Overcoming Your Brain’s Barrier to Dieting

There is a concept in pop psychology called hyperbolic discounting.  Hyperbolic discounting is the notion that we value things today about twice as much as we value things at any point in the future, from tomorrow to ten years from now.  Hyperbolic discounting is also the scientific reason why we are always going to start dieting and exercising tomorrow.

When we start to consider dieting, we always pick a point in the future to begin.  It might be the day after a vacation or New Year’s Day or the day you will get your first NutriSystem or Jenny Craig food in the mail.  More simply, you might decide at lunch that as of dinner (four to six hours away), the diet begins.  You may even have a last meal in anticipation of the diet.  However, we never decide to go on a diet just as the waitress brings the bacon cheeseburger or right after we order Domino’s or just as the Baskin Robbins scooper hands us our double cone.  It is always as a point in the future.

Hyperbolic discounting explains why.  We value the effort required to diet in the future at about half the effort required in the present.  Somehow, we have to have the slice of cheesecake now, but we can easily avoid it next week.  It’s a brilliant concept really. And it makes sense.  More people decide to diet on Sunday night, only to blow it at breakfast on Monday morning when they have to put in double the effort to eat Puffed Wheat and not Captain Crunch.

The same notion can be used to explain why we decide at night to exercise in the morning, but then in the morning decide not to get out of bed.  Somehow it’s a lot harder to get out of bed at 5am than we thought it would be when we set our alarm.

Our brains know how to diet, and our brains know how to exercise.  I don’t think we need books to tell us what to eat or how to exercise.  We use books and web sites to give us easy to understand plans and schedules so that the effort required to diet and exercise is reduced.  Then we can overcome the hyperbolic discounting that we have already done.  If we have the plans and menus in place today, it won’t be any easier in the future than it is today, and we will start now.

One Way to Overcome Hyperbolic Discounting

This morning, I overcame hyperbolic discounting.  First, I made sure that there was no extra effort required to start a diet and exercise regimen anew.  The treadmill repairman had fixed our Nordic Track in the basement.  We had plenty of Honey Nut Cheerios, fat-free milk, apples and Zone bars on hand in the house.  I have no client dinners or social events planned the whole week.  Even better, Mrs. Spidey had a book club meeting tonight, so I could plan my dinner.  All was perfect.

But then, at 5:45am this morning, hyperbolic discounting hit me square in the face. I had planned to exercise at 5:00, but I slept through my alarm.  My mind immediately said, “Tomorrow, it will be a lot easier when you get up at 5:00.  5:45 is too late.”   Somehow, however, I pushed through.  I told myself that I had to get going, that I could work late or work in the evening to make up the time.  Once I got my workout clothes on and made it to the basement, I was fine.  I applied the effort today, despite my brain telling me it would be easier tomorrow.

Long story short, it was time for another diet, and it’s underway.  I reprogrammed Lose It on my iPhone.  I commit to tracking it here every Monday, come good or come bad.  I weighed in this morning at 197.4.  Ouch.  By Christmas, I’d like to be close to 180.

Scientifically, I know my brain is telling me that it will be easier than it will actually be.  Perhaps knowing how my brain works will make it a bit easier?  Stay tuned.

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