Switch to mobile version

The Myth of Grit and Determination

Post image for The Myth of Grit and Determination

Ordering takeout is an act of community support, the pleasure-seeking part of my brain has been telling me.

Every time I deny the impulse to order pizza, this brain-region argues, a local restaurant comes closer to insolvency.

The other day I was chatting with a few friends, and it turned out each of us had gained a non-negligible number of pounds over the past four months.  

“It’s happening to a lot of people,” one friend said. “They’re calling it the ‘Covid Nineteen.’”

It’s only twelve for me, but the process is still unfolding.

Takeout isn’t the sole culprit, of course. It’s hard to remain as active these days. Fewer grocery sorties means less fresh produce in the diet. Also, general anxiety and uncertainty have a way of sending us wandering to the fridge, or worse.

I reached my enough-is-enough moment when I was notified that I’ve earned a free pizza from accumulating enough loyalty points. My plan is to halt the Covid Nineteen while it’s still a Covid Twelve, and give every bit of it back to nature.

The Should I / Shouldn’t I Trap

Losing a few extra pounds might be the least original goal you could name, which speaks to its difficulty –- if it were easily accomplished, we would have done it already.

Behavioral goals are difficult because they tend to revolve around conflicting desires. Something in you wants to achieve the goal, while something else in you wants to undermine it — you want to wake up early, but you also want to sleep in.

This creates a familiar kind of rhetorical battle in the mind, one side arguing for a binding “Yes” to the impulse, the other pushing for a “No, and that’s that.”

The body will end up acting out one of the two desires, depending on which side is more shrewd.

An example from my own life:

     BODY: [Sees someone else’s takeout on Instagram]

     INNER VOICE: Hey you should get pizza!

     ALSO INNER VOICE: No you shouldn’t. It’s just empty calories, and only the first piece is actually good.

     INNER VOICE: But you’re supporting local business! If there’s ever been a time you should order pizza, it’s now.

     ALSO INNER VOICE: Oh please. That’s not the reason you want it.

     INNER VOICE: Okay, you’re right. But regardless — what if we just get it tonight, and then not order out again for a few weeks?

     BODY: [dials pizza place]

The Imaginary Reservoir

The conventional approach to goal achievement relies on winning most of these inner “Should I / Shouldn’t I” conflicts. Goodness must prevail. Grit and determination are emphasized as the keys to victory.

It’s assumed that there is within you a reservoir of some righteous quality –- willpower, or moral fortitude –- which empowers you to act persistently toward your long-term interests. It is essential that you connect with this unaccountable source of strength, and if you can’t seem to do that, the failing is as much a moral one as a practical one.

I think this widely-accepted idea is bullshit. I now interpret grit and determination as nothing but post-hoc explanations for success –- illusory qualities invented in the absence of a true understanding of the opaque psychological reasons some hard things are achieved and some are not.

The Alternative to Endless Striving

Conventional striving never did much for me. I apparently do not have a direct connection to the magic reservoir. Maybe you don’t either. That’s OK. Striving isn’t the only strategy.

What has worked better is tracking behavior without particularly striving to change it. Rather than drawing a “good enough” line and striving to meet it, you commit only to tracking the relevant numbers -– dollars spent, calories consumed, miles walked, pages read.

What you discover is that simply knowing this data changes what you want to do, so that you’re not constantly fighting with yourself. You don’t need to depend on winning endless should/shouldn’t battles in order to change.

Say I decide to track caloric intake -— as long as I record it, eating an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s isn’t in any sense out of bounds.

If I were to depend on my inner rhetoric to prevent this kind of overconsumption, I’m liable to talk myself into getting the ice cream. After all, I deserve a treat sometimes, right? I ran 10k on Sunday. Any time we’re talking about the right times to eat ice cream, I could give you a thousand reasons why it’s right now.

As long as I’m tracking the numbers, however, I can’t escape the awareness that my choice will turn a 2200-calorie day into a 3500-calorie day, and I’ll have to ledger these figures.

Suddenly, no part of me entirely wants this “treat.” I can see the needless cost I’m about to incur, and it no longer feels like something worth rationalizing. The desires themselves have shifted, with no moralizing and little willpower involved.

An Experiment

Which brings me back to addressing the “Covid Nineteen.” My next official experiment is to track caloric intake for a month. I predict less overall intake, but I’m not setting a target, only tracking. I want to know:

-What I actually consume in a day

-Where the costliest habits are

-What’s worth consuming and what’s not

I’ll report daily intake each day of the whole month, and any weight change that occurs.

The working hypothesis is “What gets measured gets managed” — that simply charting the behavior will shape it in sustainable ways, whereas striving probably won’t.

I began this experiment today, August 6, and will conclude on September 4. You can follow along on my experiment log.

Is there something you’re struggling to manage using grit and determination? What if you committed to just measuring it for a while?


Photo by Marcelo Novais

A Raptitude Community

Finally! Raptitude is now on Patreon. It's an easy way to help keep Raptitude ad-free. In exchange you get access to extra posts and other goodies. Join a growing community of patrons. [See what it's all about]
Nat August 6, 2020 at 3:00 am

Yes, tracking is really the first step to a change! And more generally awareness is. To clean a room you first need to turn on the light and see the dust balls… When you do that with your brain it can be painful to see what thoughts are in your brain. But then you can start cleaning.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 2:07 pm

That’s the idea, yeah — that you will do better with the lights on.

