The end of your delicious meal is nigh…
You get to the final bite and are suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of loss. You don’t want the meal to end, you don’t want to restrict yourself, you don’t want the good feeling to be over.
So you react. And in an instant.
You get up and go for seconds. You’re overeating but can’t stop yourself even though you have a small voice telling you this isn’t a good idea. You add more food to your plate and, in for a penny, in for a pound, most likely too much.
And you go back to eating food you don’t really need, food you don’t now really want, food that doesn’t taste as good as you thought, especially when served with sauce of guilt.
Does this sound familiar?
Do you ever find your brain sliced in two by a sudden thought that spears it, takes it over, and leaves all your good intentions in crumbs around your plate?
What is going on?
What is happening here is that your lizard brain is taking over. Your lizard brain is the part that keeps you alive.
Its job is to react to threats. To jump into action whenever it perceives you’re in danger.
Whenever you have negative thoughts and feelings, it goes on high alert. It has been honed over millions of years of evolution and your being here, reading this right now, is testimony to its power and strength.
If you’re a fan of Seth Godin, you’ll be familiar with the lizard brain. He talks a lot about it. He says,
“The lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe…The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival. But, of course, survival and success are not the same thing.
The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
The balancing arm
But in addition to our reactive lizard brain, we have a rational “professor” brain, too. One that is proactive – thinks ahead, makes plans, builds in contingencies, and follows through.
This is the one that lets us assess things, see situations for what they really are, allowing us to delay gratification and persist at difficult tasks.
A huge body of research has amounted showing that successful people consistently use the pre-frontal cortex that houses these brain functions more than those who are less successful.
But whenever the reactive and rational parts of the brain conflict, the reactive brain nearly always wins out because it is so powerful. Like I said, its role is to protect us and ensure our survival.
And we find ourselves reaching for the third and fourth cookie…
The problem is that we perceive non-emergencies wrongly. We are directed to eat more because our brain believes our next meal is uncertain. Our lizard brain jumps in to direct us to behave in ways that are inappropriate in context.
A trip down the bargain chocolate aisle the day after Halloween is sheer delight to the lizard brain: it represents the opportunity to hoard energy-sustaining emotional emollients while they are freely available and with little resource expenditure. No wonder you feel so high!
Lack of willpower is not the problem
You will not die, or even go hungry, if you refuse seconds. Your survival is not under threat if you experience some discomfort, loss, or grief.
You are unlikely to lose the support of the tribe (so essential to survival in the past) and even if you do there are plenty of other tribes who will accept you. It is not a zero sum game.
You are likely, however, to miss your goals and feel bad about your lack of willpower. But your willpower isn’t the problem; your ancient brain hasn’t caught up-to-date with the modern world and sadly, it will win out over willpower every time.
Simple, but effective
This is a gross simplification of the workings of the brain but it serves to make my point – we want to be using our “professor” brain for the most part, leaving our reactive brain for those times we are genuinely under threat. Times which are, in fact, very few and far between.
Sounds hopeless, right?
We possess an ancient part of our brain that is doing its best to keep us eating, even when we don’t want to, sabotaging our good intentions, and achievement of our goals. We are hosed, surely.
Are we doomed to overeat? Remain overweight?
Well, we might, if we live in a state of high stress, or have a mode of living where we mostly use the reactive part of our brain, responding to situations as they arise, fighting fires and being impulsive.
But we all have the ability to engage the pre-frontal cortex where the other skills such as planning, decision making, risk analysis, goal achievement, and impulse control reside. We must possess these abilities because our survival has also been dependent on the development these skills.
You wouldn’t be here today if your ancestors didn’t have these skills. Which means you have them, too. And calling this part of our brain into action is what we need to manage ourselves, our eating habits and our overall success in life.
So we have the ability to control what we eat, but how do we access the part of the brain that does that especially when we are in the habit of engaging “Gordon The Gecko” on a whim?
Here is one simple strategy.
It’s a technique so simple but so effective and universal, it can change everything for you.
One that will help you stop clicking over to Facebook every time you hit a spot in your work that is a little difficult; that will stop you from watching another episode of “Duck Dynasty” when you could be going to the gym, that stops you going up for seconds instead of sitting, replete, waiting for others to finish their meal….
Write your thought down.
That’s it. Simple, huh?
Writing is a higher thought activity. And by simply writing your thought down, you are switching over and accessing the part of the brain that controls your behavior. Like changing gear.
Just write down on a piece of paper next to you:
“I want seconds.” Or, “I want chocolate.” Or, “I want a cup of coffee.”
Do it every time such a thought pops into your head. You literally become smarter when you do this.
Just completing that simple action will cause you to defer putting your thought into action. Because you’ve switched to accessing a different part of the brain, you’ll start working out if you want to follow this course. Often times you won’t.
You will anticipate, evaluate different options and outcomes, make plans and decisions. And you will realize that, what a moment ago felt like a life-threat, or at least serious danger, is far from it.
It’s all about putting a pause between thought and action. Thinking, planning, evaluating, deciding, following through.
You may still decide to follow through with your thought at some point but you will now have made a rational, controlled decision rather than an impulsive one, the type more suited to a life-threatening emergency than lunch with Aunt Alice on a Sunday.
It is the difference between a “cheat” and a planned “cheat”. One is filled with guilt because we know we are sabotaging our goals while not being in control of our behavior, the other is a meal filled with pleasure and ending with satisfaction.So next time you are tempted to pile more on your plate, press the pause button by writing your thought down.
But won’t I look weird?
If you are in public, I would still choose to whip out a pen and paper there and then; my eating goals are more important than anyone’s opinion of me.
But if you feel it is inappropriate to do that, imagine yourself writing it down in your head – see the pen, the paper, the letters, your hand as you write it out.
One final thought…
So many of us use our phones for everything these days and it might be tempting to use them for this. I would urge you to use good old pen and paper for the simple reason that our devices are so successful because there is so much about them that satisfies our reactive brain. A piece of paper doesn’t wield the same power.
So go to it! Gain control over your life with a simple sentence! It is tremendously easy when you know how.
Do you have any tips for controlling overeating? Please share in the comments because, with the holidays coming up, many of us would benefit from them!
Share this tip with your friends because I guarantee many of them face the same problems.