When I am eight years old, my dad gets us a new car.
Because he is an organizer with the United Auto Workers, a foreign car is out of the question – even as the 1973 OPEC crisis sends most Americans scurrying for fuel-efficient Datsuns and Toyotas.
Also not on the acceptable list is his dream car, a sunflower yellow Corvette C3 Stingray convertible: Bad form to show up at a picket line in a set of wheels that expensive and flashy.
So, practical man that he is, my dad settles on a Daisy Yellow 1974 AMC Matador.
The car works pretty well. It has a powerful engine, good handling, and, at least according to the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, it can sprout wings and allow the villains to escape from Bangkok.
The big problem with the Matador is the rear side windows. They just don't sit properly in their tracks, and often jam when opened or closed. I get the hang of it after a while, though, and discover how to turn the window crank with one hand while propping the glass straight with the other.
One day, we are returning from a road trip when my dad decides to treat his dusty Matador to an automated car wash.
The Car Wash
As the child of two Depression-era parents, I have never been in an automated car wash before. We have always used a bucket, hose, soap, sponge, and towel in the driveway. The thought of paying for a car wash is as strange as paying someone to wash our dishes after dinner. It's just something we do for ourselves.
But here we are. As our car, which has been parked on a conveyer belt, slowly approaches the first station of spraying nozzles, I am transfixed. I peer ahead at the rotating cylinders of blue cloth straps, and the giant industrial fans, and I am seduced by the boundless promise of technological automation.
Which is why I don't notice that my back seat window is slightly open.
Until the high-powered jets of water begin infiltrating the small-yet-definitely-existent gap between the window pane and the car door. This gets my attention.
In a panic, I yank on the window crank handle and turn it as quickly as I can, with all my might.
In the wrong direction.
Which is to say, the window rolls down halfway, and promptly falls out of its track, toward the vehicle interior. Toward me.
Rolling the window back up is now impossible, as the glass has jumped the tracks and is arcing menacingly inward, as if it were about to break like a wave and bring all the waters of the flood with it. My parents, who are by now experiencing powerful jets of cold soapy water on the backs of their necks, have turned around in their seats to assess the situation.
In an effort to appear engaged in the search for a solution, I open the window further, so that I might somehow shoulder it back into the door grooves. But all my parents know is that their thoughtful, sober, straight-A student has now opened the window twice, in an automatic car wash.
They begin shouting extremely unhelpful things at me, things they will no doubt regret later. At this moment they appear to be regretting their decision to have reproduced. My father, whose years in the US Army during World War II salted his vocabulary irreparably, is dropping f-bombs like it's D-day. My mother's Austrian accent ratchets up to 11, where I cease being Howard and am now “Hahvaht.”
Then the deluge ceases abruptly, as we reached the giant fans and the end of our accidental flume ride.
It takes many years of excellent grades to begin to overcome their doubts as to my intelligence.
At this point you may be justified in wondering, “Where is he going with this story?”
Where I'm Going With This Story
Once the water began pouring into the Matador, there was only one thing I could have done that would have helped: immediately turned the crank handle in the right direction to close the window.
And with the urgency and the wet and the noise and the chaos of the moment, it was more or less a coin toss which way I was going to turn the handle. I hadn't prepared for this moment. I hadn't practiced. I hadn't rehearsed. I reacted without thinking, and I reacted badly.
That's how many of us end up blowing our diets during the holidays.
How to Blow Your Diet During the Holidays
All the gatherings. All the parties. All the traditions. All the yummy, hyper-palatable dishes. All the desserts. All the advertising.
It's temptation sprayed at us from high-powered nozzles, and it's relentless.
All it takes is a small crack in our resolve, in our self-identity, in our character – and we can wake up two weeks later with a nasty food hangover, the weight loss of the past four months obliterated, and clutching a wet wool blanket of self-loathing.
Under all that social pressure and all our past conditioning, we're just not going to make good decisions unless we have a very strong plan that we've rehearsed until we can do it in our sleep.
You're a Matador in a Car Wash
Maybe you don't need a plan. Instead, you can simply avoid all the tempting situations.
This is a terrible plan.
For one thing, it's totally unrealistic. You can't control the world. You can't predict every moment, every encounter, every situation.
And for another thing, it's totally disempowering. Focusing on the outside world puts the locus of control outside of your hands, which means you experience never-ending anxiety and vigilance. The ambush could come from any direction, at any time.
