Nobody starts off a health kick with the intention of giving up a few weeks later. No one resolves to lose 20kg with the intention of gaining an extra 5kg instead. But these things still happen. One thing leads to another, and the next thing you know, you’ve sabotaged your own health goals.
But why do we do this? Why do we set goals that we’re excited about, only to chuck them in within months, weeks or even days? The answer lies in our tendency towards short-term thinking.
What is short-term thinking?
Short-term thinking is any kind of thought or decision that gives you something rewarding in the short-term, but might be sabotaging your long-term goals. Every time you make a decision to do something to relieve you or calm you or make you feel better straight away? That’s short-term thinking.
Why do we go for short-term thinking?
Because humans like quick wins. We like to put in a little bit of effort (or none at all!) and experience a pay-off. That’s why we go for something that’s going to make us feel better quickly.
The prime directive of your unconscious mind is to protect your body. So it is always telling you to either move away from something that causes pain, or to move toward something that gives you pleasure.
For example, you come home from a hard day at work. You’re worried about your job stability. Your unconscious mind sees the pain that this is causing you, so it wants to direct you away from thinking about it. It directs you to the jar of cookies that give you a little sugar rush and a hit of feel-good brain chemicals.
Your unconscious mind doesn’t really care that you’re on a health journey. It isn’t interested in forming long-term healthy habits. All it wants to do is protect you from what it thinks the immediate danger is.
Short-term thinking in daily life
Short-term thinking and sabotage isn’t just about health goals. It can impact on many other aspects of your life. Think about it: have you ever done any of these things?
- Eaten that bag of chips or tub of icecream to make you feel better in the short-term, even though you know it’s sabotaging your long term goals
- Grabbed yourself a bunch of ‘bargains’ when you’re out shopping, only to realise that you don’t even like or need half of the things you bought
- Picking up takeaway on the way home because you’re too tired to cook, even though you know it will make your kids absolutely feral the next day
- Spent the day watching funny animal videos instead of working on some long-term goals you have (no? It’s just me?)
All of these are examples of short-term thinking. We all do it sometimes – it’s natural to do so. Recently, I had a rough day – a lot of stuff was going on with work and the kids. When I got home, I was too tired to cook dinner. I just wanted a Hershey’s cookie pizza! That was the food that was going to make me happy in the short-term.
How to focus on long-term thinking
There’s nothing wrong with short-term thinking sometimes. But if it’s sabotaging your health goals, there are ways to switch over to long-term thinking instead.
Find your reasons
If you find yourself eating something for a quick fix, stop. Just for a second. Ask yourself a couple of little questions:
Is this something that I really want to enjoy and savour? Or am I eating to distract myself from something?
Does this food taste as good as I anticipated? Or am I just eating it because it’s there?
If you truly want to enjoy that food because it is your favourite, then go ahead and eat it slowly. But if you know that it’s simply distracting you from your emotions or it doesn’t taste that great, asking the question gives you a chance to choose again. To put down the cookie, or to only eat half of the cake.
Long-term thinking doesn’t mean depriving yourself all the time. Unless you have diabetes, Coeliac disease or another specific disease that prevents you from eating a food, there’s no need to restrict yourself constantly. Healthy eating is all about eating well most of the time.
Deal with your emotions
When we go for the short-term fix, it’s often covering up an emotion we don’t want to deal with. And unfortunately, a lot of the short-term fixes are terrible for long-term wellbeing! Gambling, cigarettes, alcohol, junk food and spending money are common ways to fill the void and distract from the feelings.
Instead, look for a healthy way to deal with your emotions. Pushing away emotions will only make you sicker in the long run! So have a cry, scream at the top of your lungs, dance, go for a run, or write it all out in your journal. All your unconscious mind wants you to do is to acknowledge and deal with how you feel – after that, the desire to cover it up will melt away.
Once you understand why you eat, what you eat becomes easy.
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And remember: Health is not a size, it’s a feeling!