Your Brain is Lying to You: Why Writing and Dieting Are Impossible

I have a book due at the end of the month.

I have never missed a deadline.

And yet I can't stop online shopping.

I mean, I'm not buying all the crap I put in my cart. I'm closing windows and opening new ones and clicking ADD TO CART again. I don't actually need anything. So why do I keep compulsively hunting for clothes and boots and purses AND AND AND?

Easy.

My brain lies. Yours does, too.

Our brains like comfort. The same old thing. The same routine. The same habits. The same crutches. Our brains like easy. When I'm stressed, I want cake. When I'm in pain, I want hamburgers. When I'm happy, I want tacos. And when things get hard, it's a lot easier to hunt for promising possibilities than it is to buckle down and do the work.

The only way around this problem? Identify your loops, your crutches. Figure out why you're doing that behavior. And instead of changing it, change something else. Your brain vastly prefers picking up a new habit to dropping an old one. 

Here's how it worked for me today:

BRAIN: Ooh! Look at that pretty outfit! Let's buy it!

ME: Why do you keep going to ModCloth and shopping for clothes? I don't need any clothes. I barely ever leave the house. 

BRAIN: Well, I don't feel pretty. I want to feel pretty. I think these clothes will make me feel as pretty and carefree as that model looks.

ME: Why don't you feel pretty?

BRAIN: Well, I gained 7 pounds while my back was broken, and I still feel a little weak and fragile, and at this weight, I don't feel like myself and my jeans are kind of tight. I need new jeans!

me: Shh, brain. You don't need new jeans. You need to get back to the weight that feels right. You need to work on feeling strong again.

BRAIN: That's scary and hard! I want to eat cinnamon toast until I feel comfort!

me: Shh. No. That's the opposite of what you need. Sugar and bread only make you feel worse about yourself and crave more sugar and bread. Sugar and bread make you feel bad about your body and guilty about eating something you know is ultimately bad for you. What you need to do is stop shopping for crap that won't fill an emotional void and start taking small steps to getting where you want to be. Let's start with breakfast. Eggs and beans, historically, is the breakfast that gives you the fuel you need, doesn't make you crave sugar all day, and helps you get to your happy weight.

BRAIN: BUT I DON'T LIKE EGGS AND BEANS.

me: Do you like feeling unpretty and shopping all day for shit you don't buy and then getting annoyed when you're not getting closer to feeling good or finishing this book on time?

BRAIN: ...uh, no.

me: Okay, then try something else. Try having eggs and beans for breakfast.

BRAIN: BUT I HATE COOKING.

me: Then turn on that awesome song from Vance Joy and dance around with the spatula while you cook. And open all the curtains and turn on the Christmas tree, while you're at it. Let your hair down from that ratty bun and brush it. There. Now warm up your coffee and eat your eggs and beans. Don't you feel like a person again?

BRAIN: You know what? I totally do! You win this round! Now, about that edit...

In telling you this, I don't want to start a dialogue about weight and beauty and how that compares to inner beauty. I just want to show a fight that I have with myself every damn day of my life. You probably have a fight like that. Maybe you're not happy with your life, maybe you want to lose weight or start a new career. And you want to change, but your brain says BUT THAT'S HARD AND SCARY, and you find reasons not to do it or you get stuck in stupid loops that keep you from pursuing something real. Maybe your crutch is TV or alcohol or arguing on internet forums or video games or Pinterest.

Point is, there is likely something you do with your time that you don't actually want to do. It might even be detrimental to you. But you do it without thinking, not knowing why you do it.

How does this problem connect to writing?

Well, writing is hard. Your brain wants to write... or it says it does. But what your brain really likes is talking about writing, thinking about writing, and thinking about being a writer. Your brain really, really loves having written. But it most likely, hates writing--or at least the harder aspects of writing. The soggy middle or the edits or the synopses or the part where you've written yourself into a corner and can't get out.

When people tell me they don't have time to write, I want to shake them until their teeth rattle.

Do you have time to check Facebook? To watch TV? To be on Twitter? Do you have an hour a day, stolen at 5am or after midnight or over a lunch break on your laptop in your car? Writing isn't this grand montage where you quit your job, go all Walden, and produce some magnum opus that instantly hits list. Writing happens word by word, minute by minute, whenever and wherever it can. Writing is like picking blackberries, one at a time, taking the scratches and stings and forging forward even when it hurts. Writing takes time and rewriting takes even more. And your brain will fight you every step of the way.

I write for a living now, and as I'm trying to show you, I have to fight my brain constantly. My brain wants to plan trips. My brain wants to paint and play bass and clean out closets and go hiking. My brain wants to write super long blog posts that no one will ever read.

And that's how I know that I'm in a place where the writing is hard.

A place where I have to buckle down.

A place where the only way out is through.

So instead of chasing the easy fix, instead of clicking BUY or mixing up a batch of brownies or watching videos of Tom Hiddleston snuggling puppies while reading Keats, I'm going to finish this goddamn revision.

The things we want are hard. The only way we'll ever get them is to identify why our brain is dicking us over and trick it into getting the hell out of our way so that we can succeed.

So what's your bad habit, and what is it hiding?

I'll be over here eating eggs and beans while you quest onward and kick ass.