Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tracking: salvation, not purgatory!

I've been doing the Weight Watchers thing for well over a decade now.  In reflection, I sometimes shudder to contemplate how many foods I've tracked.  However, if I think back a little more thoughtfully, I can realize that tracking has played a number of different and important roles for me in my efforts to reform my eating and exercise habits.

Early years (2000 to 2003ish)

What can I say?  I was a nutritional idiot.  I sometimes think back on the shear volume of ignorance I had about food, and it is terrifying to behold.  Examples include:
  • Kung Po Chicken is good for you.  It has chicken.  
  • Big bowls of granola are an awesome way to lose weight.
  • Fettuccine Alfredo is super good for you because it has broccoli.  
  • Salad with a cup of blue cheese dressing is much better than that piece of steak.
  • All wraps from the sandwich store are a great bet because all wraps are definitionally diet-y.  
  • Tuna salad is what you eat when you are being super disciplined.  
Believing these things and following up on them is what I believed would balance out the time when I knew I was gorging (deep dish pizza, omelets the size of a VW, etc.).  

Suffice to say, the day I started tracking POINTS was a giant wall of cold water.  Everything I knew was largely wrong, and every day I tracked was an education.  

Portion size was also a big revelation for me when I started tracking.  The notion that a full entre of Chinese food might be a bit too much for one person in one sitting was also a rude awakening.  

It is impossible for me to express the full degree to which tracking my POINTS was the game changer in the way that I live.  For the first time, I was making food choices with knowledge and discipline.  There is zero doubt in my mind that the exercise of tracking was the biggest reason I started losing weight. 

Final (?!) weight loss:  2007

At this point, I had lost a bunch of weight my first time around, and I was pretty consistently down 20 pounds from my peak of 240+.  However, I was still about 15 pounds from where I really wanted to be.  I started the year with tracker in hand (or on computer to be more specific), and I kind of waged war.  I once and for all re-did my breakfast and lunch routines with full knowledge of my POINTS each day.  I significantly reduced inter-meal consumption (at least before dinner), and I jacked up my Activity POINTS.  Finally, I reached my goal weight, became Lifetime and entered into maintenance. 

During this time, tracking was the diligent routine that allowed me to make a bunch of these hiugh impact lifestyle changes. 

Maintenance:  2007 to present

OK, it's now been close to 12 years from the first time I started tracking POINTS (now PointsPlus) values.  I will be the first to admit that I do not track on a regular basis.  My tendency is to eat the same things from breakfast and for lunch, and I know what those meals ring up.  I really don't eat during the day (on week days anyway) outside of an apple, a fat-free Greek yogurt or perhaps a Weight Watchers mini-bar.  My days are largely controlled, and at this point, tracking won't add much to the equation. 

This begs the question for grizzled veterans like myself:  is there any need or point to tracking anymore?  The answer is yes, and I just need to embrace it, but in a very specific way.  Here is how I'm now thinking about my tracking applications:
  1. Course correction:  sometimes after multiple weeks of travel, excessive socializing, etc., I can feel my better lifestyle start to slip away.  Intuitively, I know that if I ignore that this is happening then I will definitely start adding weight.  I now know myself well enough to know when this is slipping effect is starting to happen.  During these times, I can/will pull out my iPhone and start tracking away.  It gets my head back into the game, and it refocuses me on applying reasonable restraint.  
  2. Will power:  I have a basket of Weight Watchers mini-bars that sits outside my office.  They are largely for visitors and to encourage colleagues who might otherwise be afraid of me to at least walk by my office.  There are times that I look at that basket and seriously consider plowing through 3 to 4 of those little guys.  Mini bars are meant to be eaten one at a time and not by the bag full.  It is amazing to me how much my Tracker protects me from this temptation.  If I know that I will need to track the PointsPlus values of these little 4 second snacks, I will almost always divert myself to my refrigerator where I keep a collection of apples.  In this context, my tracker is kind of like my home security system.  
  3. Attacking persistent weaknesses:  I am the first to admit that I am a million miles from perfect on the program.  I can go pretty far off the reservation on weekends, particularly when it comes to grazing.  I still struggle with mindless munching, bordering on binging, after dinner, both home and away.  I also know that if I ever want to address these weak spots, I need a tool to help me get there.  In this context, I have recently been thinking about focusing my tracking on weekend days and post-dinner.  Per #2 above, I know that if I make myself track it, I will be much less likely to mindlessly munch.  If I can keep this going for a long enough period of time, then I have a real shot at establishing some healthier habits.  