Joe August 6, 2020 at 3:12 am

You may be right that measuring will help. But you may be underestimating the grit and determination needed to track calories.

Looking forward to seeing your results and how you achieved them.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 9:39 am

I have done it before and I take pretty well to it, perhaps because I like data and numbers so much. I suppose that is a factor in how managable the task of tracking itself is, because you’re right, it’s not a piece of cake. But it is by definition easier than simultaneous tracking AND striving to meet a numerical goal, which is the standard advice.

Victoria August 6, 2020 at 3:23 am

Oh yes, “grit and determination” only undermines self esteem and deepens behavioral problems for me. Same as calorie counting I’m afraid.
What I figured out for myself, is I need to have good nutricious food in the fridge. Then I don’t snack and don’t buy sweets during the day, if I’m not hungry, It’s not on my mind. I bought pressure multicooker and cook a hearty meal once in 4 days, that includes meat, legumes, vegetables. I eat it for dinner at about 5 pm, and then I’m not hungry till I go to bed at 11 pm. Then I have breakfast\lunch with unsweetened yoghurt and granola and fruits at 10-11 am. I’m not hungry till maybe 2- 3 pm when I have a light salad or sandwich. I did not exercise at all for the last 2 months, because I had a surgery, but I lost 4 kg I gained in the spring without any suffering at all. It also helps that restaurant food in my country is expensive and I simply do not have the money to order more often than once in 2 months)

Joe August 6, 2020 at 3:55 am

My issues are negative thinking and over thinking. How does one measure these behaviors?

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 9:48 am

Good question. To use the WGMGM approach you need something measurable. The metric itself is usually not the problem, it’s just a value correlated with the problem. I suffer from overthinking too, which has many effects on my life, but one of them that can be measured is how much time I’m actually at my desk working rather than ruminating or going through mental monologues. I track “pomodoros” which are uninterrupted 25-minute periods of work. The more of those I am able to record, the better I am apparently taming the impulse to go off on mental monologues.

I also depend a lot on meditation to quell the overthinking habit, and that’s another thing that can be recorded and would correlate in some degree to the actual issue.

In your case you might want to think about how that overthinking relates to some sort of behavior that can be measured, and then measure that and see what you learn.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 9:44 am

I suppose a lot of what we expect to work depends on the particular conditions of our lives and habits. I work from home and suffer from severe procrastination issues, which leads to a lot of needless eating. Tracking calories has worked wonderfully for me in the past, because it interrupts my particular habits with a short reflection on the numerical situation I’m changing each time I eat a handful of almonds or a mid-afternoon bowl of cereal. I’ve never made a proper experiment of it until now though.

Jean Vengua August 6, 2020 at 3:42 am

Here’s my solution: it’s called “time-restricted eating,” a variant of intermittent fasting. I stop eating at 7:30 pm, and break my fast at 9:30 a.m. I eat whatever during the “on” hours, though I tend to eat generally healthy with a few sweets now and then. I lost 10 lbs. Much easier than dieting or counting calories, and I sleep better on an empty stomach; turns out it needs that break. I’ve been doing this daily since January.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 9:51 am

I have done this in the past and it did work for me. I was eating during a 12-8 window. The reason I’m not doing that now is because I run in the mornings and I don’t want to run on a completely empty stomach. Also, my excessive eating habits tend to mostly fall between those hours anyway.

Kevin August 6, 2020 at 5:21 am

I’ve been struggling with this as well. We also just had a (locally) famous pizza place open w/in walking distance of my house, so my willpower is being tested even more.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:33 am

Hah.. good luck. To look at this numerically, the number of impulses to get pizza will almost certainly rise, because you’re so close. If you are only winning a certain percentage of the rhetorical battles ensuing from those impulses, you will definitely eat more pizzas. But if you’re looking at the hard data of consumption itself, you will see the absurdity of the pizza habit regardless of the circumstances that brought it about. So in a sense, taking an interest in the data divorces the surrounding narratives and circumstances from the result.

Kerrie August 7, 2020 at 1:20 pm

I had a rule when I moved to my new area that worked really well. Never get local takeout. I’m glad I decided this because it was the land of takeaway’s, so much to try. I’d never have reigned in my impulses (takeaway pizza Value meal Dealers getting the biggest cos its best Value… not!) having done that and had the faff of ordering online In our way, We broke my takeout habit for the past 7 years and feel better for it.

Shara August 6, 2020 at 5:59 am

I’m interested to see your results as this is actually what I’ve been consistently doing since the pandemic started, in several areas of my life. I’m now early/on time everywhere, my house is always clean and I’ve lost 6 pounds while everyone else seems to be gaining etc. I use MyFitnessPal to track my calories which makes it pretty easy to stick to. Good luck! :)

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 9:53 am

Wow, well done. MyFitnessPal is kind of a godsend, because it makes the tracking part manageable, and can give you reminders when you need them.

Belladonna Took August 6, 2020 at 4:05 pm

Shara, I’ve been trying to figure out how I could bring a similar technique to bear in getting my own life in order. I love the idea of tracking goals achieved – actually, just steps toward goals. But I need something much broader than weight loss … My house is a mess, my blog neglected, my novel floundering, and I’m never on time for anything. I’m completely unmoored! How did you track your achievements?

