You Know What You Want

February 23rd, 2006 by Potato

It’s amazing the degree to which humans know what it is they want, what it is they need to do to, if only in abstract ways, and the phenomenal way in which they manage to fuck it all up.

The most obvious, everyday example of this is of course losing weight. We live in a society where food is readily abundant, and our bodies have not had the evolutionary time needed to unlearn previously valuable traits such as hoarding and cravings. When there’s a chance you could freeze or starve through the winter, then putting on a few dozen pounds through the summer makes a lot of sense. However, when there’s no chance of running out of food, and in fact, when the fatty, salty foods are the “convenient” ones, you quickly find yourself putting on and keeping an unhealthy amount of excess weight.

So, to correct this, you simply eat less and exercise more. That’s it; it couldn’t be more simple.

Yet millions of people (myself included) have trouble with those intermediate steps, despite strong desires to lose weight for reasons of health and beauty.

It may seem simple, but somehow simple is hard. Sure, minor disagreements abound. While it’s generally agreed upon that more fresh vegetables and fruits will help considerably, there are differing viewpoints on how many grains you should eat versus how much fat and protein (i.e.: dairy and meaty things).

And how do you go about eating less and exercising more? Do you just trust your body to tell you, and simply not eat so much that you feel hungry all the time? Well, that might work, but things get a lot harder if you feel awful during the process. Along those lines, you could eat a small number of things, like grapefruit and brown rice, until you were full to the brim. Then, after weeks of nothing but grapefruit and brown rice, you’d get sick of them and not want to eat as much. Perhaps instead you could weigh everything you eat, figure out the calorie content, and try to stay below some rough guestimate of your metabolic rate. Equivalently, you can use a points system, which simply approximates the calorie counting and makes it so you can much more easily do the math in your head. You can let someone else do the counting for you, and stick to strict pre-planned diets (which also works well if you don’t like to cook, since there are so many well-proportioned low-fat heat & serve meals on the market now).

Unlike “eat less, exercise more”, there is no universal solution for how to implement those universal goals. Some people really don’t mind their stomach growling for a few weeks while it gets used to not being filled so fully or frequently, and simply starve themselves a bit until they get their appetites under control. That method probably works best for them, especially if they don’t like math. Of course, the detailed calculation method can work for people who hate math, for wholey other reasons: chocolate leads to a diet log entry; the diet log leads to the spreadsheet; the spreadsheet leads to calculus; calculus leads to… suffering. Others find that fully calculating out what’s in their food and weighing everything gives them a much better appreciation for what they put in their bodies, and that after a few weeks of doing it they learn how to eyeball healthy portion sizes. Oddly enough, this skill is longer in coming for those who use the similar points system. My guess about that is that since you don’t spend as much time calculating each dish, you don’t truly appreciate the numbers in there. “Let’s see, we had a 2 for breakfast, then a 3 for elevensies, a light lunch, that was barely 1 point, and a 17 for dinner. Oh drat, over budget by 2 points again. Oh well, I’ll try harder tomorrow.”

These are just mechanisms for tracking your eating, to make sure that you eat less. They’re still only approaching the periphery of the hard part. That involves finding the willpower and discipline to carry through your very simple goals day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute. How do you put aside the fact that your body is sending a very clear message: CHOCOLATE. NOW. Or sometimes the even clearer (if less specific) monosyllabic message: “eat.” It’s one thing to know consciously that it’s wrong, that the long term plans call for no chocolate until the weekend, when we’re allowed a two chocolate bar ration. It is quite another to have to sit there and go the whole day without chocolate, not even a nibble, or a sniff, or even a furtive glance at the glossy full page spread of that Hersey bar you saw in that magazine your girlfriend tried to hide from you (you know, the one with the recipes).

