Health is NOT about choices
When people look to improve their health in some way, they generally frame their new lifestyle change as ‘making better choices’, and of course this makes perfect sense…
You choose the gym over Netflix
You choose a home-cooked meal over takeaway
You choose Coke Zero over regular
And so on, but is it really as simple as that?
I would argue that it’s not because each choice that we make doesn’t occur in a vacuum and it’s not usually a choice between two discrete things. When choosing whether or not to order a dessert, for example, you aren’t sat in a sterile room deciding between a slice of cake and nothing. Instead, you’re sat in a restaurant with friends who are all choosing cake, and you’re deciding between a desirable situation in which you get to eat an enjoyable dessert and follow along with your friends, or a situation where you have to be the odd one out, and you have to sit there and watch your friends enjoy their dessert while you get nothing other than a snarky comment or two.
And I’m not sure that’s really a choice. Allow me to use a metaphor here.
Let’s say you’re trying to be a drummer.
You look out at your kit in front of you. You have your drums, your tom-toms, and your cymbals. If you’re from a certain era you also probably have a cowbell. Well, when you’re sat in your seat, sticks in hand and pedals under feet you have complete freedom to choose what to hit, how to hit it, and how to combine that with hitting other stuff.
The choice is entirely yours.
But (assuming you can’t already play) it should be pretty obvious that no amount of choice is going to get you a decent pattern. Being a good drummer isn’t about choosing to hit the right things at the right time, it’s about having the skill to be able to produce patterns, and the muscle memory (the habit) of doing it so well drilled that it happens without thinking.
This is how most things work. Sure, if you want to lose fat you have to choose to eat fewer calories, and if you want to improve your health you need to choose to do some activity here and there, but is it really that you need to just choose?
Or instead, do you need to have the skills to know:
- How much food you need
- How much food you’re eating
- How to cook things that you’ll enjoy
- How to store those things, prepare them and bring them with you
- How to avoid temptation, or deal with temptation that can’t be avoided
- How to deal with social situations in a way that keeps you on track without making you a social pariah
- How to deal with going ‘off track’ without feeling guilty or letting that seep into the rest of your week
- How to stay active when you don’t want to and understand when you really do need to back off
- How to adopt an inclusive diet that doesn’t restrict your choices but still leads towards outcomes you want
- And so on and so forth?
And that’s before we talk about sleeping better, managing your alcohol intake, and doing everything else.
Every single ‘choice’ that we make related to health and fitness is less of a choice and more about the expression of a skill, and this matters because it totally changes the way we view things. If you want to be a drummer your choice is not about which thing to hit, but about learning how to play the drums. You choose to develop the skill rather than choosing to hit this, then that, then the other thing – that just happens once you get good at it.
When working to improve your health you don’t choose to eat differently, you choose to develop the skills associated with eating differently (opting for different foods, maybe tracking, learning how to deal with innumerable different life situations involving food, learning how to exercise effectively but enjoyably, and so on)
Understanding that you’re choosing to learn skills rather than do things massively helps you reframe the struggle that you will always experience when you first start out. If you want to learn how to play the drums, the truth is that you’re initially going to be shit at it.
And if you want to learn how to make better food choices, initially that’s going to be extremely hard, too.
And it’s not hard because you’re a rubbish person that lacks willpower or who will never succeed; it’s hard because it’s a new skill and learning skills takes ages for some people. Sure, some people pick those skills up faster than others, but just like it’s the case that looking to world-class drummers and asking why you’re not that good after your 2nd lesson, it makes basically no sense to compare your success in lifestyle management to that of someone who more than likely has some advantages – inherent or environmental – that you don’t.
Put more simply, getting frustrated because you haven’t mastered a skill immediately or because you “make bad choices” sometimes is just silly. Learning skills takes ages, it takes practice, and it involves a period of time during which you find it hard.
And the same applies whether you’re learning an instrument, mastering a language, picking up a sport, or trying to improve your health.
You have to choose to learn and improve at a skill.
The skill itself determines your outcome
If you’re not progressing towards the outcome, it’s not because you’re not good enough or that you’re not able to make the choice, it’s just that you need to practice more, give it more time, and maybe reflect on the specific skills that you need to master (which will be different to the skills someone else needs). It may also benefit you to work with a coach, who can help speed up the process.
Put simply, if you’re reading this blog at all then the chances are that you’ve already made the only choice you actually need to make. You’re developing that skill.
Now you just need practice.