Gayle August 6, 2020 at 6:34 am

I found this timely reading for me this morning. I’ll look forward to seeing your results. I believe there has to be some “grit” involved in the process. I think my brain is like a rich spoiled child, always wanting what it wants and not liking hearing no. It tends to have a temper tantrum. Good luck and thanks for sharing this today!

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 9:59 am

Thanks Gayle. Right — there are inner emotional experiences we can call grit and/or determination. The myth I’m referring to is that these are mysterious moral qualities that we can summon any time, rather than products of mental states that arise from our circumstances and conditioning. In other words, I believe the parental sort of “no” we can sometimes tell ourselves is not always an option under our current mental state, but in hindsight we talk as though it was always there and you just needed to dig deep for it. There is a whole discussion around free will and what is a truly spontaneous act for a human being.

Dan August 6, 2020 at 7:24 am

Good luck with your experiment, David.
Gaining pounds, easy.
Losing them permanently, not so much.
Going public, by inviting your readers to view your log/chart is an important variable.
I’m going to try the experiment along with you, sans the public part.
I will also chart WHEN I eat, as I’ve had some (limited) success with the intermittent fasting practice that poster Jean refers to.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:00 am

Public accountability is hugely beneficial, and it’s the main reason I added experiments to this site. Best of luck with your campaign.

Elisa Winter August 6, 2020 at 8:03 am

If I tracked calories the way I track dollars and cents, I’d be 100 pounds thinner, no doubt. Every morning I look at checking, savings, bills due, credit card charges online, then make adjustments, and add important items to online calendar. It’s an absolute anxiety reducer. Every day I know where I stand in my very humble financial picture. These habits have ended the striving, mostly, because I’m still building up the six months emergency fund (only $6000 more to go). Where calories are concerned however, well, striving is where I’ve been all my life. It’s what makes pre-packaged systems so appealing, yet having done them, I know that it’s not helping with long-term success, because eventually the pre-package system must end. It works, but it’s not forever, hence continued striving. It’s exhausting, boring, irritating. Where is that one green pill I could take every morning and not have to think about, deal with, stress about calories?

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:04 am

There is a kind of comfort we gain from keeping ourselves in the dark. If you’ve ever been in a place where you almost didn’t want to know your bank account balance, you know the feeling.

In spite of that, as you mentioned, our anxiety is ultimately greatly reduced by seeing the numbers, because we know that they’re being accounted for anyway. You can hide yourself from your bank balance, but you can’t hide your bank balance from the bank. It’s the same with calories. We gain a small relief from not knowing, at the expense of a larger kind of stress that arises from knowing we don’t want to know.

Eric Nehrlich August 6, 2020 at 8:08 am

One of my coaches once shared the model of Intention, Attention, Action. To make a change in one’s behavior, we must first form the Intention to change, and tap into our Why for changing. Then we must pay Attention to our current behaviors and reactions, so that we become more aware of our unconscious autopilot routines that drive the current behaviors. Once we are more conscious and mindful of what we are doing, new possibilities for Action appear, driving new sets of behaviors that we can then build into habits (that eventually become the new autopilot routines). The problem with the grit and determination model is that it starts with Action and relies on limited willpower resources to avoid or drive Action. By starting earlier with Intention of what we want to change and why, and Attention to the current behaviors and motivations, we are more likely to drive long lasting behavioral change.

Also, you might appreciate Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct, which debunks these grit and determination ideas with science.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:06 am

Thanks Eric, that philosophy maps onto this nicely. I’ll check out Kelly McGonigal.

Cris August 6, 2020 at 8:25 am

Sorry, David, but tracking calories or whatever is much more painful than striving. Imagine having to worry everyday about everything you eat… The thing about grit and determination is that you have to use them in order not to enter the should I/shouldn’t I trap. Try changing that. First, know for sure what is good for you and then determine that you will stop that inner voice that wants to undermine your resolution before it starts speaking. That’s where you apply grit. Good luck with your experiment. I still think you will need determination and grit to keep counting those calories.

Leslie August 6, 2020 at 10:17 am

Cris, it’s interesting to me what you say about associating worry with calorie counting. I’ve always found it easiest to lose weight by tracking what I eat (not necessarily calories per se but the type and amount of food). I love lists, and building a daily list of things eaten is something I quite enjoy. David’s post and the various comments to it make me think there are multiple forms of motivation out there – or at least multiple stories we tell ourselves about motivation, what works and

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:18 am

I might be an anomaly but I have counted calories in this way before and found it quite doable. You are advocating exactly what I think doesn’t work, which is winning the rhetorical battles when they arise. People who find they are able to do this often attribute their success to the activation of this moral quality of “grit.” But if that is what’s happening, then people who find they are unable to do that must lack this moral quality.

Worrying about what you eat is something that happens anyway. Regardless of whether you keep track of intake, your body does and it won’t let you forget it.

I realize that calorie counting is a triggering proposition for many people — it just happens to be a form of WGMGM I am comfortable with. Initially I had an entire section discussing the taboo around calorie counting, but I cut it to save words. This article isn’t really about calories though, it’s about the inadequacy of the what I think is a harmful moral model for behavior change.

