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  • Writer's pictureHeather Chavin

Why I can’t close the fridge after 3 pm

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

How We Get Trapped in our Bad Habits

“Okay, today I am not going to do any snacking. I don’t care how stressed out I am. I can do this.” This was my pep talk to myself on a Thursday. The same one I had done every other day of the week to no avail. It was also the same one I had given myself many weeks before.

Right around 3 pm, I found myself staring into the refrigerator looking for that snack. I grabbed two cheese sticks and headed back to my computer. I dove into the short-term salty, fatty reward and reveled in it...for a whole three minutes.

That left me facing the same dreary, stressful project but now with added guilt and self-loathing for not being strong enough to resist the call of the fridge.

Within 20 minutes I was back at the fridge. “This is insane!” I berated myself. “This will not make you feel better.” I doubled the amount of peanut butter on the next apple slice.

“I hate this. I can’t stand myself sometimes. This doesn’t make sense. I’m so upset with myself for eating and my response is to eat more? This is what always happens. And I have no idea how to change it.”

Why slipping up once leads to slipping up twice

Why did I slip up in the first place?

Snacking is my go-to stress management tactic. One that I’ve been drilling into my brain for forty years.

When stress is high, willpower drains fast and that leaves your prehistoric lizard brain in charge. That’s the part of you that just wants to avoid risks, eat, sleep and procreate. This part of the brain is a poor predictor of what will make you happy. It just wants to shift your chemistry in the moment. It will go straight to your lowest energy default coping mechanism.

In their book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath use a metaphor borrowed from NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It’s called The Elephant and the Rider. Here’s how the brothers Heath put it:

"Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched."

Our riders are our planners and problem solvers. They can see long-term and map out a plan for us. My rider knows that a snack is not what I want, what I want is stress relief. It also knows the negative consequences of many snacks over time.

The elephant is the one in charge of physiology and emotions. It knows my stressed-out physiology that is leading to unpleasant emotions like discouragement, fatigue, and frustration. It also knows a quick and easy (if temporary) way to bring some relief. The fridge!

Between an elephant and a rider...who’s gonna win that game?

There is one other element in the equation, and that’s the path. An elephant is far more likely to walk a clear path in front of it. This is another place the rider can exert some control.

It has been my efforts to “build a clear path” that lead to the creation of GoGoDone, my virtual coworking community. There’s nothing like a committed appointment on your calendar to get both the rider and the elephant focused. I cover the path in more depth in the next article. But in the meantime, if you’re the type that never misses an appointment, please come check out GoGoDone - you’ll get a TON more work done each week. If it works for us, it will work for you.

How I can make a bad situation worse

Most days around 3 pm, I’m trying to cram in one last stressful project. This comes after a day of straining my willpower (my rider) to avoid snacks. When I finally run out of gas in the tank and that elephant takes over, what do you think is foremost in my mind?

It is no wonder that every afternoon I feel the call of the refrigerator. I am running on empty and the wrong driver is now in the driver’s seat. My rider is exhausted and my elephant is driven to look for short-term stress relievers.

You know what else will drain your rider and point the elephant in the wrong direction? Guilt and self-loathing. Once the first snack barrier is breached, my negative reactions and critical inner-voice just pile on the stress.

When seen from this perspective, it’s obvious what is going to happen next. I’m not only going to have the first snack but I’m laying on the pressure that will push me to the second one. And if it’s a particularly rough day, here’s comes the What the Hell Effect. This is when we tell ourselves, “Well, I splurged a little, I may as well throw caution to the wind and have a free-for-all.”

From stress to that first crack in the armor to the second to the free-for-all, the progression is painfully and logically obvious. And can I point out - very human. This issue is not my weakness (or yours), it’s about the circumstances we’re in. Some you can control and some you can’t.

No matter what, however, there will be times when you have more stress you can handle. What can we do then? I tackle that in my next article.

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