Once upon a time, I had this bright idea involving donuts, as so many of my bright ideas seem to do. I had a new job, and on my break I had walked over to the grocery store down the street. As I walked through the bakery, I happened to notice the display case of baked goods. I remembered that my supervisor had mentioned apple fritters once. I felt a warm, generous feeling, and I picked one out for her. I carried it back in its own little bag, still exuding heat from the oven. I felt lit up by this gift and how it was going to cheer up this nice, friendly woman.
Note a few interesting things about this apple fritter.
This experience gave me pause. I had often felt that after I made a decision, my willpower would be tested afterward, immediately and repeatedly. I always thought that this happened just because I started becoming more aware of things that were always present, in the same way that we tend to notice cars of the same color, make, and model as ours. After a breakup, suddenly every song on the radio seems to be about breakups (or people in love). Someone who wants a baby will start seeing babies and pregnant women everywhere. It’s just a natural tendency to notice certain things and tune out others that are irrelevant at the time. Right?
Suddenly, though, it seemed I might be a character in a larger drama, something with real purpose behind it. It was true that my sweet-natured boss was probably going to start seeing treats and goodies everywhere. There was no help for it, not for a mom of young children, not for someone who worked in a building with dozens of other people and multiple refrigerators and vending machines. The weird thing about it was that I felt this strange, inner compulsion to bring a huge lump of sugar, fat, and white flour directly to her, when I had never felt such an impulse before. What was my role in this?
I suspect there may be something visible in our faces, our eyes, our posture, that suggests certain energetic states. It sounds loopy, but let me relate another anecdote. I had a week-long temp assignment at the reception desk of a social services center. My desk sat in the lobby beside two vending machines. Both clients and staff would filter past me throughout the day, attracted to this altar of treats, and they would usually stand there in contemplation for a minute or so as they chose something. I could see them, but not what they were looking at. After the first day, I started to realize that I could predict, with almost perfect certainty, whether someone was going to choose something sweet or something salty. Once, I couldn’t tell, and the selection process took longer than usual. That particular man wound up buying two items, one of each! A couple of clients came in one day and got some corn chips. I laughed, and they asked what was funny. I told them I could guess what people were going to choose, and that as soon as I saw them “I knew you were salty.” They laughed uproariously and said, “Yeah! We’re sal-tay!”
It’s pretty easy to tell when someone is exhausted or in pain, especially if we know them well. My experience is that we can also tell when someone is hungry. So that’s one thing. We live and work in a rhythm. Yawns are contagious, basically because everyone in the room is in the same situation, and if one person is tired or bored or experiencing a blood sugar crash, chances are that others are too.
That’s the other thing. We live in a culture where food is omnipresent. Note that, when I bought the mystical apple fritter, the man who wound up eating it was utterly unsurprised to be offered a free donut. In the US, three-quarters of men and two-thirds of women are overweight. We eat at our desks and in our cars. We eat on the couch and we sometimes even eat in bed. I have food in my laptop bag, and I have even been known to find popcorn in my bra. I mean, it’s everywhere! For the first time in history, we no longer have to be preoccupied with whether this year’s harvest will get us through the winter. We’re less hunter-gatherers, searching for every calorie that will help us survive, than avoider-removers, caught in a futile pattern of overeating and then trying to get rid of the evidence. Clearing our pantries of all the sweets and salties, the cookies and chips and crackers, is a common act that would have been unthinkable even a century ago.
What probably happened when I bought that illicitly tempting apple fritter was something perfectly ordinary. I had just gotten my own weight back below the threshold of obesity into mere overweight. I was still in my largest clothing size. I walked into a grocery store that had freshly baked bready things, as it usually does, and I smelled it and thought about food. I am a food-pusher and feeder by nature, wanting my dinner guests to clear their plates, flattered when they eat thirds. I had good reason to want to impress my new boss at this temp assignment, and my attention naturally turned to food, rather than to a card, or flowers, or simply doing my job like a rock star.
It still seems, though, that something strange was going on that day. Someone made a commitment to make a major change. Almost immediately, I, a near stranger, showed up to distract her and interfere with her plan. I was going to sabotage her progress before she even began. She made a decision and I came along to disrupt it. Why?
Whether or not there is something mystical going on, we can be assured that willpower will always be tested. That’s the nature of willpower. We’re like Odysseus, asking to be tied to the mast because we know we’ll never be able to resist the song of the Sirens. Except we hold our wrists sideways so we can later slip out of our bonds, because, well, Sirens! We don’t need willpower to do things that aren’t a temptation. I don’t need willpower not to smoke cigarettes, because I never started smoking and there is nothing about the idea that attracts me. We don’t need willpower to bathe or brush our teeth, because these are things we just do. We do most things automatically, and if we don’t do them, we feel uncomfortable until we can do them again.
The trick to willpower is never to need it. We have to accept that something (smoking, overeating, etc.) is not working in our lives, and that we’ll be better off as soon as we trade it in for something better. We have to talk ourselves into some better versions of the plan. We have to come up with multiple backup plans, and figure out what we’re going to do in every inevitable situation when we can’t follow Plan A. Stand-up comedians practice heckling their own work, and that’s what we have to do. We have to punch holes in our own plans. We have to stop looking at it as a moral issue or a personal failing or a character flaw. Instead, we have to see it as one of many paradigms, one that is like the cheap motel with a 70s bedspread, when we’d rather be in the five-star luxury resort. We have to look around for people who are succeeding at what we want to do, and meticulously copy what they did to get there. Being offered a grocery-store apple fritter shouldn’t be any more compelling than being flagged down by a row of hucksters who want to offer you brochures or sell you a time-share. Certain things are simply irrelevant to our interests. We know what little they have to offer. There is no need to feel “deprived” or like we are missing out on something that is not really an opportunity after all.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.