Of Willpower and Whirlpools

Do you ever blame yourself for not having enough self-control? You think, “If only I had enough willpower and resolve, I would be able to push through this and stay on track.” For those of us who are working to improve our health, it can be very confusing when it comes to willpower. Sometimes a challenging situation will arise, like bagels in the breakroom, and it is easy to navigate that situation. But then, there are other situations that completely deplete our reserves of willpower and bad habits take over. Driving us backward, and then comes the dreaded vortex of shame, “I can’t believe I did it again!”

Let’s start this post by saying, falling into the groove of a bad habit is normal, and should not be received as a source of shame. I hope that by the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of what is really going on when we (all) fall back into bad habits from time to time.

Sometimes habits become encoded in the brain, and they are activated by a situation. If I am attending a holiday with my extended family, I will eat and drink much more than I would at home. That response is an encoded habit for me. If I go to the movies, I’ll want popcorn – another encoded habit. Think about yourself, what situation would activate an encoded habit? You find yourself in a situation, and internal forces wake up to trigger a response. The situation and the habit work together and suck you in as if you were in a whirlpool on the ocean.

Imagine the rotating current is the encoded habit. The opposing arrows represent a situational cue that puts the habit into action. Willpower is no match for that amount of force.

Top 5 Strategies for Breaking Bad Habits

  1. Avoid the situation – if you don’t want to eat the bagels don’t go into the staff room.
  2. If a situation can’t be avoided, make a detailed mental story – if I’m going to a wedding I will wear an outfit I feel great in, I will eat 3 hors d’oeuvres and my entree, and spend the rest of the time socializing and dancing.
  3. Create a network of others to draw strength from, I am going to face a challenge next weekend like going to a winery, so I will talk about it with my weight watchers community to help me focus on what I really want.
  4. Disrupt a situation by inserting a new cue – I come from work and sack out on the couch but no – my workout clothes are there waiting for me to put them on. I work out instead.
  5. Find new rewards that will develop healthy habits – Instead of rewarding myself with a latte for a job well done, I put the money in a jar and let it collect there as a reminder of all I am accomplishing. Then spend it on something bigger and better.

Beware, bad habits. Steer your ship away from those insidious whirlpools. For they have no choice but to suck you back into the old lifestyle you are trying to escape. This journey is all about making the most of the situations you find yourself in, avoiding unhelpful situations, and building momentum for the good. You are the one who decides how this will go – never doubt that you are powerful! We got this.

Just for fun

Remember when we were all watching videos of sea chanties?

If you’d like to learn more about Whirlpools, this is a great video:

Weighing in…

I am part of the Weight Watchers community, and lots of members are talking about the company’s decision to partner with another company called Sequence. Now members will have the option to use pharmaceuticals to help them lose weight. Some members are having a hard time with this decision because they feel it is contradictory to the beliefs of the organization.

Dealing with obesity takes a tremendous toll on the health and well-being of many people. It’s not for me to judge anyone’s choices. I just want to support my friends who are on the journey. As for me, right now, I think I am learning a lot about myself on this journey. My plan is to keep working the program and to reflect on my process. So far today has been a good one on plan. I made time to sit and eat breakfast in the morning. I packed a low-point lunch and snacks that I ate during the workday. I did not eat any candy, even though I spent the day with that candy bowl. Instead, I ate a clementine, it was quite refreshing and sweet. And, I’m going to set an Implementation Intention to work out later this evening here goes;

I will use the Peloton for 20 minutes at 8:15 pm in my bedroom.

Jenn Hayhurst 3/9/23

The only thing I feel a bit discouraged about (not always but sometimes) is that on the inside, I know I’m making big progress but it’s not showing on the outside. It’s not rational for me to get upset about something I can’t control. The weight will come off because I am making all these smart choices. Every choice I made that gets me closer to my goal brings me joy, and that is what I am choosing to focus on.

What’s Next?

Yesterday, I was admiring spring flowers during my walk with Sadie. Today, I woke up to a light coating of snow. Surprise! This has me thinking about surprises. A surprise disrupts a pattern, you expect one thing and something else happens – SURPRISE! For so long I’ve treated the scale like a literal platform for a surprise to unfold before me. Step onto it and… surprise! You’re down, “Yay!” Your up, “Agh!” In my mind, I would think, “I did this or that, and now I have an expectation for how things are supposed to go.” But hey, sometimes the pattern is broken and there is a surprise.

Whether it’s a good surprise or a bad surprise is not the point. A surprise is a momentary blip. No different than the snow that was there in the morning and gone by the afternoon. It’s what happens after the surprise that really matters. It matters because that’s the part where I get to decide what will or will not happen – next. This is a process, and if I stick with it, over time, I will achieve my weight loss goals. Believe it, and it will be so.

Make a List

Are you the kind of person who writes lists? For some making, a list can very helpful. A list may offer a sense of control and when you cross off an item a sense of accomplishment. I read about a strategy that involves lists in James Clear’s Atomic Habits (such a great read if you haven’t read it) this is how it works:

Make a list of all the habits you are aware of like so:

  • wake up
  • weigh in & record weight
  • drink coffee
  • fill water jug
  • play wordle
  • scrolling social media

Now it’s time to rate these habits, (=) neutral / (+) helpful / (-) unhelpful. A useful question to help to rate these habits is, “Does this habit cast a ‘no’ vote or a ‘yes’ vote towards my desired identity?

