Thursday, July 16, 2015

It's OK To Cheat Sometimes

“Il meglio e nemico del bene.”

“The best is the enemy of the good.”

The saying is commonly attributed to Voltaire, and he did express such sentiments in multiple writings, but the idea probably goes all the way back to the caveman who took that first bone-jarring ride on a bumpy stone wheel (right up until he hit that first pothole and started thinking about pain relievers instead). It has recently gained new life in politics and leadership seminars and, if you’re like me, you are probably getting tired of hearing it, to tell the truth. It is, however, an aphorism with some important applications, and not just in the categories of Making Excuses and Passing The Buck. Its best uses come from more personal moments that won’t usually be shouted out from any stage or lectern.

When I received my diabetes diagnosis, it was a rather interesting health day, all around. I’ll be the first to admit that, prior to then, my health habits had been nothing short of atrocious. Most of my meals came out of a box from the Frozen Foods section. My job is almost entirely sedentary, and I was getting no exercise outside of work worth mentioning. Just about the only things I was doing right were I had stopped drinking sodas a couple years before, and I had quit smoking just a few months before. That latter one was after smoking up to two packs per day for about thirty years, so I’m pretty sure the quitting had not caught up to doing anything productive quite yet. In short, I was not just a health disaster waiting to happen. Running full speed toward that disaster was apparently the only exercise I was getting. Not terribly helpful.

My office does a health screening every year, toward the end of the year, for most of the basics: blood pressure, blood sugar, BMI, cholesterol, and that sort of thing. While it was not exactly a surprise, it was something of an eye opener when every one of those tests said something to the effect of, “Please consult your personal physician at your earliest convenience,” in the comments section. I’ve never been very good at doing what I was told, but I decided that time I should probably give it a try. My personal physician, entirely as expected, concurred with the tests in saying that it was past time for me to make some changes.

Heather and I went over the information and discussed the options. I was resistant, but only a little. This was not very long after we had lost my dad and, while my own issues were nowhere near so dire as to be immediately life threatening, it required no act of prophecy to determine what direction my road was heading. I am a stubborn man, but I can be reasoned with if you have a big enough stick. Those tests combined into being a mighty big stick.

I needed to make changes, so I made changes. That is one of the central principles I try to live by: Do What Must Be Done. All else can be discussed, questioned, ignored, procrastinated, or whatever else seems appropriate, but if it must be done then do it. Don’t waste energy and time fighting the inevitable.

Processed foods? Gone. Sugary sweeteners? None for me, thank you. Artificial sweeteners? Those are just another form of processed foods, so see point the first. And so on and so forth. We made diet changes. I discovered that fruits and vegetables are not the enemies I have always considered them (though I would still prefer they not be cooked, thank you). I started taking frequent walks. In a matter of months I dropped twenty pounds and brought all of those horribly high numbers down to acceptably human healthy levels. I owe an enormous amount of gratitude to Heather, who has not only been as supportive as anyone could have ever asked for, but who has also put quite a bit of work into this Get Healthy program herself, even though there was nothing wrong with her numbers. She does most of the cooking because, believe me, that is preferable to everyone involved (unless it comes off of the grill, people do not usually volunteer to eat my cooking), and the new diet involves making most meals from scratch. Yes I have a wonderful wife, and yes I know it.

It did not take long for me to be pleased with the results. When you’re that unhealthy, positive changes can stand out fast. I wasn’t the only one who noticed either. People at work began to congratulate me on the results, and even to ask how I had achieved them. I answered these questions as well as I could but, as always, I was quick to point out, “These things worked for me, but they’re just ideas. You’ll need to adjust them for you.”

I think it is important to remember that, for most things, there is no One Size Fits All solution. Human beings are walking sacks of variables and, while we do have plenty of overlap, we are still each as individual as fingerprints. I can suggest things that have worked for me, but you will need to compare that to your own set of variables to see how it fits. Sometimes, though I suspect rarely, the suggestion may be a perfect fit, and you may be able to plug it into your life with no adjustments and fantastic results. More likely, though, it won’t fit quite right and will require some adjustment, or it may not fit at all, but can highlight where some other idea may fit. Sometimes my suggestions will not do you a bit of good, no matter how much you file the edges or knock off the corners. We all have to figure these things out as we go.

There is one thing I found while making these changes that, though it might not be universal, does seem to have a higher than average amount of overlap. It’s simple, really: Don’t be a stick in the mud. Don’t be too rigid. Allow yourself to cheat occasionally. When it comes to diets, health changes, personal changes, and things of that sort, one of the leading causes of failure is It’s Too Hard. We set impossible standards for ourselves and then beat ourselves up when we don’t meet them. Setting yourself up to feel bad for missing your goals is not going to improve your chances of succeeding. In fact, if you’re already dealing with depression, anxiety, esteem issues - any of the concerns that we are here trying to figure out - you will have just made things worse. Don’t do that.

We cut out fast food, but I might grab a burger once or twice a year (and have water instead of a fountain drink, and make sure to add a salad, and maybe add an apple or some grapes for dessert). We cut out most sweets, but Heather will still make cookies occasionally, usually for holidays or birthdays, and I will usually eat a few (not more than one at a time, spread out over some weeks, and they were probably made with dark chocolate instead of sweet, and other minor adjustments of that sort). I could keep going, but I trust that you get the idea. Allowing yourself some small luxuries now and then makes it easier to adjust to the larger changes, and you can even adjust these luxuries so that they are a reward and still more in line with your new goals.

This also comes with a change in perspective. For many people, myself included sometimes, missing a goal ends up being an excuse to quit. “Oh well, I’ve messed that up, so there’s no point in continuing now.” This helps to remove that problem. The occasional cheat is factored into the plan, so it isn’t a goal-killing failure.

Keep in mind that you do have to be realistic about these things. It’s okay to cheat sometimes, but know your limits. In the preceding examples, grabbing a double cheeseburger with an extra order of fries and a large chocolate shake is not really the kind of cheating we’re discussing. That would be more like giving up.

This same principle can be applied to many things, not just to diet, but you’ll have to look it over a few times and compare the various angles to see where it will best fit into your life. The important thing to remember is that you are a human being, not a statue. Unless you are dealing with a medical condition that actually prohibits something, you are not built for rigidity. As almost every culture in history has expressed at one time or another, in one way or another, the tree that bends is less likely to break.

When done right, sometimes cheating isn’t really cheating at all.

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