charmed existence was headed in the wrong direction. My debt load had become excessive and my weight was at an all-time high.

Looking at my family for guidance wasn't very helpful.My parents and my brother were in the same boat. Most of my friends were, too. I didn't have any role models for success. Even my friends who earned significantly more than me were fretting about their finances. The few people I knew who were lean were eating the same crap that I did. There wasn't a template for me to follow to break out of the cycle that I felt trapped in.

This wasn't what I wanted my life to be like. I didn't want to spend the rest of my days struggling to make ends meet while my health slowly declined. I had to figure my way out of it, and the first part of the process was to figure out how I had gotten into it. I had a few tough lessons to learn and the first one was this:

I was living the life I felt I deserved, rather than the one I had earned.

This wasn't an easy lesson but it was an unavoidable truth. I was spending more money than I could earn and I was eating more food than I could burn. I had become one of the out-of-control consumers I was criticizing so many years ago. I had fallen prey to the consumer culture that surrounded me. Even though I was relatively disciplined in some ways, I used that as a rationalization to overindulge in others.

I didn't spend much money on clothes so I felt justified buying a new high end computer every year. As an IT worker, it was easy to give myself the green light on that as it was vaguely work related even though I rarely used it for work. I practiced restraint eating meals during the week but on Friday nights, I would order a large pizza and eat the whole thing on my own. I felt I had earned the indulgence by being good. Many years later, I crunched the numbers on what I was eating and realized that I was barely undereating during the week and overcompensating on the weekends. By far.

Those are just two examples that were easy to identify when I took a step back to evaluate my consumption patterns. It all seems so obvious in retrospect, but it seemed so reasonable at the time. My lifestyle was no more extravagant than the people who surrounded me. I deserved to live it up in little ways just like everyone else did. But just like everyone else, I was getting buried in debt and watching my waistline expand. Then it was time to learn the second tough lesson:

In spite of all that consumption, I still wasn't content with what I had.

That was an even more difficult lesson to learn. It was actually quite depressing to think that I had wasted so much with so little to show for it, but it gave me the one bit of insight I needed to start shifting my thinking. My contentment was not related to obtaining what I wanted. It was such a counter-intuitive concept but I couldn't deny it. Years of chasing more money and consuming more than I earned wasn't working. At one point, I even tried to rationalize the behavior as a motivator to keep earning more. The assumption was that eventually, I would earn enough to consume with wild abandon but I had to stop fooling myself. It wasn't working and I had to finally pay attention to the phrase I had uttered so many years ago:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

In the next part of the series, I'll detail some of the specific methods I found useful to unravel my consumption driven lifestyle and learned to find contentment.