I have learned to listen carefully now for a steely, strident voice that used to seep into my mind without my even realizing it. Sometimes it was a so-called expert telling me to “just say no” to a food or drink I loved. Sometimes it was a “just do it” ad campaign commanding me to exercise even when I didn’t feel up to it.
But just as often, it was my own internal voice telling me I “didn’t need” or “couldn’t have” or “didn’t deserve” something I wanted — a waffle, whipped cream, French fries, an extra hour of sleep, whatever.
For a while there, I worked hard on complying consistently with those steely-voiced directives. But the rewards and redemption they promised never materialized.
I’d be “good” and comply with all the prescribed yesses and nos for a few weeks. I’d feel disciplined and virtuous. Maybe even a little smug. But then I’d start feeling blah, bah-humbug, bummed out.
I was saying no to too many things I wanted, and yes to too many things I didn’t. The sense of deprivation and forced-march determination was sucking too much joy out of my life — and too much “me” out of me.
When I’d imagine a long, bleak future of no buttered popcorn, no waffles, no French fries — a future of gnarly, uncomfortable daily workouts (even when I was exhausted), a future of always rising at the crack of dawn (even if it was raining and I wanted to lie there listening to the drops fall) — I’d pretty much hate the prospect of that future. I’d hate myself for signing up for it, and I’d want out.
The problem was, I felt that if I didn’t do all those things, I couldn’t be a healthy person. And I wanted to be a healthy person. So I was stuck.
Worn down by my quest for perfection, I’d eventually say, “To heck with this; it’s not worth it.” I’d abandon my positive routines and healthy choices — and to make up for lost time and pleasure, I’d load up heavily on whatever I’d been denying myself.
Predictably, over the course of a few days or weeks, I’d sink into a low-vitality, grossed-out slog. And then the whole cycle would start all over again.
In either mode, I’d be bummed out because I wasn’t living the way I wanted to be living. I wasn’t feeling the way I wanted to feel. On the contrary, I was driving myself crazy.
It took a few years, but I eventually discovered that taking my orders from the steely, strident voices would set up this whole cascade of negative thoughts and behaviors that weren’t serving me in the slightest.
So one day I decided that striving for perfection really wasn’t a necessary or helpful goal. And I struck a new deal with myself: Rather than feeling compelled to make healthy choices all the time, I would simply make healthy choices most of the time.
I’d be as healthy as I could be, I decided, while also being happy. For me, it turned out, that meant making healthy choices about 85 percent of the time.
This wasn’t about having a planned “cheat” day or meal. I didn’t want to have to cheat. Instead, I struck a deal with myself: I would say my own “yes” or “no” in the moment, based on my own sense of instinct and desire.
The only stipulation was that I needed to stay present and actually take pleasure in whatever I was choosing, and I needed to be able to do this while also remaining conscious of my larger healthy-life goals.
That was harder than it sounds. Remaining present and conscious in this way wasn’t something I had a lot of practice with — because indulging in unhealthy things was something I mostly did in an unconscious mode, while tuning out my higher goals.
Like many, I acted out most of my unhealthy choices in what psychologists refer to as “disassociated” mode — while watching TV or driving, or inhabiting some weird fugue state.
Deciding to do something “forbidden” while also staying conscious of my body and cognizant of my larger commitment to health felt downright weird at first. But it worked some real magic.
Once I knew I could have whatever I really wanted (as long as I stayed conscious), here’s what happened:
- I stopped sneaking and cheating and disassociating myself out of my enjoyments, and I started fully experiencing them instead.
- I began really tasting and feeling what I was eating, and noticing when my appetite was sated. (Research suggests that eating while distracted not only causes us to eat about 10 percent more in the moment, it also results in our eating 25 percent more later in the day, presumably because we have very little sense of what we actually ate.) My appetite got healthier as a result.
- I began heeding my body’s desires about movement and rest. I no longer drove myself to exhaustion; I let myself be drawn by my available energy in the moment, and I’d rest or shift gears when it flagged.
- Most important, I stopped telling myself, “I can’t have this; I must do that.” I stopped listening to those steely, perfection-seeking voices, and I started aiming to make 85 percent of what I did 100 percent awesome.
What did that look like in practice? My daily plates would be filled with healthy choices, but they might be garnished with some delightful folly. The majority of my meals would be wholesome, but every once in a while: “What’s this? Someone made fondue!?”
Same thing with fitness: Eight or nine times out of 10, I’d do my scheduled workouts as planned. And the rest of the time . . . meh: I might do something else that day, or nothing at all.
My time-and-energy management worked similarly: I’d get up at my planned early hour most days, but every once in a while, if it was raining, or the light on the wall was especially lovely, or I needed the sleep, I might stay in bed a while longer.
Finding my own happy place required experimentation. I had to develop a whole new set of muscles for noticing and moderation. But it worked. Both my health and happiness trend lines started moving upward, and they just kept going.
Interested in trying this approach for yourself? Here are my tips:
- Don’t panic about your percentage. I like aiming for 85 percent. My friend Mark Hyman, MD, recommends going for 90 percent. But who really knows what 85 percent versus 90 percent looks like from one person to the next? For you, 70 percent might be a whole lot better than what you’re doing now. Improvement and consistency over time are what matter. Your healthy choices will get easier and more rewarding as you go.
- Respect your reality. The occasional croissant may provide pleasure for many, but for a person with a severe gluten issue, it could spell agony. Enjoying a whiskey now and then might be no big deal for one person, but for an alcoholic, it could be devastating. You’re going for health and happiness here, not agony and devastation. If you sense you have an eating disorder, addiction, or medical problem, get professional help.
- Observe outcomes. Periodically assess whether you are making progress, holding your own, or backsliding into a place you don’t want to be. Adjust your approach (and your aimed-for percentages) accordingly.
So, what’s the right healthy–happy balance for you? What’s your own “perfect” percentage right now? There’s only one way to find out.