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Falling off the wagon

These days, “falling of the wagon” means something different to each individual. For me, it represents a departure from the eating, exercise, meditation, and sleep foundation habits that I’ve worked hard to build into my life. Usually, it’s instigated by a change in routine that is either planned or unplanned. Routine changes can be as simple as a business trip or vacation, which send me off course in part because I use triggers and habit stacking to stay on track. A new environment or schedule sometimes doesn’t provide the prompts I’ve come to rely on to reinforce those healthy habits. Most of the time I can pick them back up upon my return, buy not always. Unanticipated life events can also disrupt the routine, particularly when they are emotionally charged. Both good and bad news have a tendency to throw a wrench in my plans because they encourage me to deviate from my regular schedule and set off a roller coaster of emotions. The impact of a single significant event is easier to identify, but often it’s the sum of several smaller events within a short period of time that causes this change. When it rains, it pours.

The funny thing is, I usually don’t notice that I’ve fallen off the wagon immediately. It sometimes takes weeks to realize what has happened because I am distracted by the new routine and dust takes time to settle. I’m sure that denial also plays a role. While the absence of the desired habits is one obvious way to identify the issue, I usually notice the undesirable behaviours that fill the void:

Bad word choices. There are a handful of words that I avoid using. When I’ve fallen off the wagon, I start to notice them creeping back into my conversations. One of my least favorite is the word busy, which I decided to remove from my vocabulary after reading this great post by Tyler Ward. There are few statements more void of meaning than “things have been busy”. Another word that drives me crazy is try, particularly when it’s coming out of my own mouth. This fabulous post does a good of explaining why. When I hear myself using such non-committal language, I know that I am overextended and need to take a step back. Last but certainly not least, are the duo of always and never, which are like nails on a chalkboard for me. This quote sums them perfectly:

“Always and never are two words you should always remember never to use.”
— Wendell Johnson

Decision fatigue. When my days are intense and the number of decisions I make spikes, by evening I don’t have enough mental energy left to make even simple, good choices. This decision fatigue manifests itself in many ways, but the most basic situations occur daily and are harmful: what to eat, whether to have another drink, should I make a 7-Eleven detour on the way home. Of course, not making decisions is also a form of fatigue and can be equally as detrimental. Both are dangerous because they not only undermine my foundation habits, but they can create new, negative habit loops that are difficult to break.

Emotional eating. Chocolate and other sweets are where I turn for pleasure when I’m in the trough of that emotional roller coaster. When I’m stable, it’s relatively easy to use these tools in order to curb the desire to over indulge. Unfortunately, they become much harder to stick to once decision fatigue sets in. Never have I lived in a place where food was more accessible and instant gratification more, well, instant. As much as bubble baths, massages and well-worn sweatshirts provide comfort, none of them are nearly as ubiquitous as sweets in Hong Kong.

Poor prioritization. While I have gotten much better over the years, I still have a habit of over extending myself. I have many interests and can easily get excited about new ideas. This lack of focus becomes exacerbated when I’ve fallen off the wagon because I don’t take the time to ask myself whether an activity or commitment truly reflects my current priorities. If I don’t catch this problem early, I can easily put myself into a situation where I feel obligated to participate in an activity or follow through on a commitment that doesn’t support my goals.

The first thing I do when I realize I’ve fallen off the wagon is throw a pity party. Sure, it’s maybe not the most productive action, but I find it’s better to get it out of my system so I can move on. Once the pity party is over, I do the following:

  • Cancel all non-essential activities for the next week that don’t support the habits I want to rebuild
  • Go for a run
  • Take an afternoon nap
  • Make myself a healthy dinner
  • Meditate for 30 minutes

The list may seem simple, but I’m basically doing one activity that supports each of my foundation habits that I want to reinforce. Actually performing each of these actions reminds me how good they make me feel and why I incorporated them into my life in the first place. All of these activities also require me to slow down, which does not come naturally to me. Finally, they all help increase mental energy. After writing this list, it’s easy to see how bad word choices, emotional eating and poor prioritization could all stem from decision fatigue. I’m going to focus my efforts on designing habits and structures that reduce it’s impact and see where that takes me. I welcome any recommendations or tricks that you find helpful in pursuing that goal!


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