Friend or foe?  I say definitely a good buddy.
There are two ways I can look at tracking:
  1. A tool for servitude (i.e., the wrong way):  This is when I look at tracking as a sentence of misery.  If tracking is something I have to do to its own end, it can be a pretty depressing thing to think about.  "Mr. Kirchhoff, the court has sentenced you to a lifetime of tracking with no hope of parole."  Looked at it this way, tracking is little more than a basic diet.  Who wants that?
  2. A really awesome tool to help me achieve something bigger (the right way):  When I think of tracking this way, it's very much like my iPhone or iPad.  They are super cool gadgets that let me do more stuff with more success and more ease.  I think of my tracker as my tool to help me achieve the changes in my life to which I aspire.  I really want to stop this post-dinner grazing thing once and for all.  My tracker can be an invaluable tool to help me get there.  The point is not the act of tracking by itself.  The point is achieving a higher level of personal performance and establishing better and healthier habits.  The tracker is simply the tool that makes me much more likely to get there.  
 In summary, tracking isn't really something to graduate from.  It really just a really great tool that I can use in different ways depending on where I am at the time.  When I look at it this way, it's my friend not my master. 

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it!



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Will the real Dave please stand up?

I haven’t been posting as frequently recently, through a combination of being overly busy and because I have been noodling on a new territory of self-scrutiny.  Get ready of a long, circuitous and somewhat odd post.

Still reading?

One of the aspects of maintenance that I struggle the most with is the following thought in the recesses of my mind:  that any day I will receive the following notice:

Dear Mr. Kirchhoff, 
We have reviewed our records, and it has come to our attention that your visa in our beautiful country has expired.  You are now in violation of our laws, and we are beginning steps to have you immediately deported. 
Thanks for visiting us. 
The citizens of Thin-landia.  

That’s right.  I am afraid that I will be discovered as an intruder and not a native citizen of the land of naturally thin people.  Now they want to send me back to where I came from, Heavyopolis.

Who Am I?

It’s strange how we rigidly define ourselves based on how we once were, particularly when it comes to body image.  It makes us second-guess ourselves, and it convinces us that we are ultimately doomed to trudge through life as the never-changing version of our former self.  It is though we see ourselves as being rubber band people who will inevitably snap back to what ever form we previously occupied.  While there are some arguments that are made on a biological underpinning of some of this, I also wonder how much of this elastic effect is in my head.  Like a lot people, I have a tendency to see myself a certain way, and I assume that image of myself must represent some inherent truth.

Over the past couple of years, I have taken an interest in studying up on Buddhist philosophy and it’s intersection with psychology.  Light reading, right?   Given their history of spending the last 3,000 years pondering and analyzing why people think what we think, I find the Buddhist perspective to be a fascinating one.  One concept I have been particularly intrigued by has been “reification”.

What is the definition of reification?  From Wikipedia:

Reification (also known as concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity.[1] In other words, it is the error of treating as a "real thing" something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea.


Here is my take on the concept as it applies to how I (and possibly others) think.  There is a natural tendency to construct an image of oneself, like a giant statue carved of stone, based on who I think I am.  I let others weigh in on the statue design by allowing them assign labels and identifiers that I gladly incorporate along with my own labels and identifiers.  I continue to develop this statue in my mind as an identity that must have some undeniable truth.  I convince myself that there is a “self” that is permanent and concrete and that any deviance from it is bound to crumble.   From what I understand, Carl Jung referred to this as the “shadow self”, a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts (again, thank you Wikipedia).

Buddhists would tell us two things:  1) this so-called self is not really real and that it is full of distorted thinking and self-misconceptions and 2) the process of then clinging to it ultimately makes us miserable.  They then go into their fundamental belief that there is no “self” and that we are all inter-connected beings struggling with the same basic stresses and sufferings.  People and things all change, and clinging to something or some self-image as permanent is fraught with frustration.  Their point is to suggest that the only path to happiness is to have compassion for our fellow planet-mate and to let go of our notion of this fake self.

