Stop watching paint dry.

When you make toast, you can put bread in the toaster and push the lever down. What you can’t do is turn bread into toast through the powers of your mind. And if you stand around watching the toaster, you’re wasting your time.

Drying paint is the same way. What you can do: paint the wall, open a window, leave the room. What you can’t do: force the paint to dry through sheer force of will. If you stand there watching the wall, you will experience the most excruciating passage of time known to man. When the paint does eventually dry, it won’t be because you stood there.

The same goes for boiling water, rocks turning to sand, and weighing yourself.

My work with clients does not focus on weight, but a lot of them hope that they will lose weight if they sort out their eating and their relationship to exercise. Since we live in a world where we are all told, all the time, that losing weight makes us healthier, more attractive, more successful, more sympathetic characters in our own story, this hope is understandable.

Sometimes, it even happens — but not because they stand over the scale, waiting for the needle to move. And definitely not because they pour all of their available resources into going hungry and tracking every single bite or step.

I have lived that life. Your weight goes down, the rest of you goes up in smoke.

What makes weights change, more permanently and with less soul-killing, is what I think of as Actual Lifestyle Change, which is to say, your entire life changes — not just your conscious choices around eating and moving. Sometimes you get a new job that has you up on your feet more, eating at very structured times, and doing work absorbing enough to upstage food preoccupation. Sometimes you move to a new neighbourhood / city / country, and every tiny routine of your daily life is shaped differently. Sometimes your weight responds.

Health at Every Size is a weight-neutral philosophy. The idea is that weight can change, but it’s best if that change is not the focus of your actions. Rather, it is best to set up the circumstances of a healthy, fulfilling life, and then see what your weight does as a result.

What makes these changes work, when, so often, conscious decisions to do these same exact things don’t, is the nature of the change: you make one big decision and a thousand other things change along with it, not necessarily by choice. You set the big rock rolling, and it goes down the hill without any further input from you. You set up the conditions, then you live inside of them.

The times my weight has changed significantly, but unintentionally, have always been attached to a major life event: I got married, immigrated to a new country with a different climate and became a housewife (weight went up.) I moved to the city and lived within walking distance of my workplace (weight went down.) I started working from home, eating with clients many times a week (weight went up.) I did a full-time internship where I was on my feet a lot and went back to eating only when I wanted to (weight went down.)

Despite all this, my weight is still within a few pounds of where it was ten years ago.

Your weight is the product of a dynamic equilibrium. Picture a bucket of water. The bucket has a hole in the bottom where water leaks out, but it sits under a faucet with water constantly running in, sometimes at a trickle, sometimes a gush. The level to which the water in the bucket rises depends on the rate of both of these things. Neither one stops, ever — there is a constant inflow and outflow, that’s the dynamic part. Once the inflow and outflow are both fairly constant, or when they are tied together in a feedback loop that allows them to compensate for what the other is doing, the level remains about the same. That’s the equilibrium.

In order to have a body at all, for a time, the water running into the bucket has to exceed the water running out. This is normal, necessary. Different buckets will fill up to a different point before they level off, and they will maintain different rates of inflow and outflow. This is also normal and necessary. Each bucket will have its own preferred range of fullness. Sometimes the water will rest at the top of that range, and sometimes at the bottom. Where it rests at any given time is a product of a whole bunch of things the bucket may have no control over: the weather (it might be raining, adding more water to the bucket, or it might be arid, evaporating water from the bucket more quickly), whether the faucet is working properly, whether the hole in the bottom of the bucket is obstructed with lime scale, or eaten away by rust.

Let’s say the bucket has some input into one thing: where it sits. Where it sits will determine which faucet it sits beneath, and which surface it rests upon. But it takes a major effort for the bucket to move itself, an upheaval of its entire bucket existence. Depending where it ends up, the level of water inside may change, though it will probably still be within a certain range.

I think I’ve tortured this analogy long enough. Our culture, food environment, built environment, work environment, living space, etc. are the structures that systematically determine our daily life routines and our moment-to-moment decisions. No single momentary choice you make about eating this food vs. this other food is going to have the broad-reaching effects of picking up and moving to a place where all the food is different, for example. No decision to exercise tomorrow vs. today is going to have the long-term impact of living in a place where your daily commute requires walking or biking.

In fact, I think you’re likely to experience decision-fatigue if you have to consciously choose to do something that is at odds with your environment dozens of times a day.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to change your habits through choice and repetition, but the environment must be at least minimally supportive of those choices. If it is, you can change your habits one day and one step at a time, not by watching paint dry, but by focusing on the immediate rewards those habits provide. If they are rewarding, ultimately it won’t matter so much whether your weight changes, and random scale fluctuations won’t destroy your momentum.

And if the environment is not compatible with such choices, you can make one, big decision — to change your environment, your job, your whole life — and let time do the rest.

Paint the wall, open a window, and leave the room. Stop watching paint dry.


Don’t throw paint in comments.

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