Building a Supportive Environment

By Brianna Hines

A few weeks ago, my daughter had the brilliant idea to host a tea party at our house. She went all out. There were finger sandwiches, a full tea set, platters of snacks, and most importantly to her, fresh chocolate chip cookies. As she and her friends bustled around the kitchen, I tried to stay out of their way, partly because I was giving them some independence and partly because I didn’t want to tempt myself to sneak some of the dough. But I couldn’t stay away from the smell. Why is it that freshly baking chocolate chip cookie smell permeates a house like fumigation? I got as far from that oven as possible, but it was no use. After an hour of smelling that incredible smell, I had no willpower left to speak of, and I ate a cookie. Okay, maybe I ate more than one! I was defeated all because I couldn’t withstand that much temptation for that much time.

Listen to Brianna share Building a Supportive Environment.

Take it from someone who knows, creating a supportive environment is three-quarters of the battle when it comes to sticking with healthy living. Every addict knows that after they get sober, if they jump right back into the same friend group, hangout spots, or environment at home, they will fail every time. Why is that? Because as committed as we are to staying clean, each of us only has a fixed and finite amount of willpower at our disposal each day. If we have to use up our entire allotment trying our best not to eat those darn cookies staring at us from the kitchen counter, we will have nothing left to meet the barrage of other temptations that meet us throughout our day. If we want to stay clean, we have to create a clean environment, one that uses up as little of our willpower as humanly possible. 

I am reading this great book called Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. In it, he talks about the idea of “pre-commitment,” and states, “I had learned years before from social scientists that when it comes to beating any kind of destructive habit, one of the most effective tools we have is called ‘pre-commitment.’” He explains the idea by using an illustration from Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, there is a patch of sea where two sirens live, and any sailor who passes through gets lured into drowning by the songs of these irresistible creatures. The hero Ulysses solved the problem by asking his crew in advance to strap him firmly to the mast of the ship, so that when they reached that deadly stretch of water, he was physically unable to obey his overwhelming desire to jump in. His “pre-commitment” quite literally saved his life, and it can save ours, too. 

We will hear siren-songs all day long. Our phones will call to us, begging us to scroll an hour away with them. Our couches will lure us to “come, rest awhile with me, and let the world burn.” The siren that sings the loudest for me is my pantry. On rough days, if there is anything, anything in there that even resembles a sweet treat, I will pursue it, entranced, to my doom. Pre-commitment can prevent a lot of this struggle by making it impossible to break our commitment, even when everything within us wants to abandon ship. If there are no sweet treats to speak of in my entire house when a sugar craving hits, I can rifle through every cupboard looking for sweets like a crazed animal, but at the end of the day, I will still be sugar-free despite my best efforts to cave. Pre-commitment doesn’t even give ourselves the opportunity to fail.

What are some practical ways we can do this? In the food department, you know what I am going to say. You have to get the bad stuff OUT of your house. This one is hard for me, because a) I hate wasting food, and b) I have a family who would absolutely revolt if all we had in the fridge was vegetables and ground beef. How I have solved this problem is by only allowing foods in my house that are either healthy, or that don’t tempt me in the least. My family is big into cereal. I personally don’t really like cereal. When I see it in the cupboard, even during a sugar craving, I pass it right by. It is not a temptation for me. The same goes for fizzy drinks. I hate how they feel when I swallow them. So if my husband has fizzy drinks around, it is never a problem for me because I wouldn’t drink them anyway. If you have a family, try to find foods that don’t tempt you but your family can still enjoy. 

Second, I have had to get really good at either saying “No thank you” to leftovers offered to me from family members (think half the birthday cake from Aunt Martha’s party), or if I just can’t say no, I have learned how to throw things away. Gasp! I know. I still feel guilty every time, but I have discovered exactly how long I can withstand a temptation sitting on my counter. And it is usually about 24 hours. When that time is up, or if I feel my resolve waning, I announce to the family that the expiration date has arrived on the said food item, and they are welcome to have any last minute bites and then into the trash it goes. I said before that I absolutely hate wasting food, but I would much rather defend my health than save a few pennies. Yes, I feel guilty as I throw it in, but then I feel relieved afterward because I don’t have to do battle with that food anymore. Saying no in the first place to leftovers would probably be the better option, but throwing them away is a good secondary one. 

