I used to have a rule: “I don’t eat bread.” (I don’t have celiac disease, but I get a bit bloated when I eat bread, so it’s best that don’t eat it all the time.)
I once walked 45 minutes to find a gluten-free pizza shop… In Italy. I was also ‘that guy’ at the family dinners who asked, “Is there gluten in this?”. So I guess you could say, this rule wasn’t always the best thing for me.
It wasn’t long before I adjusted, and I realised that a bit of bloating wasn’t the end of the world and that sometimes the enjoyment of food was worth it.
Still, my ‘default’ is to not eat bread. It’s just easier. I feel better, it helps to not be bloated when exercising, my digestion is better etc. But I’ll still have some when I decide it makes sense, guilt-free.
Most areas in our lives fall into three categories:
Areas where we have no rules, where we make decisions without taking consequences or our goals into consideration.
Areas where we have strict rules, where we may make progress but can end up feeling guilty when we break the rules or end up in an all-or-nothing mentality (think yo-yo crash dieting).
Areas where we have flexible defaults, where we have cultivated good automatic behaviours but are free to make rational decisions that contradict those defaults in the moment.
Number 3 is where we want to move towards.
This method of thinking isn’t an excuse for “giving into temptation”. That’s not O.K. Instead, you have to make a decision.
For example, let’s say you're on a fat-loss plan, and you’ve decided that in order to allow you to keep your calorie levels within your targets, your default attitude towards chocolate is that you’re not going to eat it.
But you get to your sister’s birthday party and she has the best chocolate fudge cake you’ve ever seen.
Whilst all the ‘no rulers’ tuck in, and the ‘strict rulers’ go hide in a corner, you are able to sit back and think rationally.
You might say, “I’m happy to sacrifice a small bit of progress in order to have this temporary experience of pleasure.”
Or you might say, “I know that if I eat this cake, I’m going to have to reduce my meal size later in that day, and I’m really looking forward to that meal, so I’m not going to bother with the cake. It’s not worth it.”
Whichever of these decisions you make, you’ve made a rational decision, whilst maintaining your self-identity of “Default: no chocolate.”
Contrast this with someone who has no rules, who lets factors such as marketing, peer pressure, and temporary pleasure control their outcomes, or with someone who either regretfully deprives themselves of the cake, or guiltily eats it, telling themselves they’ll start again Monday (again).
This isn’t only applicable to nutrition. When, by getting to know yourself better, you begin to recognise areas where you want to redefine your defaults, you can. For example:
“My default is that I go to the gym 3 times per week.”
“My default is that I arrive early to meet someone.”
“My default is that I save 10% of my income each month.”
“My default is to read a book instead of scrolling through Instagram.”
“My default is to be the person who opens the door for other people.”
In this way, we become better versions of ourselves, not by imposing rules that we must stick to (but inevitably fail), but by recognising our automatic default behaviours and changing them for the better, even if we end up straying from them from time to time.