At this point, it would be totally fair for you to say some combination of the following:  1) “Dave, thanks for your attempt to compress an incredibly intricate philosophical framework in a paragraph, and doing it in an only marginally accurate way.”  2) “Dave, this makes my head hurt”, 3) “Dave, you are a strange man.  BTW, can I borrow some Patchouli oil?”  or finally 4) “Dave, what does this have to do with your weight?”

My social and professional self-portrait gallery

As I wallow in self-examination, I realize that over my life I have periodically constructed identities/portraits of myself and that I have assumed to be true and set in stone…

  • When I was very young:  “I am not a smart person.”  I am slightly dyslexic, and I very much struggled throughout much of elementary school.  I assumed that others were much smarter and that my life would be somehow limited.  
  • Middle school:  “I am not a foxy guy.”  What can I say?  I was really tall and really skinny, and I had a face that looked like a pepper spray assault.  I didn’t help that I wore fashion-backward Toughskin jeans from Sears, and that I only had one eyebrow.  I was cute girl anti-matter.  I did receive a consolation prize:  I somehow found a way to manage through my dyslexia, and I started getting good grades.  
  • College:  “I’m a slacker.”  My skin had long since cleared up, and I gained enough body mass to no longer be a flight risk in a stiff breeze.  I also learned how to make one eyebrow turn into two.  Enjoying my new found status as a normal and socially activated person, I settled in for the identity of town idiot.  It was hard to find me without a beer in my hand, and I was not a model student.  I kind of assumed that I would ultimately end up being a fun guy with an uninteresting career.  
  • Work:  “I’m a hard worker, running from my past.”  I eventually got a little fed up with playing a supporting role in a college hijinks movie, and I found my work ethic again.  I worked my rear off in graduate school, and I somehow finagled my way into a job at a fancy consulting firm.  I have always thought it completely ridiculous that they took me in, so I worked my tail off there too.  Interestingly, my general feeling of being an unworthy imposter has been a useful source of fuel in my professional development.  Now, I am the CEO of a public company, and let me assure you, I wait everyday for the imposter police to storm into my office and shoo me back from whence I came.  All I can do to avert it is to work hard and do the best that I can to serve my company, the people that work for there and the members and mission that it serves.  

As I look back, my education and professional development has been impacted by seeing myself in a particular way and assuming that however I developed would be temporary because I was deviating from some “true self”.  I have continued to assume that the citizens of the country of Successville will ultimately cast me off their island because I wasn’t born there.

My weight and body image self-portrait gallery

My weight and body image have interesting parallels to my professional development.  My body can be comprised of three phases of identity:

  • Emaciated man:  this was the period of age 4 to 17 in which I was disturbingly thin.  Ribs could be counted and weight could not be gained.  Ichabod Crane was I.  
  • Big man:  this is the period of age 21 to age 34 in which I gained roughly 70 pounds at peak from where I was at age 17.  I became a big guy who was doomed to clean his plate of giant food as well as whatever was left on his neighbor’s plate (even if those leftovers were at a different table in the restaurant).  
  • Temporarily fit man:  this is age 35 to present.  This is the period in which I have been nursing my weight loss, becoming a pretty diligent exercise person as well as a reasonably careful eater.  I say “temporary” because I think I still assume that I am “big man” underneath this temporary state.  I assume that it is in my nature to eat compulsively because that is “who I am”.  

So here is my point.  There is no firmly defined “me”.  I am a collection of choices that I make each day, and I am constantly evolving, growing and changing.  I am not bound by who I was when I was age 7, 17, 21, or 34.  I am not bound by who I am today.  I can make choices each day that are wholly divorced from choices I made 10, 15 or 20 years ago.  I can either be unbound with a world full of possibilities and growth or I can calcify.

I am fortunate to live in a country of immigrants.  We all came from some place else, even the Pilgrims.  Our future can be defined only by the choices we make going forward.

Therefore, in response to the citizens of Thinlandia, I think I might stick around a while.   I have extended my visa, and I think I’m going to apply for permanent residence.