It’s May 2021.
The lockdowns born of pandemic risk are abating. Optimism is palpable. More people are getting vaccinated. More people are going out maskless. More people are eating out.
The point we’re currently at has been well over a year in the making. And in that year plus of hibernation, one thing provided many of us comfort: food. Pandemic weight-gain is real.
Now for the good news: things aren’t fully opened yet.
We still have time.
Time to drop that pre-pandemic weight, or maybe get into the best shape of our lives. To get there, we’ll need to undo some habits we developed during the pandemic. And the most important habit to undo is: food cravings.
Tools for Beating Food Cravings
The Happiness Test
In Annie Duke’s book How To Decide, she recognizes the time-accuracy tradeoff with decisions. The time-accuracy tradeoff goes something like: if you spend more time deliberating you will likely reach a more accurate (read: better) decision. Like most activities, decision-making has a value return curve. The x-y axis is given by time and value respectively. And while, spending some amount of time making a decision will improve the chances of making a better decision, there is a point where that return curve goes flat. And in fact, it could start to go down when you account for opportunity costs!
So, knowing which decisions can be made quickly or not is incredibly valuable. Annie Duke shares a tool that could yield such knowledge called the “Happiness Test.”
The Happiness Test in Annie Duke’s words:
“Ask yourself if the outcome of your decision, good or bad, will likely have a significant effect on your happiness in a year. If the answer is no, the decision passes the test, which means you can speed up. Repeat for a month and a week.”
When the Happiness Test is applied to cravings, a funny thing happens: the cravings diminish. The most effective way I’ve found of applying the Happiness Test to cravings is the following:
“Will eating X affect my happiness a week from now? A month from now? A year from now?”
Talking about this craving in increasing time scales puts the craving into perspective. Answering “no” at the week, month, and year levels makes the craving seem stupid. It reminds us that we will be perfectly happy without caving to this delicious godiva chocolate dipped in caramel that’s only an arms’ length away…
Which brings us to our next tool.
Out Of Sight, Out Of Gut
By far, the most effective way to beat cravings is to not have to fight them. That godiva chocolate can’t call your name if it’s not even in your house and doesn’t know your address. You can’t mindlessly eat salt-and-vinegar chips that don’t exist. Exposing ourselves to food we find tempting is a surefire way to put us in a fight we may not be ready for. Better to avoid temptation.
The ancient Stoic Seneca understood this:
“Just as he who tries to be rid of an old love must avoid every reminder of the person once held dear (for nothing grows again so easily as love), similarly he who would lay aside his desire for all the things which he used to crave so passionately, must turn away both eyes and ears from the objects which he has abandoned. The emotions soon return to the attack; at every turn they will notice before their eyes an object worth their attention.” ~Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 69.3–4
If you can, throw out the unhealthy stuff. If your personal constitution won’t allow you to do that, find someone in need who may benefit from the food. If you still want to keep it for some future “cheat day”, put the food in the part of the house/kitchen that you rarely go to and is really annoying to get to. You know, that top cabinet above the fridge that requires you get a stepping stool to get? There. Use our tendency toward the path of least resistance to your benefit.
In the 50th Law, Robert Greene in discussing the story of Hurricane Ruben Carter behind bars, caught my eye with the following excerpt:
“…he refused to have the usual entertainments in his cell — television, radio, pornographic magazines. He knew he would grow dependent on these weak pleasures and this would give the wardens something to take away from him. Also, such diversions were merely attempts to kill time”
The term “weak pleasure” jumps out. It’s an effective tool to use after you have used one of the other tools already discussed in this article. What this insult is doing is changing your beliefs. However, beliefs don’t change rapidly. It takes time for them to develop. If you give some of the foods you’ve been craving a regular name calling of “weak pleasure” you will find yourself less and less connected to that food over time.
Another point from the excerpt worth calling out is how these weak pleasures are “merely attempts to kill time.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we will probably find that we aren’t necessarily eating because we are generally hungry but because we are distracting ourselves from something else. During the pandemic, it was probably a distraction from all the craziness and sadness happening all around us. Next time you reach for some food ask yourself: “Am I hungry?” If the answer is “no” or “not really,” then ask yourself: “What am I avoiding?”
Measure It Differently
In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport presents a method for measuring the cost of engaging with digital technology:
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
This measure is particularly useful for digital technologies that are ostensibly free. Because apps like Facebook and Instagram are free, people sometimes conclude that there is no cost to them. And while some people may recognize there is some cost, they don’t know where to even start measuring that cost. And in the above excerpt, Cal provides a starting point for thinking about that cost.
To see how we might use this in the context of food cravings, let’s look at an example.
For a guy at 160 pounds running at 5 mph, it would take him 2 hours to burn 1000 calories. The Cheesecake Factory Peppermint Bark Cheesecake has 1500 calories. This means that it would take our guy 3 hours to burn off this Bark Cheesecake. Does the cheesecake really taste as good as 3 hours of sweating it up on a treadmill sucks?? Probably not. This technique is most effective when you actually know your calorie burn rate for whatever exercise-like activity you do. Maybe you walk around your block. And maybe you burn 50 calories walking that block once. You would have to walk around that block 30 times to equal the number of calories you consumed in a single sitting with a Bark Cheesecake. Assuming you walk your block once a day, religiously, it would take a whole month to burn off your cheesecake…ugh.
Hopefully one of these tools helps you. We often find ourselves in a diverse set of circumstances. So, to ensure you’re ready to do battle wherever you find yourself, take the time to add these tools to your toolbox.
If any of them prove useful, or you have used something I haven’t mentioned that was useful, let me know in the comments!