After the Cheat – Part I

The question comes up frequently, “What should I do if I cheated on my diet?” Via instant message, text message, email, Facebook group post, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon, it has become a topic that seems to be poorly addressed. To begin with the end in mind, let’s address the five key points up front. We will tackle each in more depth below, but here they are in all their radiant glory:

  1. Review the circumstances that lead to the decision.
  2. Understand and own the consequences of your decision.
  3. Don’t get caught in the cycle of binge and punish.
  4. A diet is not made or broken in a single meal or a single day.
  5. Your choices define your outcome, but they don’t define your worth.

Each of these will be addressed in a five-part series, the first of which is below.

The After-Action Report

So what is an after-action report? An after-action report (AAR) is a retrospective look at the choices and the outcomes that are tied to a goal. Viewed as a “math equation”, it is simply:

  • My goal is X
  • I perform action Y
  • The result is Z

The AAR is nothing more, when viewed this way, as the ability to leverage hindsight to answer the question, “Did result Z move me closer to goal X when I performed action Y?” Every performed action (any decision or choice you make) has one of three outcomes:

  1. Advancing you toward your goal. (POSITIVE OUTCOME)
  2. Retreating you away from your goal. (NEGATIVE OUTCOME)
  3. No movement toward/away from your goal. (NEUTRAL OUTCOME)

So let’s look at a real-world example of this in action. I have shared elsewhere that my most difficult times in staying on-plan with my diet are when I travel. Either for business or pleasure, travel can be a challenge for anyone who is eating any sort of restrictive diet.   I sat down not too long ago and began a very detailed self-introspection about what it is about travel that contributes to my choice to eat food that yields a negative outcome. To use the framework above, what I know is this:

My goal is to lower bodyweight by reducing fat mass, I performed an action of eating a meal that does not line up with the stated goal, and I therefore have a negative outcome. After a review that involved several sheets of paper, some moments of frustration, and a couple of stick figure doodles, I distilled down the “Why” of my off-plan eating to two points:

  1. Anxiety about being in an unfamiliar setting.
  2. Because that’s how I learned to travel.

“Big deal!” you say to me. “It took you five sheets of paper and a picture of a T-Rex eating a stick figure to figure that out?” Yes, it did. Shut up!

The reality, however is that an AAR or a series of logic flows is not necessarily simple. Charles Duhigg in his book, “The Power of Habit” talks about the process of habit formation as a three-phased approach: Cue-Routine-Reward. The Cue is the prompting stimulus that tells the body the routine to run…much like a computer program. The reward is the desired outcome that we know we elicit from the routine we run. The real power (and the real difficulty) of the AAR comes from understanding the nuances of:

  • What triggers the cue
  • What routine I run as a default.

This is incredibly important in light of how complex routines and subroutines are. A good example might be this: In the morning, I get up, stretch, use the restroom, go downstairs, make coffee, sit down, and consider and plan my day. You could simply label this process my “morning routine” or you could view the morning routine as a series of subroutines that yield the outcome of me sitting down, fully clothed, coffee in hand, planning my day. The AAR, properly considered, should help you to come to a realization that trying to review “my morning routine” is too daunting. It’s just too big a bite. By breaking down the smaller subroutines, we can evaluate how each cue-routine-reward cascades into the next to create the outcome that I have come to know and love. As Socrates is famous for having apparently said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” I would challenge you that the unexamined habit is not worth having.

So…how should we leverage an AAR for a negative outcome? It really is pretty simple. If you find yourself saying something like, “Every time I do X, I wind up doing Y, and…” chances are that’s a good place to jump in. Why did I eat off-plan food every time I traveled?

  • The food was readily available.
  • There was no accountability outside of myself.
  • Food is a comfort for me during high stress.
  • Travel is a high stress time for me.
  • I ate the food that my programming told me lowered anxiety.

It really is that simple. I would caution you, however, that what is simple is not always easy. Now that we have a clear definition of what my routine was, we can look into a way to interrupt the routine. A simple solution for me was three-fold:

  1. I spent time in meditation and preparing to walk past the restaurants in the airport, to smell the smells, to see people eating, and I used imagery to position myself for success instead of failure.
  2. I took a notebook with me, and if I purchased food, I obligated myself to write myself permission to eat that food, and listed the consequences for doing so.
  3. I call someone or have someone call me after I clear the security checkpoints, and proceed to have a conversation until I reach my departure gate.

I have created three points in the routine where I switch off the autopilot and require of myself some critical thinking. The limbic system no longer gets to act without some higher-order decision-making inserted in the mix.

Has it been perfect? Not at first, no. My success with this approach was somewhat hit-or-miss. After AAR, I uncovered some additional factors (sub-sub-routines, if you will) that had an effect upon my choices, and after continuing to abide by this new paradigm that I had created for myself – a routine that yielded a positive, not negative, outcome…I no longer struggle with eating off-plan while traveling. It is my opinion that the first, and most powerful, step that we can take toward curing the “When I X, I always Y” moments is the inclusion of a period of self-reflection, accountability, or AAR…whatever you choose to call it.

Read the next part in the series