How can I get myself to stop rationalizing bad behavior?
November 30, 2009 1:05 PM   Subscribe

There are a lot of goals that I am working towards, that are easily within my reach if I just stick to some simple routine tasks. However, I always wind up sabotaging myself by making excuses for or rationalizing getting off track, and ignoring the reminders and cues I have created for myself to stay on track. How can I knock it off so I can reach my goals?

I have been doing a lot of work lately on some of my goals, mainly weight loss and getting my finances in order (paying off my credit cards and stop overdrawing my frigging bank account).

I know exactly what I have to do, I know exactly how to do it, and I have done both of these things with fantastic success before. My problem is that whenever I become sidetracked with something else that I consider urgent, or stressed out and cranky, I am really good at either ignoring my big picture goals, making rationalizations for not working towards those goals, or even lying to myself or others about my behavior towards reaching those goals.

I think this is one of my biggest issues, and I just do NOT know how to knock it off.

For example, let's use weight loss.

I have lost large chunks of weight before and kept it off for a good amount of time. I know exactly what to do so that I can do it in a way that is pleasant for me.

To lose weight, basically all I need to do is the following:
- Eat breakfast at home instead of on the run.
- Bring lunch & snacks to work instead of eating out or running to the caf.
- Take 10-15 minutes each evening or morning to plan out my meals for the day (and total the calories or WW points).
- Take 30 min - 1 hour most days of the week to do any workout I choose, whether it's a Wii workout or a video or the elliptical at the gym or a walk outside (and I enjoy all of these things!).
- Remember to face the music no matter how the week went and weigh myself & track my weight every week.

There are other things I try to do, sure, like looking at the balance of the types of foods I eat and taking vitamins and getting enough rest, and so on. But these are the basics.

However, I typically start slipping after a month or two. Usually it's little things at first, but then as other things start stressing me out, I turn to food (or excessive spending, on the financial end) to soothe me and cheer myself up.

And I will recognize this and set up ways to keep myself accountable, like setting up bets with friends (I'll pay them $5 a week if I don't exercise 3x) or websites to nag me daily to remember my goals, etc. I have tried SO MANY awesome tools, and had so much great support from my friends (who despite the fact that they would profit from my failure, always encouraged me).

But it doesn't work, because I will just ignore the email reminders or lie about my workout sessions. It's awful, and I really, truly hate myself for being like that. I even lie to myself sometimes about what I've eaten or readjusting my priorities.

But it always comes back down to the fact that I really do not like where I'm at ... I'm 100+ lbs overweight (though I am a bit down from my high weight), still in credit card debt (though I have paid off quite a large chunk of it so far), and I have like no faith in myself to really keep trying because nothing can keep me honest.

And I know the response is often that I must not want it badly enough or I would just do it and stop lying to myself. But it's NOT that I don't want to lose weight & pay off my credit cards badly...I do. I want it more than anything. Failure to do these things is preventing me from starting a family or to feel secure in my life. Not a day goes by when I don't hate those things about myself.

But it's like a different person takes over when I fall off the wagon and just want to be left alone to eat or spend. It's not me, that person has no goals except to get a little fix from food or spending. It's so stupid, but I seriously do not know what to do.

Does anyone have any suggestions as to how to deal with this?
posted by dumbledore69 to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
You need to think of this differently ... every day you are going to have to try. Once you achieve your goals, trying doesn't magically end and you are free to do as you please. You have to wake up every morning with the view that you are living the life that you want to, by taking the correct actions every day. You cannot "fudge" living the life you want to in the same way you can "fudge" a checklist of actions to achieve a goal. So in essence, goals aren't things you eventually achieve, goals are something you live every single day, forever.

(Personal note: my goals changed quite a bit when I made this mental switch)

Also try to remember that while you aren't "where you wanted to be by now", you have 1) lost some weight 2) paid off quite a bit of debt so far. Perhaps you truly are "behind", but perhaps your original goals didn't accomodate your lifestyle or were too ambitious? Personally I would feel nagged and annoyed by email reminders and bets with friends. Maybe you should find a list method (GTD, iphone app, whatever) that you just make sure to check in case there's anything more you can be doing? Or alternately, hook up with friends with the same problems you have, ala buddy system.
posted by shownomercy at 1:23 PM on November 30, 2009 [10 favorites]

Have you heard about seinfeld's calendar trick? Essentially, every day you need to do something (or the opposite) you mark a day on the calendar. Say you get through 3 days of eating breakfast, so now you have 3 days marked on a calendar. The idea is, now that you have a chain of 3 days, you want to make a chain of 4 days and so on. It kinda works for me (when I remember to mark the days). It's not a magic bullet but it helps.
posted by aeighty at 1:24 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it's really a shift in mindset.