  • wake up =
  • weigh in & record weight +
  • drink coffee =
  • fill water jug +
  • play Wordle =
  • scrolling social media –

This is how I rated my behaviors. The helpful habits are worth pointing out – there is a lot of power in naming what is going well on a day-to-day basis. Here are some other things that went well for me today – I worked out, then I tracked all my food, and I also weighed, and measured all my food. Plus I hit my water goal early! I am really trying to keep my efforts focused on the present. What’s going well for you today?

The Power of Story

People tell stories of
things that happened to themselves or their
friends all the time as a way of explaining
their own decisions. The stories may not be
scientifically representative, the events may
be mistaken, misunderstood, or
misinterpreted. But all that aside, the power
of the story is to guide, often in a good way,
the decision toward one choice rather than

Facione, PA, “Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts”

Do you believe that stories plant seeds for transformation? I do. We are writing our stories every single day, and we are telling them through our actions, by what we think, how we feel, and the intentions we set for ourselves. My story is one of resilience. What’s your story?

Who are you?

I am on my way to Ohio tomorrow, which means lots of consecutive days of eating out. At first, I had some concerns about it – but now I know it’s going to be ok. So, what changed? In the book, Atomic Habits, James Clear tells a story about a friend who wanted to improve her health, and as went about it, she asked herself, “What would a healthy person do?” Would a person concerned with her health take the stairs or ride the elevator? Then she would take the stairs. Eventually, she reached her goal.

How the heck would this really work? So at work today I ordered lunch out with some friends. As was scrolling through the menu, I thought – what would someone who cares about her health order? I ordered a Mexican salad with grilled chicken, hold the cheese, and I’ll have the dressing on the side with a flavored seltzer – thanks. It worked. Since I’m traveling tomorrow, I wasn’t going to cook dinner. and it worked again. I am in the blue zone. Amazing. Just try it for yourself.

What’s the story?

When I was a kid and I had a problem, or I wanted something, I would seek out my dad. I would usually find him, reading, at the kitchen table with a book spayed open with densely worded pages. A cup of coffee to his right, and a cigarette burning orange in a ceramic ashtray to his left. His dark eyes cast downward taking in whatever the book was offering. Even though reading is a sedentary activity, he always seemed so engaged he would laugh, nod, or say the occasional, “Huh-huh”. He was both interested and content all at once. I would watch and wait, standing there waiting, to catch his gaze; eventually, he would look at me over his reading glasses and beneath his bushy eyebrows and say, “What’s the story?” Then he would focus all of that same intensity that had been reserved for reading on me. Whatever my story was at that moment, I’m sure he helped me figure it out.

This memory came back to me as I considered how well my identity matches up with my weight loss goal. My internal dialogue began with, what’s the story? Today (more than once) I found myself thinking, “I’m living a healthy lifestyle.” That little shift in mindset has really brought me some relief. It’s not about weight loss, but I will lose weight. My story is one of the small habits that contribute to my identity – I am a person who cares about her health and well-being.

Behind every system of actions is a system of beliefs.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits p 37
I found this picture from a Facebook group I belong to Northport Village NY

The Secret of Systems

The year I turned 50, I achieved my weight loss goal and it was fantastic. When a goal aligns with your identity it becomes an extension of who you really are. When a goal is driven by an outcome it is being motivated by something outside of yourself. So it is essential to understand the motivation for any goal you set because all of the habits that are formed create a system that is in service of the goal. Very simply, outcome-based habits (think goals driven by a life event – like say, turning 50) are very likely to fall away once the goal is achieved. But if habits are identity-based (goals are related to your perceived identity) habits will endure because those habits are an extension of who you really are.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

After reading about this, in James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, everything makes so much sense. Getting to Goal was created to help me reach my weight loss goal the year I turned 50, there was a countdown clock, and every post was entitled by the number of days I was on the journey. It did work, I did make goal, and I did learn a lot about myself. However, it did not endure because my outcome-based. My goal was attached to a timeline, first and my identity last.

When a goal is attached to identity, the important question to ask yourself is: What kind of person am I becoming on this weight loss journey? For me, I am a person who values a healthy lifestyle – that is part of who I am. My habits are forming a network of systems that exist because I live a healthy lifestyle. Knowing how to create these responsive systems will result in my losing weight because I am a person who lives a healthy lifestyle. See the difference?

Here is a secret about systems, they don’t defer happiness. If one system is to establish a habit of drinking 64 ounces of water each day – and I do that – I’m happy. If I only focus on my goal, to lose 40 pounds I’m not going to be happy for a while – happiness is deferred. I have not achieved my goal yet, and I won’t for a long while. However, I am so happy about my healthy habits – and the systems I am laying down because I live a healthy lifestyle. Let’s say I am a work in progress, but I am making progress as I continue to learn more.