You're a Matador in a car wash. There will always be powerful jets of temptation beating you from all sides. There will always be small imperfections in your armor. Instead of praying away the spray, or swaggering into the fray as if you have nothing to worry about, you're setting yourself up for a soaking.
So what's a health-conscious person to do?
Practice and priming.
Practice with Pre-Mortems
If “Matador in Car Wash” were a military operation, I would have practiced turning the crank handle in the correct direction hundreds of times prior to the mission. If you woke me up at [2:30] in the morning, sprayed a bottle of seltzer in my face, played a Sousaphone two inches from my ear, and tickled the soles of my feet, I could still have turned the handle and closed the window without a second's hesitation.
We can use decision psychologist Gary Klein's concept of the “pre-mortem” to inoculate ourselves against the wrong behavior in much the same way.
Start by visualizing a situation – an office party, a holiday brunch, a church potluck – and watch the movie of everything going wrong. You start with a tall glass of punch, and twenty minutes later you're scooping guacamole out of the bowl with your hand.
Watch carefully how it happens: you enter the room with the best of intentions, and soon the little Piggy voice in your head is whispering, “You've been so good since Thanksgiving; a little bit can't hurt,” and you're off to the Binge Races.
Once you've played out the worst-case scenario, it's time to visualize a triumph. You behave exactly as you want to. You eat what you want to eat, drink what you want to drink, and confidently avoid the foods and beverages that will sabotage your goals, your priorities, and your long-term happiness.
Now compare the two scenes. What's the difference? What moves did you make that made you a winner rather than a loser in the game of “Oh Gawd, did I really eat that?”
Now practice those moves in your mind. Over. And. Over. Turn them into reflexes. When they say 7-layer dip, you say crudite with humus. When they say Buffalo wings with ranch dip, you say crudite with humus. When they say figgy pudding, you say “and a Happy New Year.”
Now go out into the world and start practicing these new moves in situations of greater and greater pressure. Practice going to a restaurant and ordering a healthy meal even when the menu is full of delicious, off-plan shitz and gigglez. Practice having a plant-strong meal with a friend who's going to judge you for depriving yourself of the good things in life. Practice walking through the baked goods aisle at the supermarket and not picking up the bag of chocolate chips that you could use in so many recipes in the coming days.
And most powerfully, practice listening for the Piggy voice that just wants you to binge and binge and binge, and will say anything to get you to abandon your intentions, resolutions, and vows. Once you hear it, jot down its Squeals, and come up with rational arguments that will blow it out of the water.
When it says, “A little bit can't hurt,” you say, “Maybe so, but a little bit always turns into a lot and fires up all the old cravings and I don't need that kind of misery and shame during the holidays.”
Priming the Mind
The other way to prevent a holiday meltdown is to remind yourself, just before entering a challenging situation, what's most important to you. There's amazing research that demonstrates the power of well-timed “priming” to get us to live up to our best versions of ourselves.
In one study, Dan Ariely, On Amir, and Nina Mazar found that participants who were paid for each correct answer cheated when they knew they could get away with it. For example, if they were told to count up their own correct answers based on an answer key, and then shred their test paper, they reported getting 14 problems correct out of 20. The control group, which turned in its papers for grading, averaged 7 correct answers. Given that the groups were randomized, it's almost certain that the shredder group inflated their scores by 100%. For a small amount of money.
But then, in another version of the experiment, the shredder group was first instructed to think of as many of the Ten Commandments as they could. Then they took the test, counted their correct answers, and shredded their test paper.
The number of correct answers reported?
The same as the group that didn't have an opportunity to cheat. (Here's a PDF of that paper, if you want to make sure I'm not cheating and making all this up.)
What are Your Ten Commandments of Behavior?
If people could be stopped from cheating – or more accurately, could be induced to stop themselves from cheating – in a situation where there was no downside to cheating other than the breaking of a personal norm, then imagine how powerful priming can be as you prepare to navigate holiday eating.
Before your next party or event or shopping trip, don't simply remind yourself of your rules and your practiced moves. Also remind yourself of the ethical underpinnings of your desired behavior.
- Why does it matter to you to be in control of your choices?
- Who's counting on you to be healthy, fit, and vibrant?
- Who's looking at you as a role model, for good or ill?
- Who do you aspire to be for yourself?
Put the answers on an index card, or two large stone tablets, and carry them around with you.
Take them out and read them just before entering a challenging situation.
Remind yourself who you want to be, and you can be that person.
With practice and priming, you can drive your Matador into any carwash in the world, and not get soaked.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season,