*Note from Sarah: I’m so excited about this most recent post by Jason Seib. It’s truly epic. Thank you Jason for writing such an eye-opening and thought provoking article. I hope you all enjoy and take from Jason’s post as much as I did. For more of Jason, find him here on Facebook and also check out his soon to be released book, The Paleo Coach available for pre-order on Amazon!
I’ve been doing a little brainstorming lately. I can’t stop thinking about why so many people seem to have a terrible time getting from zero to paleo despite the fact they they clearly believe it will work for them. If you would have asked me a year ago, I would have told you that lack of belief was probably the primary force keeping most people from success. It still sounds logical – if you don’t think something will work for you, or if you think the people that it worked for were special somehow, you will probably have compliance issues. However, these days I seem to encounter a lot of people who appear to be fully convinced of the merits of eating like a human, but they still can’t make it to the finish line. “I’m starting my 3rd 30 day challenge,” is a phrase that I seem to hear daily. All I can think is, “Why didn’t it work the first time?” My frustration has led me to do quite a bit of research outside the realms of nutrition and fitness and into the intriguing world of psychology, and more specifically, willpower. I feel like I’m just getting started, and every question raises two more, but I have already learned some amazing things.
As per our discussion from a couple of posts back, sometimes when we set goals we may not really intend to change anything. Instead, we might just be trying to escape our own hypercritical inner voice for a moment. As such, we tend to set massive goals to make ourselves feel as good as possible for a short time, which tends to make failure even more imminent. Once I understood this basic concept, I formed a new hypothesis that I have yet to disprove. Maybe you can help me if you know something I don’t, but the following seems more obvious to me the more I think about it:
Long term goal setting isn’t human nature.
Follow along with me if you will. You are a hunter/gatherer in the late paleolithic, let’s say 20,000 years ago, living the way your ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years before you. Can you describe a goal you might set that you would expect to accomplish one month from today? Or six months? Or a year? When I asked myself these questions, I could not come up with a single thing that my cumulative efforts over an extended period would finally bring to fruition after a specific, predetermined amount of time had passed. Acquiring food would happen on a day to day basis, and staying where the food is would be key to my survival since food storage was not an option. Material possessions are not amassed by nomadic hunter/gatherers, and there was no need for currency, so there would be nothing for me to save. And since none of the foods I would have hunted and gathered would have been unnatural in my diet, I would have had a healthy, lean body without even knowing what it means to be overweight. Maybe I could aspire to be a better shot with my bow, but daily hunts would likely negate the need to say, “By the next full moon I will be able to shoot a rabbit at 30 paces with 9 out of 10 arrows.” Most people don’t set goals like that today; we just practice and get better as fast as we can. Unless I’m overlooking something here, setting long term goals the way we do today would have served no real purpose to our hunter/gatherer ancestors.
So, if long term goal setting is not something we did for almost all of the time that we have been on this planet, is goal setting a purely psychological choice that we are perfectly capable of making, or are there physiological aspects to it? In other words, are goals hard to achieve because we are too weak minded, or are there other factors involved?
As it turns out, willpower comes from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and our modern capacity for self control appears to be a late development in human evolution. Since most of the things we did on a day to day basis prior to neolithic times were best done right away and with no waiting, we didn’t need a lot of self control. For example, if there was a massive pile of food in front of you, you ate until you couldn’t eat anymore because the next meal might not come at the exact moment that you first felt hungry next time. Willpower was mostly used for social interactions, like not being rude to tribe mates even when you want to be. Interestingly, the prevailing theory among researchers, at least as far as I have seen, is that the prefrontal cortex is exhaustible and that willpower is a limited resource. This means your willpower gas tank is not bottomless and your mental fortitude is irrelevant.
This eye-opening study (full text here), demonstrates how the prefrontal cortex can be exhausted and willpower depleted. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll paraphrase it for you. Researchers baked chocolate chip cookies in their lab just prior to their test subjects’ arrival so that the tantalizing smell was undeniable. The subjects were told they were participating in a taste study and they were seated at a table with cookies and radishes. Half were told to eat at least two cookies and no radishes while the other half were told to eat at least two radishes and no cookies. 15 minutes later, all the subjects were asked to trace a complex geometric design without letting their pencil leave the paper, but they were not told that the task was actually impossible.
Okay, here comes the cool part. The subjects who were required to abstain from eating the chocolate chip cookies gave up on the tracing task in an average of about 8 1/2 minutes, while the cookie munchers persevered for about twice as long!
What does this all mean? It means your willpower truly is exhaustible, AND it is not specific to any one subject. It means trying with all your might to get through your work day without telling your boss he’s an idiot will make it more likely that you will stop for fast food on the way home. It means making responsible decisions about saving money at the mall will leave you with less self control in the food court. It means coping with your day to day stress is tapping the same fuel reserves as your desire to lose fat and get healthy. And it probably means your goals are WAY to big.
As a professional in the paleo community, I have been guilty of prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach to beginning paleo, but I think I have been wrong. Our world and all the demands it places on us will not be changing anytime soon. Therefore, the shotgun blast approach is probably not going to be effective for a great many people. We have basically been saying, “Everything from the way you move and sit, to the way you sleep, to the way you deal with stress, to the food you eat is completely at odds with what your body expects. So, the way to reach your goals is to change absolutely everything. Ready? Go!” While this may work for some, the research is telling us that it will be tough, maybe nearly impossible, for most.
I don’t have any definitive answers for you just yet. You might be tempted to set a big goal and make yourself feel good like we discussed in the post I linked above, but maybe it will make more sense to your hunter/gatherer brain if you tackle this major lifestyle change in baby steps. Using sugar as an example, you could address your biggest vice first instead of immediately trying to remove all sweets. You might simultaneously try getting to bed a half hour earlier and try to fit a brisk 10 minute walk into each day. These small steps will likely be much easier than going for full blown paleo, beginning a comprehensive new workout program, and dramatically changing your sleeping patterns all in one day. These are just ideas off the top of my head and I am only beginning to test this stuff in the real world. All I know at this point is that my perspective has changed and I am no longer married to the all-at-once paleo standard. Hopefully sharing this with you has given you some insight into your own struggles so that you can create a better plan if the old standby has left you wanting.
Maybe you aren’t weak. Maybe you’re just human.
There is a lot more help coming on March 5 when my book is released, but stay tuned because, as I said before, I feel like I’m just getting started on this subject.
Go forth and be awesome.