This matter of dealing with all the daily tests of will, fighting the urges to give into short-term desires at the cost of long-term goals is the struggle of our times. And not just for the millions trying to lose weight, but for those who want a slick ride at the cost of limited fossil fuels for the centuries to come. Those corporate empires that cut too deeply to meet the next quarter’s “whisper number”, only to go totally bankrupt 5 years down the road when all their skilled employees have moved on from all the abuse and lack of job security, their customers have moved on, having lost all sense of loyalty, and their shareholders had never been the same people for more than a few weeks at a time all along.

I hope you didn’t come here for the answer, or tips for solving those sorts of problems. I obviously don’t have them… yet. If I did, I could probably make some modest amount of money selling the book describing how to conquer your harmful desires and lose weight. After all, there’s a whole section of the book store devoted to those types of books (and in many book stores, those sections rival the Sci-Fi/Fantasy areas).

The same basic principle is at work for other things, too. For example, I know that to write a great (ok, a barely passable) novel, or say a screenplay for Netbug, all I really have to do is sit down and write some reasonable number of words every night that can be strung together into a longer, cohesive story. I’ve shown with this blog, my emails, forum postings, (though perhaps not my thesis), etc., that 500 words in a night is no great feat to me. Yet somehow I just can’t put them together into longer cohesive stories (though I don’t usually lack for halfway decent ideas). Of course, this website also demonstrates that I do have great difficulty with that whole cohesiveness of thought, purity of purpose, and flowing of… flow… continuity… thing… that you need to make longer stories work.


This problem we have, that I fight with so much, of knowing what to do but not quite seeing how to do it, how to summon the strength and courage to do what needs to be done, this problem is so central to many other ills of everyday life. For example, it was approximately 3 am when I started this post, and now, as I reach the tail-end, it’s 4:15 am. I was at work late, not getting out of my MRI training until about 12:30 am. I came home, had some dinner, watched the prison break sequence on Star Wars: A New Hope to clear my mind, then sat down at my computer to check some websites and write some emails. Around 2 am, I felt I had done enough, and should probably go to bed.

Yet here I am, hours later and still not in bed. I am usually afraid of going to bed with good rant ideas, since more often than not, they’ve faded come morning. But still, a brief outline to keep the thoughts in line, and then a nice long snooze would have done a world of good for me. The kicker is, I’m tired. I want to go to bed, so I have no idea why it is that I’m still here, typing. I also know that if tonight is like last night, or the night before, then I’ll get to bed, set my alarm for the morning, and realize that while I brushed my teeth, I forgot to floss again. But I won’t get up to do it, even though I haven’t even shut the light off, and even though I know that covers are easily pulled back up a few minutes later.

Is this self-destructive? Pathological? Perfectly normal? I don’t really know.

These are the sorts of problems I’m going to think about for the next few days, and see if I can’t write a more helpful essay… or a best-selling book!

One Response to “You Know What You Want”

  1. Potato Says:

    It didn’t really fit into the post proper, but maybe I’ll look at it again to see if I can work this in smoothly:

    I’m reminded of a bad joke made during the SARS outbreak in Toronto. “What a dumb name for a disease, it repeats itself! It’s severe and acute you say?”

    My point is, severe and acute are _not_ the same thing. Severe refers to the degree of illness, how bad the respiratory syndrome is. Acute refers to the time course: that the symptoms occur together over a short period of time. It could be mild acute respiratory syndrome, if it was just as quick and short, but not nearly so deadly, or severe chronic respiratory syndrome, if it was just as intense, but lasted for months and years.

    The same applies to simple and easy. It’s a simple thing to lose weight, but it’s not necessarily easy. Likewise, complex things are not necessarily hard: there are hundreds of micromanagement options in Civ4 to take command of, making it a very complex, detailed game. However, on the first difficulty setting, it is not very hard: you’ve really got to try hard to lose on “settler” (though at “noble” and “prince” and up, losing becomes a very real possibility).

    Perhaps our minds simply can’t comprehend the sheer simplicity of the problem, given the drastic potential changes to our bodies if a solution is found. Maybe that’s why complicated calorie-counting programs work better sometimes, since they make the hard problem seem correspondingly complex, which is an aesthetic that appeals to us somehow.