“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed–fully understood–that sticks; right in there somewhere.”
-Dom Cobb, Inception
One of my favorite films of the past year is Inception. I’m always a sucker for highly-entertaining movies that also make me think.
In this film, a team of renegade spies are hired by a wealthy businessman to convince the young heir of a competitor’s energy empire to dissolve the family business. They plan to do this not by brute force, but by literally invading his mind to plant the idea itself into his subconscious, which they accomplish by interacting with him during their shared dreams.
This act of implanting an idea in someone’s subconscious–subtly convincing them to carry out your will–is known as “inception.”
While the premise sounds very “science fiction-y,” the underlying idea is based on solid facts about the human mind, cognitive biases, and persuasion. By using similar tactics, you can break free from the endless cycle of “eat less and exercise more” to effortlessly lose fat and build muscle–it’s just like performing inception on yourself.
The Subconscious vs. the Conscious
In Inception, the reason the spies contact the heir in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream is so they can bypass his conscious mind and interact directly with his subconscious. Dreams are the theater of the subconscious, a phenomenon wherein this deepest part of the mind is prominently on display.
In a nutshell, the human psyche comprises the conscious mind and the subconscious mind.
The conscious mind is the one we are all familiar with. It is the rational “decision-maker” part of the mind. It is what you use to solve your homework or deal with opportunities or problems at work.
But when you look at the totality of human behavior, the conscious mind plays only a very small role. It is just the tiny tip of the iceberg in comparison with the subconscious mind, which is the theoretical part of the psyche that performs all of the activities that are outside of your direct awareness. These fall into two categories:
- Innate Drives–Impulses that you were born with. These human universals include the biological functions of the body as well as drives for food, water, sex, and sleep.
- Conditioned Drives–Impulses you have learned over time. These are unique between individuals, but are often characterized by habits that are easy to carry out due to lack of alternatives and repetition. Some examples you might recognize include tying your shoe or driving, but can also include a surgeon’s procedure or a pianist’s performance.
The bad news is that we are all stuck with our innate drives. For the most part, these impulses are fixed at birth. The good news is twofold:
- For the most part, we all have the same innate drives. Despite a few outliers, we all came from the factory with “human nature” hard-wired within us. This means that the likelihood that you have something inherently “wrong” with you is slim. My personal pet peeve is the common misconception that humans are wired to be as gluttonous and lazy as possible, and that is the root cause of the obesity epidemic. No, it is not.
- By creating new conditioned drives–or performing inception on yourself–you can easily take advantage of the human mind’s ability to effortlessly carry out the tasks you desire.
Fortunately, you don’t need an elaborate setup to influence yourself while you are asleep. You can “hack” your own mind to escape the gargantuan willpower requirements of the traditional “eat less, exercise more” approach to weight loss by taking advantage of some well-known cognitive biases.
Create Positive Rituals
One of the biggest keys to changing your behavior is by creating positive rituals.
This is accomplished by adding one new task to your daily life and repeating it for 28 days straight. The keys here are to:
- Make the task small.
- Do only one task at a time.
You start by adding something new to your daily routine on day one. It will be difficult and require more willpower than if you just went about business as usual, but as long as your new behavior is small enough, it won’t zap you of all your energy.
As the next 28 days go by, this behavior becomes easier and easier to carry out. And by the end, it should be almost second nature to you. On a deep level, you are giving your conscious mind a task to complete. Over time, this task is “delegated” more and more to your subconscious mind, and you don’t need to invest any more willpower into it.
It’s the same thing that happens when you take a new job. On the first day, it’s usually a bit of a struggle to find where you are going, but after a month, you can usually drive to work and back on autopilot.
So what are some good examples of 28-day challenges that will improve your health and fitness? As I’m sure you can guess, I’d suggest you don’t do anything like “eat only 1,000 Calories every day” or “run for 2 hours daily.” Remember the list of two types of drives that the subconscious performs above? Well, hunger and sleep are innate drives, and while you can “reprogram” the conditioned drives in your mind, trying to change your innate ones is an exercise in futility. It’s much more efficient to focus on the quality of your diet and physical activity rather than the quantity.
