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Automated Eating: How Paying Taxes makes you Healthier

Jeremy Hendon | October 7

It’s all about the IRS

Taxes and Your HealthMost of us have had a job at some point or another. I remember when I got my first job (much longer ago now than I care to admit), and I figured out how much I would be making working 40 hours per week. I was pretty excited, and I started planning how much money I would save.

Two weeks later, I was slightly devastated. I got my first check, but it wasn’t nearly what I thought it would be.

I like to think, even at that age, that I wasn’t completely naive or stupid. I knew that taxes would be deducted from my paycheck, but I wasn’t fully ready for how much it would be.  As most of you probably agree, whether you support our tax system or not, when it comes to your own paycheck, you’re never quite ready for how much is going to be deducted.  It’s always a bit of a shock.

Despite my astonishment, it got me thinking. Why does the governmennt require that taxes be deducted from each paycheck rather than paid at the end of the year?  There are 2 obvious reasons that most people would point to:

  1. So that the government has money to operate on prior to the end of the year (a tribute to the budgetary planning of our governments), and
  2. Because more people might try to avoid paying taxes if they only had to pay once a year.

Both of those reasons are fine and valid, but if those are the only reasons you came up with, you’re missing the biggest reason of all:  If most people had to pay taxes only once per year, THEY WOULDN’T HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO PAY WHEN IT CAME TIME TO PAY.

Here’s what would happen to a majority of people: Ms. Jones (an honest citizen intending to pay her taxes) would know in the back of her mind all year that she needed to save money in order to pay her taxes on April 15th. But when her friends invite her out to dinner, she’d think to herself, this one time won’t hurt – I can just save more next week. Same idea when she sees a new dress or phone that she really really wants. By the time April came around, Ms. Jones would be in a panic because she’d have no way to come up with the taxes that she owed the IRS.

Most of us simply wouldn’t be able to make a voluntarily decision every week to put aside a certain portion of our income, and we’d end up in a rut when it came time to pay.  Consequently, the government has made the rather wise decision to automate the process.  Interesting story, but what’s this got to do with being healthy, losing weight, or sticking to a diet?  I was hoping you might ask that, because…

Really, it’s all about FOOD

CheeseburgerGiven that most of us would be incapable of setting aside a certain percentage of our income each week (and not just for taxes – how many of you save as much as you should for retirement or other future expenditures?), what makes you (or any diet guru) think that most people can possibly succeed at making daily decisions to eat healthy? (This is not a trick question).

At this point, I hope that you can understand why I’m continually boggled that individuals think they’ll be able to make healthy eating and exercising decisions on a daily or meal-by-meal basis. There are some amazing people who can do it, but they’ve more often than not had years of practice (and failure) before getting it right.  In general, though, the majority of us can make a few good decisions before we fall back into old habits, which are almost never good (else why would we be trying to diet or get healthier in the first place?).

The tax story at the beginning of this post is not meant simply to show that people are generally incapable of planning ahead and following through on a long term plan. I could have spent much less time writing and refining this post if that were my primary point of emphasis. Here’s the bigger point that I want to get across:

If you want to succeed at a diet, one of the biggest keys to success is to learn from the tax analogy (and this may well be the only time in your life when I or anyone else ever suggests that there is something you can learn from the tax system). The following are the 2 main lessons that you must apply to your diet or other attempt to get healthier:

1. Like taxes, any successful diet must be automated; and

2. To the extent possible, eating healthy must be involuntary, rather than a choice made at each meal.

Successful dieters put in place SYSTEMS that incorporate these 2 concepts as much as possible, but writers and health experts are much more likely to focus on small tips and tricks that supposedly work wonders.  Even the good health experts do this.  Take for instance, Dr. Oz.  I don’t agree with all of Dr. Oz’s advice, but I think the guy genuinely wants to help people get healthier, and I think he has actually helped a lot of people – he’s definitely one of the good guys even if you don’t agree with his diet recommendations.  However, if you watch his show (which millions of people do), every episode is aimed at a couple of relatively small things you can do to cure a particular ailment or to generally get healthier.  As a side note, I understand why a TV show such as his must be structured this way, but here’s the problem: even if his recommendations are good, most people just don’t have the systems in place to implement the recommendations on a consistent basis

It’s sort of like trying to race a car before you know how to drive.  If you don’t have the system in place such that you automatically know to press the gas to go and the brake to stop, all the nuances of racing (drafting, tire and gas preservation, etc.), won’t matter at all.  Perhaps we should get back to the diet, in which case…

Let’s Start with AUTOMATION

automated eating and dietingI’ve talked in previous articles about the concepts of decision fatigue and generally falling back into old habits once we no longer have the willpower or energy to make a ‘good’ decision. Just as an example, you might choose at breakfast and lunch to eat the healthier food options, whatever they are, but by dinner, or after you’ve just been through a stressful situation at work, it’s going to be extremely hard (or almost impossible) to CHOOSE to eat the grilled chicken and broccoli rather than the sugary, delicious piece of cake.  Put simply, at some point, you’re going to break and make the wrong choice (probably over and over again).

Given that you can’t guarantee that you’ll always make good deisions in the future, it’s imperative that you make desicions ahead of time as much as possible. That way, you ensure that you’re not making decisions when you’re tired, stressed, or out of willpower.

The simplest and most effective system you can use to auomate your dieting is to prepare personal meal plans at least a few days ahead of time. Here’s what I do:

1. Every Saturday (preferably in the morning), I sit down and WRITE OUT what I’m going to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for the next 7 days.

2. At some point Saturday or Sunday, I go out, buy groceries, and then make sure I’ve got food prepared according to my meal plan for at least the first half of the week.