Fiona August 6, 2020 at 8:33 am

I’m trying to curb the habit of being in touch with someone after a long distance relationship came to a close. Not reaching out. Not sharing the day. Not saying goodnight. I over-indulged during the ongoing pandemic because the connection was soothing in a lonely place; did not want to face the pain sooner. I returned home and he emotionally ghosted me. Eventually, bad habits need their end point.

Fiona August 6, 2020 at 8:34 am

…. just as a I hit submit, I read “Don’t try, Intend” below. I intend to curb the habit …

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:23 am

I’m sorry. That is a tough one and I’ve been there too. Relationships also seem to have a certain amount of pain that has to be endured, and while it’s possible to prolong it needlessly, it’s not possible to rush it. I hope you are past the worst of it.

Fiona August 6, 2020 at 4:58 pm

Thank you

Charlotte August 6, 2020 at 8:52 am

Funny how the universe give you exactly what you need. I started back on MyFitnessPal this week after assessing my corona weight gain. I told myself the first week to eat what I normally would ‘just to see’ what I have actually been consuming. Since corona i’ve been trying to do 30 day projects/goals whatever you want ot call them to try new things, help me cope and hold myself accountable. Last month was eat more veggies-too vague, but I have made progress in meditating and exercising. I love this idea about spending $$. Thank you for your wonderful posts.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:35 am

If you haven’t tried it yet, YNAB is an excellent method of tracking spending. It’s kind of like the MyFitnessPal of money, at least in the ease of tracking.

Alice August 6, 2020 at 9:16 am

I modified my diet one month ago today and have lost 9 pounds. Unlike the folks commenting that intermittent fasting works for them, what is working for me is eating smaller, more frequent meals. I made a meal template so that on a busy day I don’t have to think about what to eat and when. I have modified the template as I discover what foods work for me. It frees me to not have to think about food or be driven by hunger, and I find that I don’t even think about pizza anymore.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:41 am

Interesting… The tactics that work seem to depend on the particular circumstances of the person. In my case, it is almost never hunger that is driving me to eat. I’m virtually always able to eat something if given the opportunity, and I can easily ignore hunger if I’m engrossed in an activity. I also suspect from the comments that my interest in numbers makes tracking a more palatable proposition for me than others.

Cultivating More Happiness August 6, 2020 at 9:19 am

I completely agree with tracking as a powerful tool! Many years ago, I stopped doing New Years resolutions and instead I decided on a few areas of focus for the year and track how much time I spent on them each day. This year I am tracking how much time I spend on meditation, exercise, reading, and learning Spanish, and then I threw in grams of added sugar each day as well. It is interesting to have the log to reflect on, and also just helps create more awareness and intention. Also for the past decade, I have been tracking my sleep, food, exercise, alcohol and coffee intake, and how I felt each day – to see if I can find any correlations between my habits and well-being. Some might consider this overkill but it has become part of my bedtime routine after all these years and has identified some interesting insights!

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:44 am

Hi Priya. We are kindred spirits. Tracking has always revealed a lot for me — with sleep, meditation, and everything else you mentioned. At the very least, it reveals the “easy wins” — the places where a behavior is costing me a lot and isn’t especially entrenched. Addressing those along can be huge.

Dax August 6, 2020 at 9:44 am

Pizzas and beers in support of local businesses haven’t helped…

I agree with the earier comments; tracking calories is hard.

Thankfully, things are opening up where I live. No more excuses for not hitting the tennis courts and the gym.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:47 am

Good luck Dax!

Those of you saying tracking calories is hard, I’m just curious if you’re aware of modern apps that facilitate it. They have nutrition databases in them, you can save common meals, scan barcodes. It’s far easier than it used to be.

Deborah Hurn August 6, 2020 at 9:57 am

David, the problem is not willpower… just carbohydrates. Cut them, cut the weight. It really is that simple. There are just three ‘families’ of food: carbs, fat, protein. So if you cut one you have to increase one or both others. The science is finally in on this, over only the last few years out of fifty years of high-carb dietary advice which has made us fat and sick. Deb

Alexandra Georgiana Dumitras August 6, 2020 at 10:18 am

We need to stop talking about carbs as if all carbs are the same. Cutting fruit ( carbs), vegetables ( carbs), whole grains (carbs) is nonsense. The blue zones ( areas where people live the longest around the planet) have predominantly high carb diets with little animal protein. They eat mostly whole plant-based foods. These are not the carbs making us sick. The processed white flour, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, etc…those are.
Most people in the developed world have high protein and high-fat diets not high carb by any means.

Alice August 6, 2020 at 10:36 am

There are just as many people saying, “Cut the fat, cut the weight.” Alexandra is right; not all carbs are alike. If you want some science, read up on hyperprocessed foods.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:50 am

I did think about doing a diet change, and may still one day. Assuming you are advocating the Gary Taubes view, I’m not so sure the science is behind him, but I’m open to any scientific resources you can share. I will almost certainly try a macronutrient-related experiment at some point. Probably eliminating added sugar and white flour.

Elizabeth August 6, 2020 at 10:23 am

The title of this post reminded me of the poem “The Little Blue Engine” and the final line: When the hill is steep and the going tough just thinking you can isn’t enough.