Here’s a few examples you might want to try:
- Cook a pot roast every week.
- Bring leftovers to work instead of eating from the “wheel of death.”
- Every morning, do as many air squats, push ups, and pull ups as you can.
- Go to the gym every Monday and Thursday, doing deadlifts, cleans, and presses.
- Go to bed at 10 during the week.
I’ve found this works best for creating a workout program. It sucks like all get out for the first week or so, but by the time you’ve banged out the first month, you’re usually golden.
You might want to read my post on how to create goals that don’t suck the next time you create a 28-day challenge for yourself.
Transform Your Surroundings
What’s the best way to get over a fence? By throwing your hat over it. That way you are forced to go over it.
Making four-week commitments to implement new actions is an excellent way to change your behavior. But why not take it one step further?
It may sound obvious, but the easiest way to stop doing something is to remove all the temptations that cause you to do it in the first place, while creating the conditions that will make it easier for you to do the things you really want to do.
- Tired of wasting years of your life watching TV? Sell the damned thing.
- Want to stop digging yourself into debt? Cut up your credit cards.
- Want to start eating better? Donate all your junk food to a food shelter.
Part of what makes our habits unconscious are the “triggers” that literally force us to do the same things we are conditioned to do. By identifying and removing the triggers that lead us to go through unhealthy habits, we literally make it impossible to do it unconsciously. If, on the other hand, we introduce positive temptations into the mix at the same time, we lower the barrier to performing these actions and make it far easier to make them habitual.
When it comes to food, I have absolutely no willpower. There are very few foods I don’t like and I will eat almost anything you put in front of me. So how do I keep from getting fatter than a hippopotamus? I owe a lot of it to the following:
- I have made it a habit to not buy unhealthy food, instead filling up my cart with meat and vegetables every week.
- I have made it a habit to cook up massive quantities of food once per week, filling up my fridge at home and the one at work with tasty and filling food for whenever I get hungry.
- When I go out to dinner or order in a few times per week, I feel no shame about “falling off the wagon.”
Since I have very little processed and refined food available to me at home or at work (both of which are where I spend the majority of my time), I don’t feel triggered to gorge on them 24/7 whenever my stomach rumbles. Instead, I usually have sheer tonnage of satiating, calorie-dense, and healthy food always at my disposal. This way, when I have my “cheat meals” throughout the week, I don’t have to worry about counting calories or any other such nonsense, since I’m still keeping things healthy 75%-90% of the time.
Make Slow, Steady Progress
When NASA sent Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969, they didn’t just fling Apollo 11 out into space and hope for the best, they measured their progress and adjusted accordingly.
Even when you are really kicking ass, losing fat and building muscle still occurs on a slow enough scale that it is difficult to notice your progress on a day-to-day basis. Although we all know someone who has gone on a ridiculous crash diet or started supplementing extensively (either with legal or illegal substances) to get fast results, very few of them ever sustain their results for any extended length of time.
When it comes to body recomposition, the tortoise beats the hare almost every time.
But when you are taking the long view, it’s important to somehow measure your progress. In a previous post, I mentioned how I am currently doing it, and would suggest that you get one or more of the following:
- Bathroom Scale–To measure your weight and BMI. Also necessary for body fat percentage calculations.
- Body Fat Calipers–To measure your body fat percentage.
- Tape Measure–To measure shoulder, waist, and hip circumference to get waist-to-shoulder and waist-to-hip ratios.
- Photographs–A picture is worth 1,000 words, and if you take regular photos of yourself (ideally shirtless, in the same position), you’ll be able to see your progress over time more easily.
By taking these measurements on a regular basis (I’d suggest weekly), you can get a good idea of where you are going, even if it’s slow. By looking at these in light of your goals, you can get a better idea of what you need to change, and what rituals you should put into place.
A Powerful Tool
Although the characters in Inception influence the subconscious of their victims in order to get them to do their bidding, you can use similar tactics on yourself to make it easier to do the things you know will promote and sustain health and fitness.
By creating positive rituals, transforming your surroundings, and making slow, steady progress, you can effectively perform inception on yourself.
And trust me, it’s a hell of a lot easier than running on the treadmill for an hour a day.