Third, don’t buy that junk in the first place! Never, never go grocery shopping when you are hungry, obviously, but also, stick to a grocery list. It always helps me stay more focused and gives another guardrail when I want to start throwing Doritos into my cart. Another problem I deal with is not knowing what “healthy” foods to buy unless I actually know what I am going to turn them into when I get home. Planning meals before I shop gives me direction, and then I can be excited about the chicken soup I plan to cook instead of looking at the celery going, “You don’t look that appetizing. I would rather have deli mac and cheese.” 

Four, after you have emptied your house of all those temptations, fill it back up again with healthy things you actually enjoy, and are already ready to eat! The latter part of that is key. If I have veggies in my fridge but they are not chopped and ready to eat, I usually won’t eat them. It is too much hassle in the moment. Also, if I don’t have a dip I like to eat them with, they will just rot in the drawer. I always keep a good supply of my favorite hummus or ranch, and I try to buy veggies or salads that are already chopped and ready. Another option is to take some time to chop them yourself one evening for the entire week to save some dough. 

The same is true for healthy meals. Sometimes, it just takes waaaaaay too long to cook a real, healthy meal, especially with kids at my heels begging for food. That is why I try to cook all of my meat for the week in one evening, so that the rest of the week, I can throw it into things quickly and create meals in half the time. So if I have to cook ground beef for tacos, I usually cook three pounds of it and only season half with taco seasoning, so we can use the rest for spaghetti sauce, or stroganoff, or sloppy Joes later on. Set yourself up to succeed. 

Let’s review: 

  1. Purge the house except for things that don’t tempt you. 
  2. Say “No thank you” to leftovers, or throw them away.
  3. Don’t buy junk in the first place by staying focused at the store with a list and a meal plan.
  4. Fill your house with healthy foods you like and pre-chop or pre-cook the time-consuming foods all in one go for the entire week.

Another way we can pre-commit to be healthy is by including other people or even money into the equation. Let’s move to exercise this time. 

If I have pre-committed to meeting with a friend to go on a walk, it makes it that much harder to cancel. Or even more powerful, if I have told my kids we are going on a walk to the park later, you better believe they will keep me accountable to it! If we can enlist our friends, our spouse, or even our kids to exercise with us, it makes our commitment that much stronger. Another way to do this is to sign up for a class. Mentally you have pre-committed to going to the class, so it doesn’t take nearly as much willpower to get yourself there, especially if you have invested some money, too. Maybe right now, you need to make the investment in your health and find an exercise class that you really enjoy. It might make all the difference for you. 

Another worthy investment is quality workout clothes. I know for me if I am embarrassed or uncomfortable in the clothes I am wearing to work out, I am much less likely to do it. I hate spending money almost as much as I hate wasting food, but in the long run, I am making an investment in my lifelong health. That is worth a quality pair of shoes that don’t make my knees hurt when I am running. Pro tip: Proper shoes can do a lot to eliminate aches and pains when exercising. Do some research and find a really good pair if you suffer from some of these symptoms. 

So, with exercise:

  1. Include other people in your exercise plans, or sign up for a class.
  2. Invest in quality workout clothes that make working out enjoyable and comfortable.

There are a lot more things we can do to set ourselves up for success in healthy living, be that finding new restaurants for date night that have healthier options or partnering with a friend to swap babysitting for each other’s workout times. We can be in control of our environment, and more importantly, in control of how much we allow ourselves to be tempted. Find what works for you, but don’t let the siren-songs of unhealthy choices lure you into the water. Strap yourself to the goals you made and sail confidently through the vast oceans of temptation. You can do this!