You should note a couple things about this system. First, it’s very simple. I actually do much more and have other systems (for instance, I also track everything I eat on a daily basis), but if I were starting over, I’d do it with just this system for a couple months. Second, it’s written down.  You can do it in a spreadsheet, Tweet it, or chisel it into rock for all I care, but you must find some way of getting it down in recorded form.  If it’s just in your head, it doesn’t count.  Lastly, the system allows me to make one decision for the week, rather than a string of decisions at each meal.  Each of my meals for the week is automated, so I already know what I’m going to eat, rather than choosing each time I’m hungry.

I can already hear some of you screaming "I’ll cheat even if I plan out all of my meals."  Yeah – ME TOO – but guess what?  You’ll cheat a lot less, and once you do cheat, you’re still more likely to go back to your meal plan than you were if you hadn’t written it down and prepared the food. 

The other objection I sometimes hear is that people can’t even find the motivation to write out a meal plan or prepare meals ahead of time.  Look, I’m not a magician.  I’m giving you systems that work for many, many people, but if you don’t actually take the time at some point each weekend to spend 10 minutes preparing a meal plan and actually write it down, then you’re reading the wrong website.  I’d like to help as many people as possible, but you have to start somewhere.  This site is called Simple Health, not Effortless Fat Loss, even though I could probably make a lot of money with the latter.

The very simple system that I described above is something that you absolutely must have in place unless and until always buying healthy groceries and preparing healthy meals ahead of time is a solidified habit.  If you write it down one week and then think that you don’t need to plan it out again the following week, then you’ve abandoned the system and will almost certain fall back into old habits.  My systems work for many many people – you can and should modify them as necessary to fit your life and circumstances, but YOU MUST ACTUALLY PUT THE SYSTEM INTO PLACE.  All of this brings me to the second characteristic of a successful dietary system:

YOU CAN’T GIVE YOUR FUTURE SELF ANY CHOICE

hands-tied-dietingIn other words, the system must be INVOLUNTARY.  At least as much as possible.

Taxes are easy like this – you don’t ever get the money that the government is taking out of your paycheck, so you literally have no choice (assuming you’re not self-employed or something).  Food – well – that’s a sadly different story.  Unless you move out to the middle of nowhere, where you actually couldn’t get to a supermarket or fast food joint, you’re always going to have the possibility of obtaining unhealthy food.  But…

You can make it much harder for yourself.

When I wake up in the morning, I’m pretty hungry.  I wander into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, cabinets, or wherever else I keep food, and I glance over all of my options.  And guess what?  There is literally NOTHING UNHEALTHY that I could eat in the morning.  I have no cereal, no bread, nothing sweet, and no juices, or anything else that might tempt me to be unhealthy.  Here are the things that I DO have available in my home: hard-boiled eggs, sauteed spinach, faux-rice (made from Cauliflower, Brocolli, etc.), and certain other foods, all of which I deem worthy of helping me stay healthy.  (Note: I have strong views about what foods are and are not healthy – a topic I explore in detail elsewhere on this site; however, if you’re getting caught up on what I have available for breakfast, you’re missing the whole point, and you need to try slapping yourself a few times and then starting over at the beginning). 

So what’s my point, other than to make you wonder if I’m slightly obsessed (I am)?  You can’t make it impossible to eat badly, but you can make it much much harder.  If you don’t have bad food in your house, you could always go out and get some from a restaurant or grocery store, but in most cases, you won’t.  It’s a hassle, and even if you do it on occasion, you’re not going to do it most of the time.  Got the idea?  Here’s another simple system to accomplish this:

At home: Throw or give away all of your unhealthy food (and, of course, don’t buy any more – try going grocery shopping immediately after you’ve had a big meal). 

At work: Take your lunch, even if you must eat out.  In the latter case, eat your lunch just before you go out, so that you will be almost unable to eat anything other than a small salad or something. 

Golden Rule: Avoid situations where you might possibly choose to cheat on your diet

Before the advent of cell phones and certain other devices, there was a concept that people utilized to organize and order their future actions.  It was called PLANNING, and I’ve heard stories about people who used this concept in radical ways.  For instance, it’s said that, once upon a time, 2 (or more) people used to be able to meet up at a specific place and time without calling at that time to say that they were going to be half an hour late. 

If you can convince yourself that this magic that I call planning actually exists, you can avoid making bad dietary decisions primarily by planning out how to avoid having to make the decision at all.  If you know that you typically go to the vending machine at work at 4pm every day to get a cookie or some chips, you can (a) make sure that you don’t have any cash at work, thereby making it impossible to get anything out of the machine without borrowing money from someone and (b) you can eat a healthy snack that you brought with you at 3:30pm, making it that much less likely that you’ll even want the 4pm snack.

IT’S REALLY THAT EASY?

You’re feeling thinner, leaner, and healthier already aren’t you?  If so, you’re probably confusing the concept of SIMPLE with the concept of EASY.  Putting these systems into place IS simple, but it requires you to actually take action.  Fortunately, unlike most diets (which almost always fail in the long run), putting these systems into place does not require you to take as much continual action.  If you can spend 10 min
utes a week planning and a couple hours a week cooking (only 2 decisions and not very much of your time), then you’re well on your way, but it’s not a magic bullet. 

If you really want to dominate your personal health, you’re going to need to use these systems to optimize what you eat (my next post – finally focused a bit more on actual nutrition), and you’re going to need to find a way to occasionally reinforce your willpower (a later but extremely important post). In the meantime, do me a favor and let me know in the comments below the ways in which you actively remove choices from your life (even outside of nutrition and dieting).  How do you make sure that you won’t have the opportunity to make a bad decision?