Why Deciding What to Eat Depends on More Than the Present
Maybe this sounds familiar. You bought a bunch of nutritious food at the store, food you actually like, with the goal of packing lunches and cooking good dinners. For the first couple of days, everything goes according to plan. You feel good, physically and emotionally.
But then you have a long day or two. Nothing catastrophic happens, but a string of small events makes you feel stressed and pressed for time.
By mid-week, you’re already exhausted. You don’t feel like you have energy to cook anything. You want something quick and easy, even though you know you’ll probably feel better if you use the food you already have.
So you pick up something to go, or get take-out. Maybe you end up eating more than you need… or the food doesn’t agree with you… or both. Now you’re tired and your stomach doesn’t feel good.
This can easily snowball into the next day, and the next. And the food you bought to cook goes to waste. You decide to just start fresh the next week.
I think all of us have these moments, whether it’s about food or something else. We make great plans, but in the moment of action, we opt out because it feels like too much effort.
Our different selves
In the book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, Laura Vanderkam describes this as the conflict between our three different selves:
1. Our anticipating self prepares and plans for the future.
2. Our experiencing self is in the present moment.
3. Our remembering self reflects back on the past.
And the real rub comes because much of the time, what the experiencing self wants wins.
At first, this might not seem like a problem. After all, eating mindfully – or doing anything mindfully – is all about being in the here and now, right?
Unfortunately, as with many things, it’s not that simple.
If you only focus on what the experiencing self wants right now, which do you think would win? The quick pleasure and distraction of easy-to-grab food, or the longer process of cooking a meal? Or if you’re not even truly hungry, might it be easier to eat anyway instead of doing the work of looking at why you want to eat and figure out what to do instead?
As Vanderkam points out, much of the time: “Immediate effortless pleasure wins out over the more effortful variety.” (p. 72)
From that perspective, the reason you might not make the best choices makes perfect sense. Because you’re letting one part of you – the experiencing self – decide what it wants in the moment. Meanwhile, that self completely ignores what the anticipating self might point out about future consequences, or how the remembering self will look back on this after the moment is past.
Personally, I find this very helpful. It offers an explanation for something that often seems confounding. And even better, simply being aware of this kind of favoritism can help you change it.
But to really escape the tyranny of the experiencing self, Vanderkam explains that you need to do two things:
1. Plan ahead for what you want to do
2. Then do it even if you don’t feel like it
Okay, it’s a little more involved. But from a mindful eating perspective, here’s one way to approach this.
In terms of planning, you don’t have to rely only on your anticipating self. You can also use the knowledge of your remembering self.
If you can see a clear pattern from the past, where you know that by Wednesday or Thursday of almost every week you’re too tired to cook, then plan for that. Maybe make enough on other nights to have leftovers. Or go ahead and order out, but see if you can find choices in advance that will agree with you.
But also plan what you might do if you’re nothungry and want to eat. What are some things that you’d enjoy doing instead? Write a list, and even better, see if you know what works for different situations.
Maybe if you’re bored, you want to do a crossword puzzle or listen to a good podcast. If you’re stressed, you’d prefer to do something active. If you’re tired, maybe take a nap or bath. Think about what works for you.
And also plan time to delve deeper into recurring issues. Of course you might not have the time or energy to figure out why you’re feeling lonely or depressed on a Wednesday night after a long day of work, with another the next day, especially if you already have plans for yourself or your family.
So make sure you find another time for this. See if you can even make it something to anticipate by preparing something pleasant for afterward. And consider how much happier your remembering self will be once you can look back at all the progress you’ve made.
Also, try to imagine yourself following through on these things. That will help make the idea more comfortable, and it will also be easier to bring to your options to mind when you’re in that situation.
Then, when the moment comes, don’t let your experiencing self be a bully. She may be tired or unmotivated, so be sure to focus on the other selves, too.
Call on your remembering self. How did you feel the last time you gave in and took the overly easy approach? Did you regret it? Did it become a sort point for you? Or what about times when you did something that took more effort. How did that feel? Were you happier in the long run?
And then based on that, you can anticipate that your future self might have a similar reaction. If you regretted your choice before, isn’t it likely you’d regret it again?
Or on the flip side, if you went ahead with what you had planned, how do you think you’d feel in the future? Would you have better energy, a more peaceful stomach? Do you think you’ll look back on it with different emotions?
This is where the planning really helps. If you already have some options, and your experiencing self doesn’t have to struggle to figure out what to do, you’re much more likely to follow through.
And if you’ve pictured yourself doing this, it will feel natural, because in some ways it’s as if you’ve already done it. This creates a type of pathway with anchor points to follow. As Vanderkam points out, “When the anchors are strong enough, the anticipating self can pull the experiencing self into the future when she needs to.” (p. 71)
Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash
Even though these ideas focus on more than the specific moment, I still consider this to be mindfulness. Because our past – and our likely future – both inform our present. They’re woven together, and the best we can do is understand how.
Remember, too, that the experiencing self is far more fleeting than the other two. You can anticipate and prepare for something days, weeks, or months in advance. And you can remember it for even longer.
For instance, I’m looking forward to certain holiday foods and meals. I also know from past experience that it’s very possible to have too much of a good thing. So part of my anticipation is eating these foods and sharing meals in ways that will leave me pleasantly satisfied but not uncomfortable. And I know from other past occasions how much better this approach feels, so if I stick with my plan, I can anticipate having more pleasant memories.
I hope this recognition and consideration of your different selves helps in some of your own decision-making. If so, I’d love to hear about it!
And either way, I hope this week brings you something to anticipate, to enjoy in the moment, and then to remember with delight.