You write in your question that you have made progress in these goals. You need to embrace that and celebrate it. Not every step is going to lead you in the right direction. Think of it like the stock market, if you bailed out on every fluctuation, you'd never get anywhere. You need to look at things in a much broader sense and allow yourself those "bad" days. Just don't let "bad" days allow you to take your eye off the goals.

Like shownomercy says, financial sense and health are lifestyles and not destinations. Don't beat yourself up over the little slips, just keep moving in the right direction.
posted by advicepig at 1:46 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just because something is simple, that doesn't mean it's supposed to be easy. Sometimes you have to accept that the simplest of things can turn out to be the most difficult ones. Weight loss is a prime example of this principle: it's a straightforward matter of consuming less calories that you burn off, yet thousands upon thousands of people struggle with it every single day.

You can complicate matters further by committing yourself to too many changes at once. Human willpower is a finite but renewable resource that you can't expand indefinitely. I'd suggest you choose one new behavior and use all your tools, techniques and methods to ingrain it into a habit. Chose one concrete thing that you think will make the biggest impact on how you feel about yourself. Then move on to another one and, step by step, it will all come together. There's a ton of good stuff on habit change on the web, and I'm sure other mefites will link to their favorite articles.

Also, shownomercy is right about enjoying the success you are already having. You have come down from your highest weight? That's great! You have a strong, burning desire to change your life for the better? That's way more than what most of us slobs have! You have to think of these things as your head start and certainly not as signs of any kind of failure.
posted by Orchestra at 1:47 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

"And I know the response is often that I must not want it badly enough or I would just do it and stop lying to myself."

Only stupid people say this. Don't listen to stupid people.

What you have is called a CONFLICT.

You want what you want but you don't want the pain and discomfort or working toward what you want. That's the conflict, in its most literal-minded superficial expression.

There are probably deeper conflicts behind that top-layer one. I would imagine that SOME aspect of you wants to remain fat and unfulfilled, even though we know that when you are on the way toward reaching your goals you feel better.

One dynamic is that, if you were to actually reach your goals, you might have to deal with some painful feelings that arose.

-Why didn't they like me the way I was? why are they congratulating me NOW?
-Why do I have to WORK for stuff? I just want to be taken care of
-Why is life so hard? how come other people don't become 100 lbs overweight?

and worse. Don't berate yourself for those feelings. They're more common than you think, and moralizing about them is the worst thing you can do.

To conclude: you want to but you don't want to. Just figure out a way to make it all as easy on yourself as possible, and *BE CONSCIOUS* of the feelings that arise when you are doing the things that you "have" to do.

I would recommend therapy, but I always do, so this time I won't.
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:48 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

I read a book a while ago that contained the phrase "do the next right thing," which dovetails nicely with shownomercy's point about this being a continuous program. Remember, even if you don't make it to the gym one day, it's not like they burnt the gym down (unless they did, in which case I guess you'll need to wait for them to fix it or get another gym). You can always go back, but the important thing is to actually do that. Don't beat yourself up about it; while draining, getting angry at oneself about not working out burns far fewer calories than simply going and working out.

On a more practical level, Joe's Goals is a great little way to implement the calendar trick aeighty mentioned. Benjamin Franklin's method for achieving moral perfection is similar.
posted by tellumo at 1:53 PM on November 30, 2009

Look here: Rational recovery

I found this while reading an alcohol addiction AskMe question, and to me, it seems like the same technique might work for weight loss. I am suggesting it because of your comment that it's like a different person takes over. I've read through the website, but I haven't tried it and I don't know if it will really work, but it's different from what you've been doing.
posted by CathyG at 1:54 PM on November 30, 2009

I have a group of friends that meets once a week (Mondays at 8 a.m.) to talk about our daily practices. These are different for each person, but include being physically active, work on creative projects, business-related tasks, etc. Each of us checks in about how the past week went and what our goals are for the coming week. The others give us feedback, encouragement, and advice.

We've been doing this for a year and a half, and it's AMAZING how effective such a simple structure is in providing accountability and sustaining persistent change.

So: my advice to you is find a small group of other people (3 to 6 is ideal) and meet with them regularly to talk about how you are doing with your goals.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:18 PM on November 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

A web app of the seinfeld thing

I've been using this recently to track some things like doing my ankle physiotherapy exercises. I can look at it and think 'hey, I've done that every day this week' or 'er, I haven't done that in a while - I should do it today'.

