Play Now, Pay Later (or, How to Avoid One Pitfall of Being Human)

There was a belly, and clear blue eyes. His smoking and public beer drinking stopped after the triple bypass, and he was tall, but then, from the short eyes of a 10-year old, they all were.

He once read a story to me from the newspaper about some famous person somewhere going on a “sayfri”. I giggled and corrected him. “Safari”, I said.

bingeMy grandfather was a cattle rancher in southwest Arkansas, and I have many wonderful memories of summers spent “checking the cows”, unloading feed sacks from the rail car down town, bailing hay. The cab of his Silverado pick-up truck, strewn with hay and rope and dehydrated cow dung on the floor boards, had that sweet scent reminiscent of a straw-filled barn. I love that smell.

Unfortunately, Papa’s eating style—which even heart disease would never change—corresponded directly to his vocation, so it was about eight years after the bypass that he died, having spent his last month embrangled in tubes and catheters with no window to the outside.

Fast forward 30 years to yesterday, when I received this text from my mother: Your uncle just had triple bypass surgery.

I was incredulous. How could that be? Did he learn nothing from his father’s premature death, not to mention the suffering wrought on our family?

But then, look at my boyfriend. His father, also a bypass victim, spends several hours a week undergoing dialysis, his kidneys a casualty of diabetes. And yet, the 50-pounds-overweight BF will partake in a meat, cheese, and refined carbohydrate binge this eve at the weekly yacht club hamburger night.

Has he learned nothing from his father’s slow but impending demise, the pain of loved ones watching him die, the cost to society? Nothing at all?

The Problem

Humans are not wired to worry about possible future events. There’s even some fancy terminology for our tendency to put more value on present-time rewards than future costs—hyperbolic discounting. The pleasure of that high-fat, high salt meal overcomes the very real (but in the future) threat of death by heart attack because the fun is now.

This buy-now-pay-later predisposition is pleasant in the moment but can have disasterous effects down the road. So what is a health seeking person to do? Can we override the seemingly inexorable force of evolution and put our future wellbeing before the pleasure of the moment?

Happily, yes. People do it all the time when they quit smoking, turn down illicit sex, and forgo the Teslaapple Model S for a 401K. I endow my clients with a multiplicity of strategies for overcoming the play-now-pay-later principle, but I only have room for a couple here.

Start by making a long list of reasons for adopting a high-nutrient diet. For instance: to lose weight, to feel more energetic, to lower my cholesterol, etc. The longer the list the better.

Next, make a list of what will happen if you don’t change. For example: I could end up in the nursing home getting body parts amputated like my Uncle Jeff; I’m more likely to get breast cancer; I could continue gaining weight. Again, the more you can come up with (and the grizzlier), the better.

Now, for the next two weeks, read both lists every day. Decide now when you’ll do it, and put it on your calendar so you won’t forget. Oh, and read the “reasons to” list first, followed by the “what will happen if” list. Yes, you’ll be ending on a sour note, but discomfort motivates change, while consolation does not.

Ok, enough reading—get to writing!


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