Binary Thinking and Failure
We implement binary thinking when we can’t grasp a complex situation. You could say it is a stress-coping mechanism. It helps us cope since instead of being frustrated with a situation, we smash into one end of the spectrum and hold on to a belief for dear life, or we just back out of the decision process entirely.
Ever hear someone say, “Something is going to give me cancer so I might as well just eat (or do) what I want.” I have and I want to say to them, “No, it’s all about risk factors!” …The first time I debated this was to a retired fisherman at the pub in Antigonish. Surprisingly, or not really, I failed to convince him that nutrition mattered. And you know what? Unless someone is ready to change, they ain’t gonna. But I digress.
The other side of negative binary thinking is crash-dieting, New Year’s Resolutions, or health kicks. The ultra-healthy approach I guess you could say. This doesn’t work but people keep buying.
I think it’s because it’s much easier to eliminate all unhealthy habits than to scrutinize your habits, and set out on an elaborate plan to change them one at a time over 12 months, where you might not notice results in the beginning. Phew. Just saying that is hard. Too bad that’s pretty much the best way we know how to transform our health.
I don’t blame people for having binary attitudes towards fitness. It’s complicated and loaded with emotion.
Here are some examples of fitness best-practices and the nuances they contain (or in other words example of where binary thinking would set you back).
1. Eat protein with each feeding. About 25 grams will do. It’s great for satiety and muscle mass (metabolism). Protein can come from a lot of sources but all proteins come with baggage. For example, steak brings saturated fat. Legumes bring carbs. Tuna has mercury. A binary thinker will eliminate an entire type of protein and may suffer because of that. The answer is eating a wide variety of proteins each week and paying attention to where your protein comes from.
2. Try to eat as little processed food as possible. The term “processed” encompasses a wide range of foods. Even the healthiest bread you can buy — that’s still processed. Rice is processed. Then we have the obviously-bad stuff like Cap’n Crunch. The nuance is the spectrum from really bad (cereal and lunch meat) to not too bad (quinoa). A binary thinker may get frustrated trying to navigate this spectrum and totally eliminate or gorge on processed food.
3. Eat when you are hungry and never eat so much that you feel full. This is a foundation of healthy eating. It’s really easy to say, but requires a lot of nuance to implement. Am I hungry or tired? Did my workout increase my metabolism? …With practice you will get better at listening to your body. Binary thinkers may have a difficult time with this because it forces them to make many daily decisions without a mathematical guide.
4. Eat 5-10 cups of vegetables per day. The nuance here is that I don’t mean corn, peas, potatoes, yams, squash or other starchy veg. I mean carrots, peppers, broccoli, leafy stuff, asparagus, onions, mushrooms, etc. Then there is the raw vs. cooked issue and organic vs. other. I tell people to first eat more vegetables, then worry about if it is raw and organic.
5. Be active about an hour a day. It’s even better if three times a week that is lifting a bunch of heavy stuff safely. The nuances here are enormous unfortunately. I think good advice is asking what a cave man/woman would do? He/she would swim, walk, run, climb, lift stuff, and be active every day, probably with peers. That might be the answer.
If you think a binary attitude is holding you back, see if you can add some wiggle room to it. Moving even a tiny bit outside your comfort zone is the path to success.