Losing Weight Is Easy. Losing Bad Habits Is Something Else.

By The Misfits
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This week we continue our series of tryout columns by four writers who would like to become Vicky Hallett's MisFits partner. The contenders remain anonymous -- but we'll identify the winner on May 5.

I've been thinking a lot about mind-sets. We keep hearing that the AIG executives didn't realize there was anything amiss about accepting bonuses because of their mind-set, that Rick Wagoner didn't have the right mind-set to fix GM, that, ahem, newspaper folks need to get away from a print mind-set.

A mind-set isn't just a convenient buzzword, says Norman Doidge, a psychiatric researcher at the University of Toronto and Columbia University. Doidge is also a principal in the Boswell Group, which offers psychoanalytic consulting on business practices to CEOs, and he's the author of "The Brain That Changes Itself."

"Brain" explores the research into neuroplasticity: how changes in skills and behaviors are linked to physical, measurable changes in how the brain works and how we go about changing our mind-sets.

"Plasticity is like snow on a hill in winter. Because it is pliable, we can take many paths if we choose to ski down that hill," Doidge says. "But because it is pliable, if we keep taking the same path, we develop tracks, and then ruts, and get stuck in them."

What does this have to do with fitness? Well, over the course of three years in my early 20s, I lost 100 pounds. When the subject comes up, inevitably people ask how I did it, and they always seem a little disappointed when I say, "I ran, and I ate more carefully."

I feel bad, like I should have a more elaborate answer involving a secret Tibetan meditation that burned a pound every 20 minutes, or some type of fat-absorbing nanobots I cobbled together in my garage.

In truth, the mechanics of losing weight are simple: Exercise more. Eat less. Changing my mind-set to break my bad habits and develop healthful ones was the hard part. Doidge says that self-help books about how to "rewire" the brain in 21 or 30 days don't work. It usually takes a significant crisis to block an old mind-set and allow a new one to develop.

So how was I able to do it?

Change in routine: To unlearn a negative mind-set or to develop a more healthful behavior, it can be helpful to associate it with another change in your life. Change in situation weakens a mind-set that's become accustomed to a certain context.

"Doctors used to recommend people go on vacations to deal with a number of ailments, in part because they observed that getting out of a routine allowed people to unlearn certain behaviors," Doidge says.

(Ah, so that's what those AIG execs were doing when they went on that corporate retreat.)

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