At the start of 2021, I planned to quit fast food, candy and soda, and to drink no more than one alcoholic drink per month. To say I haven’t achieved those goals is akin to stating the Titantic encountered an issue on the high seas. I started well. In late 2020, my friend Djuan Means threw out a six-week challenge: pick something to avoid for six weeks. I chose candy and alcohol, and actually went six weeks without either. In late January, I enjoyed a glass of champagne with my wife. Things went south from there.
Let’s backtrack. I eat and drink so much healthier than I did 10 or 20 years ago. I eat little fast food, don’t drink much soda or alcohol, my caffeine intake has declined dramatically, and I eat far less candy. By nearly every measure, my health and nutritional intake have improved greatly. My stomach feels better. I sleep better.
Still, I cannot cut out these things completely. I still eat fast food a couple of times per month. I still have a beer or glass of champagne or two every week. I still drink a soda or two per month. I still have a sweet treat nearly every day.
Why can I not completely cut them out? Why can’t I go to zero?
In musing on these questions, I began recalling the various frameworks for improvement I’ve read over the years. Most examine these questions, and others like them, with the aim of improving productivity. Or, with the target of improving parts of life to thereby improve productivity or effectiveness. Let me explore some of these frameworks, and how they would view why I can’t go to zero.
Is it an Upper Limit Problem?
Gay Hendricks would look at me and argue I have an “Upper Limit Problem.” In The Big Leap, Hendricks essentially says I have a mental or emotional block keeping me in my “Zone of Excellence” and preventing me from making the “big leap’ into my “Zone of Genius.” That block could be a feeling of innate undeservingness (or “feeling fundamentally flawed”). It could also be a worry that true success really leads to life burdens, among others. Whatever the reason, Hendricks would say that I still eat some fast food because that action manifests the internal block I feel. And that action of eating fast food prevents moving into my Zone of Genius, and reinforces in my mind why I should stay in the Zone of Excellence or a lower zone.
Is it a willpower problem?
Perhaps I simply don’t have the adequate willpower to go to zero. Jocko Willink, among many others, would make this argument. I simply don’t have the inner fortitude to make a good choice when the moment comes. Related, maybe I don’t feel enough personal “ownership” of the problem. Maybe these subtitle headings exemplify my lack of ownership – if I felt truly in charge of my life, the sub-headings should read, for example, “Do I have a willpower problem”? Or, perhaps there’s a nuanced twist. Maybe in going about my day, I simply face too many choices. Those mini-decisions erode my ability to make good decisions at critical moments like what to eat and drink.
Is it an availability problem?
Djuan Means’s wife, Jordan, would argue that my willpower fails me because I have candy and sweets and alcohol in my house. In my job, I drive a lot, and so go by fast-food restaurants frequently. I have ready access to them all. So no matter how potent my willpower, the constant bombardment weakens my willpower and eventually I cave.
Is it a habit problem?
James Clear, in his mega-monster-hit Atomic Habits, argues that ultimately habits shape identity. Thus, every time I drive through a fast-food restaurant or have a drink, I tell myself that, actually, I am someone who does eat fast-food and does drink alcohol. That identity reinforces itself over time. (Clear does also describe the availability or environment challenge as noted above).
Do I worry about not being fun?
Some of my favorite memories with my kids revolve around taking them out for ice cream or macaroons. Or sharing a slushie at a Louisville Bats game. I cherish those moments. My girls and I had so much fun. Perhaps I worry that if I didn’t eat sweets, I wouldn’t have those moments to share with my kids.
Do I worry about being judged?
Related to my kids wondering why their Dad won’t enjoy sweets with them anymore, perhaps I fret that my friends will judge me for not having an occasional drink to relax. Sometimes I feel shy, even with friends I know well. I have encountered social situations when I did not drink. And in retrospect, I wish I had – I would have felt more at ease and probably proven a more convivial companion. (Don’t judge my friends here. Undoubtedly my friends would not actually care. I am certainly projecting my insecurity onto them).
Is it a Why problem?
Simon Sinek would have a different take. He would say I don’t have a Big Enough Why to change my behavior. Let me offer an example. Earlier this year, I had two age-peers suffer huge health crises. One had a heart attack. One suffered two strokes. Those events forced them to inject enormous eating and exercise changes into their lives. Those moments frightened them into major alterations. Those moments provided their Big Enough Why. I haven’t had that crisis. Yes, I do live with a significant heart issue. But my doctor has given me good check-ups for years now. Staying healthy perhaps doesn’t create enough in-the-moment motivation to refrain from drinking and eating poorly sometimes. Even more, maybe those good check-ups have blunted some motivation. In past years, I have stated that I want to “Be healthier at age 50 than age 40” and “I want to live to see and enjoy my grandkids.” Sure - I can’t control all that goes into those aims. But I control quite a bit. But those aims don’t even seem like goals. They seem too distant, too removed from passing this Arby’s. I simply don’t feel the urgency.
Is it a spiritual problem?
For many years, I haven’t felt religious or even spiritual. I rarely go to church. My kids offer a prayer at mealtimes, and I do participate. But that’s about the extent of my recent spirituality. Perhaps my subconscious senses something out of whack in my soul, and the poor decisions are my soul’s attempt to kick my body into an awareness of that greater problem.
Is it all too much?
Maybe I am simply asking too much of myself. I could start with one – say, fast-food. Eliminate that first. Then move on to, say, candy. Eliminate that. Then move on to, say, alcohol. That’s a fine plan. But my history suggests it may not work. During those six weeks I had no candy or alcohol, I ate a lot more fast food. Whacking one mole has seemed to make another one grow taller.
Is “Going to Zero” really the right goal?
Finally, maybe I can’t go to zero because, again subconsciously, I don’t actually believe I’ve set the correct target. I can never have one drink again? Not one piece of candy? Not one more heavenly Five Guys burger … ever again!? “Pardon me,” my subconscious says, “what the Eff is life good for? Can’t I have some fun?” Or as Nadine Stair put it, “If I Had My Life to Live Over…I’d eat more ice cream and less beans.” You know what, every time I drink a sugar-infused, tooth-rotting Cheerwine, I get a huge smile on my face. I feel young again, and recall days running the rapids of the rivers in North Carolina. I feel the hot sun on my body at Camp Carolina, and I feel joy. Really, do I want to strip that joy from my life?
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All of these perspectives have merit. Indeed, many of them have aided me immensely in improving my health from where it was 10 or 20 years ago to today. For today’s question, I don’t have an answer. I don’t know why I can’t go to zero. But simply articulating all these various frameworks has helped reignite some urgency to my cause. I do, in fact, want to be stronger and healthier at age 50 – in four years – than I was at age 40. And, to the extent that I can influence the outcome, I want to do what I can to meet and enjoy my grandkids. (And with my girls at ages seven and nine, presumably, I have a ways to go.) I’ll update my progress and journey in this newsletter throughout 2022, and do a full, year-end report too. Onward to greater strength, health and wellness!