The Art of Repetition

When my wife and I discovered we were having twins I knew my time and energy management skills were going to be put to the test. We already had a toddler at home so we knew what to expect in terms of sleep (or lack thereof) and the amount of care newborns need.

Multiplying that by two meant we had our work cut out for us. I still wanted to do the things that make me happy — reading, writing, working out, TV, movies, spending time with friends & family, etc. — but realized something had to give in terms of making sure I still had enough energy to pull that off.

Some people try to offset their lack of energy through heavy doses of caffeine, but coffee never appealed to me so I had to look for other options.

I played sports year-round all the way through high school so I never paid much attention to my diet and simply ate whatever I wanted. Now that I’m getting older, a burger and fries from a fast food joint basically puts me in a food coma.

A dietary change was necessary because my metabolism is beginning to slow as I age and there’s a nearly endless supply of leftover mac & cheese when you have little kids. I’ve changed minor habits here and there over the years but never did anything too regimented so my twins were a good kick in the pants to get me going.

Last week I wrote about Peter Drucker’s idea that you shouldn’t make a hundred decisions when one will do and shared a few ways this can manifest in your life and finances. This is the one that’s helped the most in terms of eating right:

Eat the same meals over and over again. The secret to dieting is not finding the latest fad or the perfect nutrition guru; it’s repetition. You figure out the healthy meals you enjoy (or at least tolerate) and then eat them repeatedly. You plan out your meals in advance.

To break up the monotony, occasionally you have a cheat day or weekend or vacation. But since you’ve already defined the healthy meals that work, you can go right back to that list. Much like investing, choice is the enemy of a good diet.

Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic published a story last week about the people who eat the same meal every day and take this to the extreme. He profiled Vern Loomis, a retiree who ate the same PB&J for lunch at work nearly every day for 25 years!

Some people shake their head but I’m impressed by his tolerance for repetition.

The science of happiness shows Mr. Loomis is on the right track, as long as he allowed himself a treat here or there to break up the monotony.

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton are behavioral experts in the field of decision-making and happiness. Their book Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending details how buying experiences, avoiding abundance, buying time, delaying gratification, and investing in others are the keys to increasing happiness.

Their research shows that abundance is the enemy of appreciation and why allowing yourself to eat whatever you want all the time actually decreases the pleasure you receive.

The duo performed an experiment where they asked students to come into their lab to perform a simple task — eating a piece of chocolate. One group promised to wait a week until they tried the chocolate again. Another group was told to eat as much chocolate as they pleased, whenever they wanted. This group saw an enormous drop-off in pleasure from eating that sweet, sweet chocolate. The group who waited a week still got some enjoyment out of their second piece, but the ones who ate it at will found no pleasure from over-indulging.

This is the same reason people rarely visit historic landmarks in their own town.  Once we become more exposed to something, there are diminishing returns on our happiness.

They concluded, “If abundance is the enemy of appreciation, scarcity may be our best ally.”

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Based on my eating habits here are the guidelines I created after some trial and error:

  • It would never work if I had to count calories. I don’t have the energy or attention to detail to pull that off.
  • It would never work if I was forced to completely give up sweets. I love donuts, pizza, fried food and candy too much to stick with a diet that doesn’t allow some guilty pleasures.
  • It would never work if I was forced to make too many decisions.

The actual diet doesn’t matter. It’s not that hard for people to figure out what’s healthy with some cursory research. Much like there are no perfect investment portfolios, there are no perfect diets. You have to do what works for you and your personality.

Food psychologist Brian Wansink once wrote, “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”

That’s been the case for me because I don’t even have to think about it. I chose four to six healthy-ish meals I enjoy and don’t deviate too far from them during the week.1 Then on the weekends and vacations, I cheat a little. And I’ve noticed I definitely savor those cheat meals and treats much more than I did in the past, through a combination of anticipation and scarcity.

My son and daughter turn two in May and I’ve basically been on this regimen since they were born. It gave me the energy I needed to get through the first few months of sleep training and I’ve never felt better. 

The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from this is if you want to create lasting habits you must develop a high tolerance for repetition.

Further Reading:
“I have a high tolerance for repetition”

1I’ve also experimented a little with intermittent fasting by eating dinner early but that’s mainly because dinner time with 3 young kids can be chaotic.

 
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