“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”
Several years ago, my wife decided that she wanted to try the South Beach diet. For those of you who have never tried it, the diet involves two weeks of pretty serious food detox followed by a gradual reintroduction of some foods back into your diet. I, being the ever devoted husband, felt like I’d be a real lump if I continued to chow down on the usual set of foods (most of which were not included on the “approved” list for the diet) while she was denying herself.
It was two weeks of misery. We had no energy, we were constantly hungry, and after a while, the same rations of chicken and broccoli got old. At the end of the second week, we were going to Valencia, Spain to see some friends who were living there, and I remember the entire trip as an orgy of bread eating. I might have lost five pounds on the diet, but within a week, I’m pretty sure I’d gained it right back, along with a new nickname: “Mas pan.”
A few years later, Tim Ferriss came out with The 4 Hour Body, which had a similar dietary approach to the South Beach diet, except that once a week, you could go on a binge day and eat whatever you wanted.
At first, it was tough doing the week of limited food choice. However, the thought of chowing down on wings and super salads at McGrady’s Irish Pub, as well as splitting a pitcher of beer, kept us going. We’d wolf down a huge lunch while watching English football, and then for dinner, we’d usually go to our favorite pizza joint, Brixx, and gobble down pizza while having another glass of beer.
By the time we’d finished our Saturdays of debauchery, we were miserable. Stuffed with food that our bodies weren’t used to, we’d moan and groan as our stomachs tried to deal with the onslaught of carbs and calories which we’d slammed down our gullets.
It only took about six weeks of this cycle of misery to realize that we really didn’t enjoy our binge days that much. We were gobbling down all variety of foods just because we could, not because we were being selective about what we wanted to eat. It was binge day, and, hey, we were supposed to eat crap on binge day, right?
Once we came to the realization that we were taking the binge day analogy to its unintended extreme, we dialed back. Instead of binge day, it became binge meal, and we really enjoyed it rather than trying to stuff as much food into our bodies as we could simply because it was binge day. We found ourselves happier, appreciating our food more, and not miserable on Saturday nights.
It also convinced us to try to improve the experience of our everyday meals by experimenting more with different flavors, herbs, and spices.
While we’re no longer strict slow carb dieters like we were for a while, the reframing of the thinking about what we were eating and how we were eating did stick with us and help improve our overall nutrition. Instead of thinking in terms of denial, like we did with the South Beach diet, we were focusing more on limiting caloric intake on most days so that we could create experiences which mattered to us when we had special meals. We had saved up a caloric deficit so that we could spend extra calories on experiences and not have to worry about what that meal meant to our waistlines.
It was a mindset of abundance and creation rather than a mindset of scarcity. Sure, you can’t magic a caloric deficit out of thin air. You either take in fewer calories or you burn more to create that deficit. There’s no magic there. However, by using mental accounting and really focusing on the calories which matter – the meals which we want to savor and enjoy – we got Monkey Brain to forget about the other meals and keep him from screaming about how we were throwing lettuce and broccoli into his cage rather than banana cheesecake. He looked forward to the days when we’d throw banana cheesecake into his cage and forgot about the other days.
The same holds true with personal finance. A mindset of scarcity is what Monkey Brain uses to convince you that you’ve changed your behaviors when you really haven’t. Have you gone on a “debt diet” or a “no cash Wednesday” before? Did it really change your behavior? You probably spent less for a week or spent no cash on Wednesday and then spent more the rest of the week. Why? Because Monkey Brain told you that you’d been good for that day or week and now you could spend even more.
Denial is borne from a mindset of scarcity. Instead of being selective on the things where you will spend your resources, you pare down across the board and try to convince yourself that making sweaters out of dryer lint and reusing soap shavings is fun.
It’s not fun. It sucks.