Tis the season for travel, often to famous, historic, and much-visited cities. That’s the problem: you may have decided to go where millions of others also decided to go too. Your magical trip is at risk of becoming an overheated, overcrowded nightmare. Here’s a tip to make it more fun.

Go visit all those famous sites – in London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome, or wherever –early in the morning or late at night.

apple and donut

I learned this two and a half years ago when my family and I visited Rome during the winter school break. Since that period included Christmas and New Year’s, Rome was overrun with tourists, especially tourist groups. But believe it or not, I walked into the Pantheon and was entirely alone – at least for about 5 minutes, before I was joined by two others. How did I do it? Did I pay a bribe? No, but – hmmm – maybe that’s an idea to consider for the future. Instead I made it a habit to get up early and walk around the city, as my family slept. I made it to the Pantheon just as it was opening at 8am – not exactly the crack of dawn, you’ll notice – and was the only tourist who walked in.

I learned something else when I was in Berlin – oh so briefly – last year. I walked around the city at midnight. It was surprisingly crowded with German high school groups, a scenario which just added to the vibrancy and sense of security I felt walking around in the middle of the night.

What about sleep, you ask? Hey, you can always grab a nap in mid-afternoon.

Thoughtlessly Healthy

Our brains are so miraculous that it’s easy to forget that they have limitations. After all, our brains give rise to our minds – our aware and self-aware, conscious subjective experience – and to our selves – our internal, stable, and consist point of view. Our brains allow us to discriminate between hundreds of wavelengths of light, which we perceive as different colors; and thousands of different air pressure waves, which we perceive as different pitches and timbres of sound. We can do the calculus – at least we could years ago – and we can read minds by the expression on a friend’s face.

Oh, how miraculous are our brains! We should pause here to thank God (or at least the universe) for bringing us into existence.

Our brains, being as wonderful as they are, make it easy to forget that they have dramatic limitations. Most obviously, they can only process incoming stimuli for about two thirds to three quarters of the time. The rest of the time, we’re sleeping. And if don’t sleep, we quickly perform worse, become irritable, eventually psychotic, and then die.

Our brain’s limitations are wide-ranging, even when awake. So, mother nature, through evolution, has led to all kinds of shortcuts our brain’s take, while compromising our survival abilities as little as possible. We have limited decision-making abilities; that why Steve Jobs always wore the same outfit, so he didn’t waste his limited daily allotment of decision-making capacity on something of little importance to him. These types of limits also arise within the functions of attention, processing new information, engaging in purposeful action, and so forth.

One trick our brains developed to conserve limited resources is the use of habits. A habit is defined as an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary through repetition. Habits are never completely erased, however, and even after years of not engaging in a habitual behavior, a habit can come back to life under the right circumstances. Despite this, we can develop new habits that will tend to keep old habits at bay.

Today, I’ll use dieting as an example of a health behavior you may be engaging in right now. When you first change your diet, you remain ever vigilant. You may count calories, deny yourself snacks, weigh yourself daily, remain hungry, and drastically change what and when you eat.

This is to the good, but it’s important to make these behavioral changes in a way that maximizes the probability that you will establish new habits. You want to convert the effortful, fully aware, and vigilant approach to eating with a habitual involuntary approach to eating that meets your health or weight goals.

Habits can develop more quickly and be more resistant to disruption if they are consistently applied. You can optimize this consistency by developing rules and routines. When you add all your techniques together you have developed your own weight loss system. Here are some tips to do so effectively.

  • Develop eating rules: an easy rule to make is to decide that you will drink only calorie-free beverages. Instead of sodas or juices, you can switch to water, unsweetened tea, carbonated water, or water flavored by fruits or vegetables, like strawberries, mango, or cucumbers. Now, you can decide on a different rule, one with some built-in exceptions, such as to allow yourself one coffee a day with cream and sugar, the way you love above all other ways. Even with exceptions, many people can forego hundreds of daily calories by changing what they drink.
  • Develop new routines: this approach entails making changes in your life that go beyond changing an eating rule. For example, most people have a habit of eating in certain situations or times of day. For me, there are two times of day during which I eat mindlessly, that is, I eat not because I’m hungry but rather because I have an urge to eat. One time of day of mindless eating for me is when I return home from work. I’ve developed the bad habit of going right to the fridge and eating hummus covered with Louisiana hot sauce and scooped up on tortilla chips – talk about a cultural mash up! And another time of day of mindless eating is right before bed, when I reach for something sweet, like cookies or chocolate. To break the connection, for example, of stepping into the house after work and eating right away, I’ve had to change my routine. Now, I come in, go upstairs, change my clothes, wash my face, and do some push-ups. The strenuous physical activity suppresses my eating urge. When I do finally make it back to the kitchen, I drink a large glass of water and am usually good until dinner.
  • Step-wise approach: some people find that making a dramatic change in every aspect of their eating habits all at once is the way that works for them. But for most people, this drastic change does NOT work or, rather, it works for a time until it doesn’t. The drastic change approach often works only as long as the person remains vigilant and fights their urges on an almost full-time basis. If you’ve ever tried this drastic change approach and failed soon enough, don’t blame yourself: it’s an approach that fails for most people. An approach that has a higher chance of being sustainable, is the one change at a time: establish a circumscribed new healthier routine and avoiding introducing another one, until the first one becomes habitual.
  • You can’t go hungry all the time: if you choose a diet that causes you to be hungry most of the day, it will fail! This is common sense that is not so common. We are not built to live with perpetual hunger or perpetual thirst. Of course, there are limits and exceptions to this rule too. For example, when I limit my fast carb intake, I can feel hunger pangs for two-three hours without developing that nervous, hypoglycemic feeling. I feel great and the hunger pangs are a pleasant feeling. When you’ve experienced hunger pangs that are associated with a calm alert state, then you know what the French mean when they say “Bon appetit!” Isn’t it funny – and bad – that we don’t have an analogous phrase in English? I wonder if it contributes to Anglo-sphere countries having some of the highest obesity rates in the world.

OK. Now it’s your turn. Tell me what you do that works when you are establishing healthy habits. I’ll follow up with additional tips in the future.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

“A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.”
― Erasmus

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
― Mark Twain