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How Goals Can Be a Barrier to Bettering Your Health


Many dysregulated eaters are ardently goal-oriented. They arise each morning with to-do lists at the ready and rush through the day ticking off items, set reminders of when things needs to get done, shift into overdrive to do them, obsess about how to make the future turn out differently than the present and past, and dream about future happiness.

If you’re someone who’s goal oriented, everything in life is a project and you spend more time with your mind in the future than in the now. You do great things at work, make sure family members are well taken care of, and serve your community. Then instead of doing what you say you want to do to eat more healthfully or become more active, you put off these activities and end up eating mindlessly instead. You eat ice cream instead of cleaning the house, down a bag of chips instead of doing your taxes and finish off the birthday cake from your daughter’s party rather than wash the car. You set goals for weight loss and exercise which only make you want to eat. Sound familiar?

Rather than being pathological, your eating is telling you something: You need fewer, not more, goals. You need to slow down, not speed up. You need to devote more time to being care-free and doing nothing. Mindless eating is your way of shutting off your brain when it requires rest. Urges for pick-me-up foods are desperately trying to tell you that your energy is flagging and it’s time to quit whatever you doing.

There’s nothing wrong with having goals, but there’s everything wrong with living your life by them. I’ve watched clients strive for goals they know aren’t achievable while saying, “I don’t know why I’m trying so hard to do ‘X’ because I don’t much enjoy doing it.” Sure, it’s important to know how to set and reach goals, but it’s equally vital to learn how and when to chill out. Check out my chapter on balancing work and play in my book Outsmarting Overeating: Boost Your Life Skills, End Your Food Problems

If you only know how to be productive and stay on track, you’re likely to keep veering off it and toward the kitchen. Give yourself permission (you already have mine!) to do less—or, more daringly, to do nothing. It may seem weird at first but give it a try for enough time that you can move beyond it feeling uncomfortable. You may feel guilty, but just ignore it (remember, it’s just a thought and you don’t want to believe everything you think.) Instead, dare to be mindless: stare out the window, listen to music, doodle, take a pleasant trip down memory lane, get out in nature, stare at the sky or the stars or a flower, nap, watch old movies, schedule in do-nothing time. Be more mindless and less goal-oriented for one month and see if it makes any difference in your eating.