As i read though the comments it is clear that the key to success is finding what works for you, not others. I was on a pretty good path to losing the 15 pounds I wanted to when the stay home order hit. I’ve gained a few back, but feel I have done pretty well under the circumstances. One thing that works for me is to graph my weight once a week. There are ups and downs, but the visual of seeing an overall down trend is encouraging.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:53 am

Agreed. Perhaps the greatest source of confusion around “what works” is that what works depends on our individual circumstances. I think that’s a good reason to question prevailing wisdom (i.e. that success is attributable grit and moral qualities) but it also means that YMMV with a “tracking only” approach depending on the person and the issue.

Bhawna kapoor August 6, 2020 at 10:36 am

I have been applying this principle since 7 months now. And it works. I keep a beautiful journal where i simply record all my daily activities and keep a score. I will now put this quote from your post in my journal (a file actually, with sheet protectors) as it inspires me :

“”“What gets measured gets managed” — that simply charting the behavior will shape it in sustainable ways, whereas striving probably won’t.”””


David Cain August 6, 2020 at 10:55 am

Great. Is your journal a “bullet journal?” I’ve been doing that and it is definitely helping me on a daily basis.

Flora Snarrenberg August 6, 2020 at 11:24 am

The Myth of Grit and Determination
Ice cream one of my weakness I have under control, DO NOT BUY! If u do, buy only small containers!
My conundrum has to do with a dating site. I have been conversing with a gentleman for several months, in the beginning he mentioned he would let me know if he no longer wished to continue our talks.
I have texted 4 times, no response. Every date I say leave it alone or should I text again. I am counting/ measuring. What to do still I wonder.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 2:10 pm

Online dating is rough because ghosting is something you can’t do in real life, yet many people find it acceptable online. If you want my advice, I wouldn’t follow up more than once after not hearing back from someone.

Jan August 6, 2020 at 11:29 am

It is funny that after years of following the blog, my first comment here is about counting calories and not one of the more elevated topics that you write about. But I also had my month of tracking my eating habits during this pandemic, and using an app it was surprisingly easy – I see various comments above complaining how hard it is, but I really recommend trying. I learned some stuff (never thought that oils may be so caloric!) and I also felt this effect of not wanting the results to go all red. As a vegan, I also learned that my protein intake was totally healthy, despite all the legends about deficiencies :D But the same method of tracking does not work for me when it comes to expenses – I track everything, but it has little to none influence on my spending, even though I really want to limit it in some areas. Maybe lack of clear numbers to strive for – which you have when you know your daily caloric needs – is the issue here.

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 2:12 pm

I’m surprised tracking spending hasn’t led to any incidental changes. Do you use YNAB?

Jan August 6, 2020 at 3:08 pm

No, I use a regular excel spreadsheet. It works fine for me – I am aware what I am spending on and I can see the effects of any changes in my life. So for example when I stopped drinking, I could enjoy the financial effects of this decision. But for some time already I have been trying – as in “do not try, intend” – to limit my spending on food, and here tracking by itself had no influence – guess I should make some rules regarding my grocery shopping in order to change it.

Ahilsa August 6, 2020 at 12:02 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with the tracking thing. I spent a month just tracking my weight while making no other adjustments. I lost 3kg. Granted, I was in a good position to lose weight given I was almost obese to begin with.

However I disagree that grit and determination is bullshit. There is always this competition between thinking fast vs slow, short term pleasure vs long term good, subconscious thought vs conscious thought, whatever you want to call it. Didn’t Kahneman say that will/determination/grit is taken from the same resource pool as slow thought? Has that been debunked?

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 2:14 pm

Those words are used in different ways, so I don’t mean to say they are always fallacious. The “myth” I’m referring to is the idea that we have an inner motivational resource, tied to morality, that can be summoned at any time if just try hard enough.

PATRICIA August 6, 2020 at 1:27 pm

Hi David, I think tracking what you eat is precisely why Weight Watchers is so successful. I never dieted until I was in my 50s and found the need to do it. I was used to eating whatever, whenever I wanted. Willpower was never my strong suit. So I joined WW. The act of tracking really did make a difference. I don’t need WW any longer. Now, I easily maintain a steady weight. I still eat whatever I want, but rather than deny myself something I want, I limit the amount. (In other words, don’t bring the whole bag of chips out to watch TV, pour a portion in small bowl and put the bag back in the cabinet.) I also, still have a weekly Wed before breakfast reminder to “weigh in.” This weekly habit is also helpful. Good luck!

David Cain August 6, 2020 at 2:24 pm

I think a lot of it comes down to discovering your own idiosyncrasies, which tracking helps you to do. I don’t buy chips because unlike other foods, there is no amount I find satisfying. Eating a small bowl of them leaves me feeling like I’ve just been teased — I would have been happier with none than some. The alternative is to keep eating them until they’re no longer good, which is of course too many. So I just don’t get them, and that works well enough for me.

Johnny Goodyear August 6, 2020 at 2:29 pm

Yes. Precisely (sic). I was recently given a FatGit (fitbit) and for six weeks now I have been doing 20K a day. I have also given myself permission to do whatever else/eat whatever else I want. Just do the 20K. I have separated the two people. In past (and as seems common) if I eat your tub of B&J’s I will also forsake the walk tonight. No point. Now. Don’t care. Do the 20K anyway. And yes, of course, less B&J’s and more walks and less covidity.

