There are different ways to solve problems. I’ve noticed that there’s a continuum that these solutions rest on. On the left side are solutions that attack the symptoms of the problem. They’re the easiest to implement quickly. On the other side are the solutions that attack the root of the problem, but are the hardest to implement.
Take weight loss. Going from left to right along the continuum, you’ll find liposuction, lap band, eating disorders, following fad diets, eating packaged “health” foods and shakes, eating somewhat healthy food, and eating really healthy food. Most people would be able to think of all of those solutions to their weight problems, and might pick one along the continuum somewhere.
But there’s actually one more solution, so far to the right on the continuum that most people wouldn’t even think of it. For weight loss, that solution is to PREFER healthy food. A change in preference. Think about it– if you LIKE healthy food more than you like unhealthy food, you will never gain weight again. Impossible, even if you don’t exercise. More importantly, if you prefer healthy food, there’s no stress associated with weight loss. You’re just eating foods that you like. What’s easier than that?
Changing your preference for food isn’t easy, though. It’s not like getting a lap band. To change your preference for food you have to learn a lot. What makes food healthy? What are the exceptions? You have to understand the biological impact that bad food has on the various systems of your body. That’s the leverage that holds the preference in place. When you learn about how sugar abuses your pancreas, it’s a little less appealing in your mind. You learn about how factory farms raise their animals, and that sort of meat is less appealing. Changing preferences is hard work, and it takes time and effort and energy, but it produces lasting change.
I was never trying to lose weight, but I was trying to get healthy. Over the course of years I learned about diet, experimented with healthy foods, and eventually changed my preferences. Now I really dislike unhealthy food. I allow myself a cheat day as often as once a week, but I find that I put it off until there’s some social function conducive to eating unhealthy food, and I generally go back to healthy eating after that meal. I probably only eat unhealthy food for one or two meals a month.
Work is another example. I used to hate working hard. I could force myself to do it, and would actually produce good work, but I would need breaks and rest and yearned to do other things. I could have forced myself to work harder, I could have gotten easier work, I could have changed my goals to require less work, or I could have maybe convinced someone else to work for me somehow. There are ways to get around hard work– a huge chunk of the civilized world does it.
But instead I changed my preferences. I love work, especially when it’s tough. And when I say I love work, I don’t mean the results or the ego association of being someone who works hard– I mean that I love the process. Working is probably my favorite thing in the world to do right now. Yesterday I had to put “Go to the Art Museum” on my set-in-stone todo list, to make sure that I would actually stop work and do it. I’d been meaning to go for weeks, but always chose work when it came down to going.
Changing your preferences is almost always the root solution to a problem. I’ve tried all sorts of things over the years to optimize myself and solve problems, and preference change is the one tool that works every time. When I got into pickup, I changed from preferring to be away from strangers to being around strangers. I’ve changed from being a night owl with no schedule to someone who lives by his schedule. I changed from preferring to have lots of things and lots of space to preferring to live in a glorified van behind a gas station.
This is both the hard way and the easy way to change yourself. It’s way harder up front than any other solution. It almost always requires that you educate yourself in the methods as well as the underlying mechanisms of the preference you want to adopt. Why, specifically is it better? What makes it that way? Alongside the education, you have to force yourself to adopt behaviours. When I first started eating healthy, I preferred pizza. When I first started working hard, I would have preferred to go do something fun. When I first began waking up early, I would have liked to sleep in. You train yourself like you’d train a dog, but at the same time you build an understanding of why the new preference is better. You need to build that motivation to carry you beyond your initial willpower push.
But in the end it’s easier. My life probably looks like it takes a lot of discipine, but it actually doesn’t. For the most part, I do whatever I want to do, which just happens to be almost entirely positive constructive stuff. The only parts that require discipline are the parts where I’m changing a preference. That’s hard, but it gets easier as you do it more. It’s like how I imagine running marathons is— it’s a different course every time, but once you’ve done one, you know you can do another.
When I first started changing preferences, there was some resistance within me, because I had a strong identification with my habits. I ate unhealthy and I mocked people who did otherwise; I had cultivated this persona of someone who didn’t care about that sort of nonsense. I was a night owl, and was proud of it. I was a slacker, and thought that it was cool that I could support myself and barely ever work. It can be scary to give up these pieces of our identities.
Over time, I learned to identify with other things, though. I am my execution — that’s my identity. I’m someone who decides what to do and does it to the best of his ability. I’m not a night owl or a lark, a slacker or a busybody, a healthy person or an unhealthy person. I’m just someone who tries to make good decisions and executes on them. All of my preferences can come and go, serving only as tools for my decision making and my execution.
Photo is of Rodin’s “The Thinker” at SF Legion of Honor museum.