I have thought about fiddling with it somehow so that I only see Today by default: that way each day would be starting fresh, more like shownomercy's description - because it doesn't really matter if I ate right yesterday, it matters if I eat reasonably today. And if each day is a discrete goal, then I can meet my goals for today no matter what I did yesterday.

(Actually I have a whole bunch of sub goals like 'Compile. Build. Run app successfully. Do ankle exercises. Eat breakfast. Clean something'.)
posted by jacalata at 2:29 PM on November 30, 2009

We only have a limited amount of willpower (check out whatWikipedia has to say about it). Which means that if you use a ton of willpower to make yourself eat meals from home during the day, you'll have less to make yourself work out.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but these "simple" things aren't always so simple.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:33 PM on November 30, 2009

Nthing a lot of what other responders have said especially acknowledging the progress you've made so far(dude, really, you're doing good. You have figured out what steps to take which is a big part of making these kinds of changes.) I experience what it seems you're going through. For me, I overwhelm myself with goals that seem rational but in reality are too big for me to realistically accomplish by trying too much at once. Some people I know are really great at setting and following through consistently on these kinds of life-style changing goals. I am not one of those people and would beat-up on myself for not being able to stick to a certain regimen. This would lead to me falling off the wagon completely by partaking in the very behavior I'm trying to change and I would sit in that funk with a "why bother" attitude. What really has helped me is realizing what I was doing to myself. I was setting myself up to fail because I was setting goals that were too big.
What I do to change this dynamic:

-Recognize that I am not one of those people who can consistently do the same thing all the time to reach a goal. That's not a bad thing, it just how I roll. I accepted and looked at how I could use that characteristic in a positive way.

-I spend time checking out why I engage in over-eating or over-spending. That behavior serves a purpose for me. A real purpose. They're comforting even though they're a quick fix to feeling better. Acknowledge that without judgement (hard, I know!) This I do whenever I am about to engage. At first, I would do this and still make the choice to partake in the behavior anyway. Over time, not as much.

-I took those big ole goals and created kind of a scaffolded approach by planning backwards: the ultimate goal is at the top and then I created steps that I could take realistically and I put those steps on a times-table that I can alter if I need to. This makes the process a living thing that changes as I change. Example: for 2 weeks, know that you will only eat breakfast at home. Check in with yourself after two weeks and see if you can add bringing lunch from home every day for two weeks, then see if you can add exercising just one day. Then see if the following week you can add another day, if you can't stick to one day for that week....etc

-I built in "off-the-wagon" time in my goals. Meaning, I have compassion for myself when I engage allowing myself to have those moments knowing the are temporary. I emphasize temporary. Allow space for off-wagon behavior to happen (this was HUGE for me. When I gave myself that space, the behavior had less power and I spend less time engaging)

-And, I Fall of the wagon? Ok, cool. It served a purpose. Purposed now served, get right back on it again. Bless it all!

What is happening for me is that my off the wagon time minimized over time. The healthier behavior is becoming more and more frequent where it's almost second nature now. The great thing is I am seeing progress! That motivates me even more. It is a life-style change, it's gonna require a long-term investment. You've done a lot of good work. It seems that if you can change your mind-set to reflect your ability to make these kinds of changes, you may be able to reach your goals more compassionately and flexibly. Good luck to you!
posted by Hydrofiend at 3:05 PM on December 1, 2009

I know exactly how this works. When you are really stressed out and worrying about other things (such as work), it's hard to take care of yourself. Then you slip to eating fast food etc. and remain in that pattern.

I suggest allowing some luxury to yourself when the stress hits badly but controlling it. Have one fast-food evening and relax, but don't fill your whole fridge with unhealthy stuff. Then recuperate from the stress peak and go back to your regular healthy food. You will feel good knowing that the "lapse" was short and intentional.

Exercise might be more difficult to manage, but I don't consider it as important as healthy food anyway. If you are overweight, it may be easier to fix the weight issue first and then focus more on exercise.
posted by kennu at 3:15 PM on December 1, 2009

I always found it is best to be honest open with those around you about your goals. I can always fool myself, but I can never fool my best friends or my family. And who knows? Maybe they will admit to sharing your goals and you can keep each other in check.
posted by Blandanomics at 5:06 PM on December 7, 2009

Try out sciral consistency @ for the seinfeld trick.

Are emotions interferring with what you want or need to do? What's the fire behind what you are doing? What are the consequences of not doing what you want to do? Have you "written" them down?

Further, those changes you mentioned for losing weight, doing all of them at once might not help, one at a time for 21 days is better. Use maybe and try out the email reminders?
posted by iNfo.Pump at 7:02 PM on January 17, 2010

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