David Cain August 7, 2020 at 9:32 am

I have done something similar, where I choose a singular daily milestone to hit rain or shine, and let everything else settle around that. It works a lot better than trying to tackle a list of changes at once. It seems like it would be possible to always be working on one of these standards, and then once it’s established, do another, monitoring the old ones in case they start to slip.

Amy Ward Brimmer August 6, 2020 at 3:12 pm

WGMGM – my new favorite acronym! I woke up this morning determined to treat my body better, as my dietary habits have fallen prey to the pandemic, just as you describe. I haven’t been weighing myself but my clothing tells me all I need to know about the pounds I’ve put on. So this blog was perfectly timed, as I have decided that I am free to eat anything, but I must write it down. In the past, just knowing I’d have to log that Cinnabon kept me from buying it. I don’t know that calorie counting or weighing is going to produce the data I need, but I do know that I can look at the list of what I’ve eaten and see right away where to eliminate certain foods and where to add others. This doesn’t take any striving at all, which is the beauty of it. Like your recent post, I have been really appreciating the power of intention, and discovering how different it is from planning and trying. It’s also easier to see where I missed the mark when I don’t fulfill my intention very well. There’s less room for self-blame when I simply recognize, “Oh. I intended X but didn’t see it fulfilled. Now what happened to prevent that?” It feels more like a course correction, less like “I messed up and failed.” This human life is not easy. Thanks for your continued shared wisdom.

David Cain August 7, 2020 at 9:34 am

The big difference for me between this and the conventional approach is the demotion of morality as a driving factor. Instead of self-scolding your way to a healthier life, you’re investigating your way there. What is working? What isn’t? What is doable for me right now that can work?

Mary McLean August 6, 2020 at 6:10 pm

I guess I have been using this approach for some time in 2 areas if my life. Money and golf. Golf first. I have come to the game late (in my 50’s and have some physical limitations.) I wont ever make it to the LPGA, but that’s not the idea of golfing for me. I started tracing my number of putts after a lesson where “par” was explained to me. It is always based on 2 putts to sink the ball. So par 3 means your drive needs to land on the green, par 5 gives you a drive and 2 fairway shots to get to the green. My driving is a work in progress and the shots in between are so variable..water, trees, other people’s carts, wrong fairway, you get the drift. So…. I started tracking when I made a 2 putt to sink the ball. And guess what? Without goal setting and all the anxiety around that I have an awesome “short game”, as they say. Golfers think I’m nuts the way I score …. i.e just tracking …but I often beat them on the green. The other is my bank account. Until I read this blog I thought I was just being obsessive!! I dont budget, just track my spending. I record in an app that is like a cheque book (if anyone remembers what that is!!!). I also write it down in a book. Just keeping track now stops me from impulse buying, and in these Covid times, I’m not tempted to buy online. I should be keeping track of wine calories… but maybe next year !

David Cain August 7, 2020 at 9:37 am

There’s a great refrain in the movie Pi: “When you graph any system, patterns emerge.” So when you start tracking metrics you haven’t before, insights about what works are inevitable.

Susie August 6, 2020 at 10:00 pm

I believe your tracking will result in less calories consumed. At least it worked for me. I lost 20% of my body weight using my fitness pal app to record food and exercise. It was not at all painful, and I managed to create some good habits in the meantime. I’ve kept the weight off for a year, even through COVID. We do takeout, but I’m aware of what I’m eating, and limit the high calorie meals and only do it at lunch. We eat very light dinners.

David Cain August 7, 2020 at 9:41 am

This discussion has made it clear that calorie counting is still regarded as logistically difficult, but technology has certainly changed that. There can still be a lot of psychological resistance to it, but I would guess that for most people it’s much easier to overcome that than trying to overcome every urge to consume that comes along.

Harry Che August 9, 2020 at 4:49 pm

I did something very similar before. I didn’t track calories, but only exactly what I ate. Not miss anything, even a gum, or a handful of nuts. I think people call this food journal. It did help make me mindful of what I ate thus losing weight. But the challenge is I can’t do this always. The sooner I stopped keeping food journal, it stopped working. I guess tracking calories would probably fair same. It’s not sustainable to track calories for the long run, so it’s probably not a long term weight loss solution.

David Cain August 10, 2020 at 10:32 am

When I have done this in the past I’ve experienced a kind of lingering positive effect even when I stop tracking. I think it’s because the tracking disrupts certain habits of momentum that have formed (such as opening the fridge when I’m stuck writing), and this effect continues for a while at least. Each person is a very different collection of habits so it doesn’t surprise me that we’d see different things happen when we stop tracking.

Astrid August 9, 2020 at 8:38 pm

I actually used to work at a survey place whose motto was “everything you watch gets better”. I don’t know if it’s true for literally everything, but it’s indeed true that the first step to improving a behavior is paying attention to it!

Calorie counting however never did it for me. I’d get massively food-obsessed (you have to be at least a bit to weigh broccoli and count almonds) and then spiral into restrictive eating followed by a weekend of weeping while eating every single thing I had denied myself.

It turns out the thing I had to pay attention to was actually my feelings. Like every human being, my relationship to food is largely emotional, and over time (and therapy) I realized I turned to sugar instead of people when experiencing strong feelings. And I’d seek comfort in takeout instead of carving out real time for relaxation in my schedule.

