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.






15 responses to “Stop watching paint dry.”

  1. Katie Whitney Avatar
    Katie Whitney

    Thanks for the tortured analogy! Some avenues you didn’t explore: Is the bucket half full or half empty? Have you filled your bucket today? Hello, bucket list? Haha, just kidding. You rock! Thanks for writing and thinking and sharing and generally being a touchstone of sanity in the world of food/body writing.

  2. closetpuritan Avatar

    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.

    If only the people who think “the Holocaust” is a good rebuttal to “most diets fail, and much of a person’s weight in a given environment is genetically determined” understood this!

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh yes, those charming people who think literally being starved/worked to death in a torture camp is proof that dieting works.

      1. Ani Avatar

        Those lovely people also never, ever like it when you point out that many, many people died in those camps while still at a relatively “healthy” weight.

  3. Juliana Avatar

    Love your post, cause I do think that when you choose the HAES approach there is always a risk that you go back to the diet-mentality, in the sense that the definition of ‘health’, many times, means you are going to eat more balanced food, binge less, exercise and include more vegetables and fruits, and this CAN – not necessarily will as you always point out – lead to weight loss, even if it’s just a little. And sometimes this happens after the person made a great progress accepting her fat, her body, her clothes (or even getting new clothes as a consequence of getting rid of that idea “I’ll keep this pants for when I’m more slim). Suddenly you see yourself thinner and not only people start congratulating you, but you see in the mirror a image that immediately takes your mind back to the ‘ideal / dream image’ you had always ‘nurtured’ as beautiful before you discovered body acceptance. This can be crazy, cause deep inside you think “Oh, now I know how to lose weight safely”. This happened to me a few times during this acceptance journey, since some weight loss happened, but then I realized, as your water bucket metaphore says, that my weight changes, no matter how “healthy” and “active” I get, are so subtle! my general appearance is not even affected (unless I go starving and that’s not an option in my life, and I’m so happy that I don’t even consider this anymore!)

    (obs: never commented here, great admirer from your blog, it has helped me a lot, even when you were not updating – the archives are awesome!)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thanks, Juliana – and yes, weight changes can especially mess with people’s heads once they’ve embarked on the project of acceptance. I feel like part of acceptance has to also be acceptance of weight fluctuations, it’s just a bit trickier than accepting something static.

      I also think a bit of black-and-white diet mentality still hangs around for many of us, even when we’re trying to practice HAES, and that can lead to thoughts like, “Well it turns out I’ve lost weight, does that make me A TRAITOR TO THE CAUSE??” etc. That’s really not what HAES is about, making your weight do one thing or another, whether that is to change or stay the same. It’s about letting go of the primacy of weight, and instead prioritizing health in a way that makes sense to you, being compassionate with yourself regardless of your weight, and making the world a better place for everyone by accepting the fact that size diversity is a thing.

      1. Michellers Avatar

        I threw out my scale a long time ago, but the minute someone tells me that I look like I’ve lost weight–I immediately go to the old crazy place. Either I think: wow, I can really eat anything and everything I want without edit and lose weight! Or I think: it’s working, so now I can treat myself with something I really want to eat! Either way it’s a disaster for my preciously attained self-acceptance.

        But we live in such a visual culture that people are always remarking on physical appearance, so I somehow have to get to place where I can hear the remark and let it go without it triggering my old eating patterns.

        For now, I just continue on my own personal campaign to never ever remark on someone’s weight. I have actually had to tell my closest friends that I won’t comment on their weight, either up or down, because there is such an entrenched expectation that praises will be heaped on you when you lose weight that some of them were getting a little disgruntled.

        Outfits and hair are fair game.

  4. BarlowGirl Avatar

    Usually I’m staring at the toaster because I’m not really awake in the mornings and I don’t have the brainpower to do anything else for a while LOL.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I suspect we all secretly do this.

