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Putting It In Context

I hate being micromanaged. That’s why, in retrospect, I should have realized from the start that diets wouldn’t work for me. It also explains why I didn’t succeed in my own goals until I had the right context.

I’d never made the connection between diets and managing styles until last week. I was reading a presentation about the company culture at Netflix, which includes a discussion about context vs. control.

According to Netflix, a good manager does not control everything an employee does. Rather, the manager should set the right context to motivate people towards a specific goal, and then let them find their way to that goal.

It reminded of when I had a micromanager about ten years ago. He wanted me to do everything a specific way, even if that meant I couldn’t be as efficient. He also checked up on me all the time. Even though I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, it made me resentful.

Reflecting on that experience is when I realized how much it was like being on a diet, where the diet is the micromanager, controlling everything you do. In both cases you have to follow all these rules. It doesn’t matter if they don’t seem to make sense, or if they’re not working very well. You can lose sight of what you’re actually trying to achieve, because you’re so focused on the minutiae. Both situations also include the underlying stress of being judged constantly, and the fear of being found wanting.

For instance, when I joined Weight Watchers back in the late 1980’s, the goal was to lose weight. I do give them credit for asking why I wanted to lose weight. I said the same thing as I did with all my weight-loss attempts. I wanted to be able to climb Mt. Katahdin again.

Unfortunately, it never went further than that. No one – not even me – asked why I wanted to do this, what it would be like if I achieved the goal, or if a diet was really what I needed to do to get there. We all just focused on what I ate, how much I exercised, and most importantly, the weigh-in. Nothing else mattered.

Even after I quit Weight Watchers and later tried to diet on my own, I still micromanaged myself. I focused obsessively on every tiny thing, and I couldn’t step back enough to see if I was getting any closer to where I wanted to be.

In the words of the Netflix slides, I put too much emphasis on the process and planning, and not the results.

That’s why I like the idea of having the right context. When you understand why you’re doing something, you can make better decisions. And more importantly, you’re actually choosing what to do, not blindly following. You’re motivated not because of dictated rules, but rather because you’ve internalized your goal, made it part of you.

This is what made all the difference for me. After my mom died, I didn’t just say I wanted to climb Katahdin. I felt it in every part of my being. It wasn’t a “want” anymore, either. It was a need.

I had to climb Katahdin because I hadn’t done it with my mom again the way I wanted to, and after she died, I would never be able to. The closest I could come was to scatter some of her ashes from the top.

More than that, I wanted to be the sort of person who could climb stairs without gasping or turning red. I wanted to know what the world looked like above the tree-line again. I wanted to be able to trust my body to carry me where I needed to go.

And if you’ll notice, none of that has anything to do with what I ate, how much fat it had, how many carbs or calories, or how much I should exercise every day.

Instead, that goal, and the driving reason behind it, put everything in context. When I started paying attention to my eating, initially I had lots of moments where I wanted to eat when I didn’t need the food. Sometimes I ate anyway. More often, though, I could think about my underlying motivation and decided to do something else instead.

Had I relied solely on control to get me to the top of the mountain, I don’t believe I would have ever gotten there. But by keeping that as part of my context, I discovered again the beauty of the world from a mile high. I also felt reconnected to my mom, and, finally, at peace.

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