I also realized that I need to have chocolate once in a while or it becomes The Forbidden and as we all know, The Forbidden is attractive to the rebellipis children that sleep within our brains.

David Cain August 10, 2020 at 10:37 am

There is a great book called Mindful Eating, in which the author has you practice awareness of the subtle physical and emotional sensations that occur around food. There is so much going on and so much of it is emotional.

In any case I would be very wary tracking anything where you have noticed a susceptibility to obsessive thinking/behavior.

Steve P August 10, 2020 at 7:14 am

This is spot on, as usual.

I found that the “tracking” method really helped me move toward my goal of becoming low-animal-produce and then to vegan, simply by recording a tag of the emoji of whatever animal I had eaten (or cheese, eggs etc) alongside my end-of-day short journal (via the app Day One). Then, I could search for these tags and see my tendency to be consuming them going up or down, and this helped me check myself when deciding whether or not I wanted to eat another animal/product.

Eventually though, the “cut it completely” (aka Vegan!) approach won, because it causes less cognitive dissonance than deciding/justifying every time, but tracking certainly helped me get to that point where this decision became easy.

David Cain August 10, 2020 at 10:41 am

Ah that’s a clever idea. I have been living in an ethical limbo for years where I am no longer vegan, still averse to animal products, but consume them fairly frequently. I will have to address that one day but for the time being I’m living in that cognitive dissonance (and in many other areas too of course).

Flower August 11, 2020 at 7:46 am

Hi David,

I’ve been following your blog for a long time and over the years my ideas about food and bodies have slowly changed.

I believe you can do whatever you want with your own body but I’d like you to warn you against something.

Diets to lose weight don’t work in the long run. 95% of them fail after 2 years, with dieters gaining back the weight they lost and more. This is scientifically proven.

Moreover, dieting can lead you down a very dangerous path of disordered eating and over-exercising. I’ve experienced it. I became more and more obsessed with food, thinking I could not trust myself around food, and therefore creating even more rigid rules and punishing myself for eating. It impacted my social life, lowered my self-image and honestly took a lot of mental energy.

Calorie-counting is a big part of dieting and for many of us it’s the trigger that leads us to an eating disorder. Please be careful if you choose this path.

I healed from disordered eating by making peace with my body (particularly when I got fatter). I followed the movements called “body positivity” and “health at every size”.

I learnt that fat is not necessarily unhealthy. The health problems come from 1) the weight cycling which inevitably comes from dieting, and 2) the discrimination that fat people experience on a daily basis.

I know these ideas can seem counter-intuitive. I’m not asking you to believe any of it right now. But if one day you discover that dieting to lose weight doesn’t work for you, know that there’s another way. Health at every size.

David Cain August 11, 2020 at 9:35 am

Thanks for this perspective Flower.

There are a lot of different reasons people examine and attempt to change their diet. Mine is not motivated by any sort of ill-will towards my body. I love my body but I’ve fallen into some unhealthy eating habits since winter, and I want to treat it better. I’m tracking caloric intake because it’s a simple way to see more clearly what is going on in terms of behavior, and to be more aware of the costs of these habits (I’m well aware of the rewards, obviously).

Food and eating are very visceral and emotional, so there is always a danger of unhealthy habits, addictions, and disordered behavior. Of course, that is true of both overeating and attempting not to overeat. There are dangers to both intervening when you notice a problem, and not intervening, and either may constitute disordered eating. Reducing the amount one eats is not necessarily pathological, and in fact it is something the vast majority of people do.

The claim that “diets don’t work and science has proven it” is often made by media covering scientific findings but it is not something a scientist would say. The word diet just means “what one tends to eat.” Everyone is on a diet of some sort. Changing one’s diet intentionally is not at all uncommon, and obviously does creates physiological changes, some of which are beneficial. Drastic dietary changes (keto, raw, plant-based, and most fad diets) are particularly hard to sustain, which is why compliance is so low, hence the simplified claim that “diets don’t work.”

Major behavioral change is very difficult regardless of the area. This post is criticizing the traditional moralistic approach to it, where you’re just supposed to dig deeper and try harder and you can do anything. I don’t think that’s true, but being more aware of my behavior has helped me dismantle unhelpful habits and live in ways that make me happier and healthier.

I appreciate your input and wish you the best.

Flower August 17, 2020 at 3:04 am

Thanks for your reply, David. It’s interesting to know what you think of the topic.
I just wanted to point out that in the sentence “diets don’t work” the word “diet” means “altering eating and exercise behaviours in order to change one’s body (i.e. lose weight)”. The weight loss is not maintained after 2 years, and the more you try to lose weight, the shorter you can keep up with a diet.

Calorie counting can very easily lead to restricring and restriction leads to binge. The body wants to survive so it does everything it can to acquire energy.

I get the “awareness sparks change” thing. But for me calorie counting didn’t work. Since you do a lot of introspection in your experiments, maybe this can be an opportunity to notice how you feel, whether you find yourself in restrictive behaviours or in binges, whether food occupies a lot of your mental space, etc.
I hope this goes well for you.

Hannah August 11, 2020 at 7:32 pm

Great post, ive been following your website for about a month now, and i find it so refreshing.

