Visualization and Avoidance in Habits

Post by Jim Newman


Phil has impressed me with his admirable, near fastidious resolve in dieting. While not completely off the bandwagon, the last three weeks of construction work and going to town to get a friend for help, who doesn’t drive, has mired my good diet resolve.

I offer a few tidbits on dieting that evoke what has been newly called science help.

Before eating, previsualize what you will eat. From Time Healthland.

“people who imagined themselves repeatedly indulging in sweet or salty treats ended up eating less of the actual foods than people who didn’t visualize eating the same foods or thought about them only fleetingly.

This disconnect between wanting and liking, knowing when you are full or don’t want more, has been used before. Appetizers and aperitifs were thought to enhance the appetite but what they may have actually done is sated it a bit.

The difference is in thinking about eating the food, not the food itself. If you are on a desert island and have a sea gull to eat, you would feel more sated to visualize the eating of a steak than imagining the picture of a steak, or its smell and sizzle.

“Once the thought of a food has triggered imediate desire, it can be hard to think your way out of it. “There’s a danger if you just think of the food and the flavor, it will prime you and make you want it more,” Berridge agrees.

Imagine the steak served to you, cutting into it, biting it, chewing it, enjoying. Create your own food fantasy that involves the actual pleasure of eating the steak. In the same way athletes visualize the mechanics of a successful action. Then go have that bit of steak.

The next tip is to relish the actual process of eating as you eat. This also an old tip in some ways now backed by research. When you pay attention to the eating process and savor the flavor, your mind thinks it’s eating more.

I can’t eat much sugar since I refuse medication–drugs should be recreational–so when I have my three strawberries, I eat them very slowly, nibbling. Stretching out the experience of eating also sates me with less.

This is the antithesis of how I ate in my youth. At school lunch I wolfed food so I could maximize my play time. I thought astronaut food was cool because you ate it quickly and took a vitamin. When I worked, I got it done with so I could make money working or have fun playing. As many burgers as I could afford. A Big Gulp and donuts or hot dogs. Better still if I could eat while doing something else–mindlessly swallowing chemically enhanced foods.

When I moved to California years ago I rediscovered good food and learned how to cook foreign dishes. This slowed me down but I still tended to rush through food.

It was really in 2003 when I learned I had Metabolic Syndrome and had to lose weight that I got serious about borrowing the strategy of previsualization of successful action. It worked and now it is proven.

It is popular to conflate this with mindfulness, awareness, and engagement–or “visualize success”. They all have similarities but previsualization is specific to pre experiencing successful action.

This method works with other habituation aspects whether drinking, exercising, or smoking. Indeed, so far, it looks like any habit can be cued up in advance and experienced mentally as an action and satisfy the desire.

The flip side of this is avoidance. You can’t be an eagle when you fly with turkeys. It’s awful and I truly hate this concept but it is true, if you hang out with slacker friends you’re going to be more inclined to be a slacker. Perhaps you won’t but be ready to fight the urge.

This is why integration works even if you despise your neighbor. It is the basis of Capture Bonding, or the Stockholm Syndrome, as well. Our social agreeableness corrupts exclusionary tendencies.

My Grandfather made me memorize “If” by Rudyard Kipling. I long ago forgot it but include it here for discussion:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

How tedious I find this. It means being above it all, distanced, marginalized. It is so old school English. When young I wanted all of the experiences.

After you dig though the individual virtues you realize the real point is to be something, whatever it is, irregaardless of what else is going on around you. Definitely not a poem for a chameleon. Almost Buddhistic in its resolute rejection of desire. Moral strength can also be moral intolerance. It had better be a very important moral to so universalize.

I found myself not wanting either the world or what’s in it. Oh well. Perhaps that’s why Grandfather ran a business school and I am a slacker writer and jack of all trades.

I don’t know which choice is worse. To be so resolute that I am unyielding to the weather or that I avoid any weather because I yield too easily. Mountains erode, rivers endure or ?

“In drug recovery programs, this is why addicts are told to avoid “people, places and things” that might remind them of drugs and set off an urge to use.

In school I prided myself on being able to hang out with everyone. It fit my idea of egalitarianism. I didn’t try pot until college and I didn’t drink until I got married so I  have personal strength. I do have a fair amount of isolation in my life so I would guess the truth of it is that I socialize in those areas I have strength and I isolate myself in areas where I need to; as part of my personality and embodied resolves.

I did find success in dieting was greater when I simply excused myself when they were having pizza, ice cream, or other foods that I like but shouldn’t eat. It didn’t matter if I was having a Walnut, Cranberry, Feta Cheese, Spring Greens salad with a couple of shrimp. The aroma of ham and the sight of sweet potato would send my resolve into a tailspin–just a bite and then whoosh.

Now, I makes dinner for the kids and excuse myself. When they’re done, I come back and make my grilled green beans with olive oil, onions, and garlic. But at some point I have to rejoin society and I need a different strategy. A more cognitive and less knee jerk method.

Jim Newman, bright and well



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