  5. G Avatar

    I so enjoy this blog. A thyroid disorder that I contracted (came down with?) in my early thirties has made me fatter, and also makes my weight something I can no longer really predict – as the thyroid sputters to its inevitable death, my metabolism sputters, too. It took years for me to accept that I’m just going to be fatter than my previous adult weight set-point from now on, and that I won’t reach my new somewhat final set-point until my thyroid completely dies and my meds get stabilized. For a while I really poured way to much time and effort into fighting the inevitable, but slowly realized that it was a fool’s errand, and was taking way more brain-space and effort than it was worth. Like others have commented, it’s not a linear process. Sometimes I still get that “you should not be eating cake, Fatty McFattypants” little voice in my head, and I definitely have to work to control my reaction to the concerned “are you ok?” inquiries from friends who note the 20 pound transformation (“yep – it’s a thyroid thing, but I’ve got a good doc” is my values-neutral answer, and it’s fair enough they ask since weight gain can be a sign of depression). But it definitely feels more mentally healthy to prepare and eat nutritious tasty food that I love and nourishes me and my kids without seeing food as something to be controlled to death, to make a cake with sprinkles on occasion just because, and to run half marathons and lift weights and feel the strength of my bones and muscles . . . even if it’s underneath a layer of fat that didn’t used to be there.

    The most annoying thing about this truly is the clothes. I have a professional wardrobe (read: expensive), and it’s tough to know whether to replace everything once I expand to the point that it looks bad, or just hang out til the metabolism rights itself and it fits again. I have zero angst about going up a size, but much wallet-angst about investing in hundreds of dollars of suits/tailoring that I may not need in 4 months. It makes me wish we could wear more sack-like outfits that allowed for a little more up and down, without such pronounced effect on the fit of the clothes.

    1. Ani Avatar

      I was getting pretty good at acceptance and not even really noticing my weight fluctuations until I started sewing. I’m sick, so a garment can take me a good month or two (or 6) to finish…and then my measurements are different and it fits “fine” but not the tailored perfection I spent months on. Harrrrrrumph.

  6. closetpuritan Avatar

    The other thing is–sometimes your weight DOES change without a huge change happening in your life, and we make enough little changes here and there in our eating and exercise habits just because, that at any given time there’s probably some change we can point to that we think is making us healthier or thinner than before, and some change that we think is making us less healthy or less thin, and we think, “Aha! I know why I was gaining or losing weight!” BUT DO YOU, REALLY?

    1. megaforte84 Avatar

      Even if there’s a life change in the same time frame, you still may not ever know.

      I gained 15 pounds my freshman year of college. However, there’s no telling how much was me regaining the 5+ pounds I’d lost in high school due to not enough time to properly eat lunch, the change in what I was eating, or the change in how much I was walking. And there are other explanations for that 5+ I’d lost that were also things that ended at high school graduation.

      The heaviest I’ve ever been by over five pounds was when I was at the doctor’s office for an illness, and I honestly think it was that my body had finally figured out that I lose appetite a few days into being sick and laid up some emergency calories before the appetite loss hit. Or it was the water weight from me actually remembering the ‘stay extra hydrated’ advice from the last time I had the same thing. Or it was the fact every other weighing on that scale up to that point had been at day three or four of not eating that much, and so maybe it was tared a bit higher than our bathroom scale.

      Actually, the only weight change I have a clear reason for my entire life, beyond basic growing up, was from a sudden diet change due to dental work that DID have me weighing myself daily because the change from what I had been eating was enough to frighten me into making sure my weight didn’t nosedive into danger territory while I was adjusting to it.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      Good point — we always think we know why we weigh what we weigh, but I’m sure we usually don’t. Part of being human is being convinced of your own explanations of extremely complex things.

  7. Chris Avatar

    What great analogies! It’s always been a pet hate of mine, when people say “you’ve got to want it harder!” – because it’s never actually about that. It’s never a lack of desire, and with personal goals, it has nothing to do with wanting it more than someone else does – how could it, when it’s all internal? Anyway, you have said all this and more already. I have tried “wanting” bread to turn into toast more quickly, but glaring at the toaster with maximum intensity seems to yield only poor results. It’s much like glaring at the kettle, trying to boil water with my X-Ray vision.