I dont know whether this is mentioned in others’ comment, but I want to add another perspective:

I think another reason why its so hard to shred bad habits is because they are “comfort habits” (comfort food, comfort cigarette, comfort gaming..etc). Once the source of stress is eliminated, or reduced, its much easier to halt the bad habits (because theres less negative emotions to coverup). Covid made it hard to socialize with others, maintain financial stability, and that contributes to the bad habits.

David Cain August 11, 2020 at 7:36 pm

Hi Hannah. Definitely. I think we are still underestimating the emotional reasons behind unhealthy habits, and the degree to which they are entangled with everything else happening in life. Another reader sent me this article about the psychological factors in eating. I don’t agree with all of it, particularly the glib title, but I think it’s closer to a better understanding than the traditional one: https://aeon.co/essays/hunger-is-psychological-and-dieting-only-makes-it-worse

JCD August 12, 2020 at 5:14 am

You’ve totally explained why diarising food & calories is working for me, thank you
I started earlier in the year and continued even through lockdown, where my shedding of excess weight has continued, albeit a bit more slowly, excepting for my birthday week – really did need a cake as we couldn’t do go away ;)
Also tracking steps/rides too gives me a better picture of what works & I’m not “on a diet” just doing what works for me, walking/cycling more and considering what I’d prefer to eat

David Cain August 15, 2020 at 10:24 am

Totally… tracking is not the same as being “on a diet” in the traditional sense of an uncompromising hard limit on your behavior that you need to conform to “or else”

Tom August 14, 2020 at 10:25 pm

Eat the pizza, David. It’s ok. Life’s too short to not eat good pizza.

David Cain August 15, 2020 at 10:26 am

Nothing is off limits under the tracking paradigm, so there will be pizza.

However, what we eat is a major determining factor in how short life actually is

Tom August 15, 2020 at 8:10 pm

100% true. Was just being a rascal.

Maureen O'Connor Saringer August 15, 2020 at 10:11 am

Just had pizza last night. :-( I am pretty regular about tracking what I eat but I can see that if I’m under stress, I just sort of give up for the day – eat whatever, stop tracking, etc. thinking – “I’ll just start over tomorrow.” So my goal is like yours: just to track it honestly, and in my case it’s with a focus on hitting a certain number of grams of protein.

Always enjoy your posts. I hope you and your family are well.

David Cain August 15, 2020 at 10:29 am

Thanks Maureen.

I have a strong “try again tomorrow” impulse and I’m learning to distrust it. When I decide I can try again tomorrow, my brain rhetoric convinces me the rest of the day is the perfect time to overindulge, because it’s “off the record.” So now, when I start again, I start again right then, not tomorrow.

Rick Rodriguez August 20, 2020 at 5:26 am

I think sooner or later, almost every one of us comes to the point that to conduct such an experiment. Good luck!

Polly September 2, 2020 at 9:16 am

I read the numbers on your Experiment Log! :) I love reading the numbers! I have a rather persistent eating disorder, and daily logging and journaling help me stay reasonable around food. Logging and journaling help me stay centered, and they make it harder for me to lie to myself. “I ate a doughnut, so I’m fat now,” isn’t true. “I ate a dozen doughnuts while watching a movie, and that’s not a problem,” isn’t true either (for me). Vigilance without obsession is tricky, but I persist. :) Equanimity and patience are my friends as I try to manage an eating disorder (or anything else). I’ve found that neither medical doctors nor therapists offer much help. It’s a solitary road (but not unpleasant), and measuring-to-manage is key (for me). Thanks for everything, David. I’ve read your blog for years. Recently, when I decided to ditch all blogs and social media because the noise is just too much, I make an exception for your blog. :)

David Cain September 2, 2020 at 1:57 pm

Thanks Polly. Although it’s possible to get obsessed with numbers too, they do reveal the truth, and can undermine some misconceptions. I had the misconception that certain habits (I often make toast or cereal when I’m bored) weren’t worth doing anything about, and now it’s obvious that they are. For me numbers have illuminated the areas where it is easiest to make a positive change.

Polly September 2, 2020 at 11:07 am

That last part should read as respectful and appreciative, not flirtatious.

Kerrie September 10, 2020 at 1:40 am

Hey David, just wanted you to know I do read your experiment logs, since I discovered your blog I’ve read most of them going back over the years. I’ve considered doing my own! Perhaps you could consider why you felt that way this time and how it affected your approach once the idea seated itself in your consciousness. It’s my own wall as well.

David Cain September 10, 2020 at 9:50 am

Yeah… I’m not quite sure what’s behind it, I just know I feel it with many experiments. I’m excited early on and make some positive changes, and then I feel like I’ve reached a new place where I’m intensely uninterested in the experiment. It has a lot to do with the sense that I’m going through motions unnecessarily, I’ve already learned what I’m going to learn, and it’s kind of dishonest to pretend I’m doing this for my own sake. But I also feel like I’m just kind of talking to myself on the experiment log sometimes, because there’s usually no feedback or comments, and I feel like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic park when he’s still in the vehicle, giving his example about Chaos Theory to nobody at all, because they’ve already jumped out of the car because something more interesting happened… that’s what I keep thinking of anyway :)

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 2 Trackbacks }

Desktop version

Raptitude is an independent blog by . Some links on this page may be affiliate links, which means I might earn a commission if you buy certain things I link to. In such cases the cost to the visitor remains the same.