Episode 50: Making ‘the Joy Choice,’ featuring Michelle Segar, PhD/MPH/MS

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Episode 50: Making ‘the Joy Choice,’ featuring Michelle Segar, PhD/MPH/MS 

Deborah Holdship: Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, Editor of Michigan Today. In this episode of Listen in Michigan, my guest is Michelle Seager, an award winning researcher, health coach, and author here at U of M. She also is a behavioral sustainability scientist. Say that three times fast. And she is obsessed with precision. Obviously, few qualities are more important to the advancement of science than precision. But precision also is important to the advancement of our brains, especially when it comes to achieving lasting changes in eating and exercise. Take the terms ‘joy’ and ‘choice’, for Michelle, these two short and precise words set the foundation for her fresh and brain based alternative to a long standing paradigm of behavior change that she describes as misguided, outdated, and self-defeating.

It’s time to lose the self, negating all or nothing thinking that derides us for lacking self-control when our big plans go awry. That’s why Michelle named her book The Joy Choice. It delves into emerging decision science and explores what really motivates the consistent choices that power sustainable change. There’s so many energies at play when we face a choice point that threaten to impede our progress.

Whether we’re hoping to lose a few pounds or begin a workout regimen, so it’s not enough to write ourselves off for lacking self-control. Instead, it’s time to examine how our brains function. In The Joy Choice, Michelle focuses on three executive functions in the brain that are integral to her system working memory, inhibition, and flexible thinking. “It’s all about precision and keeping things simple”, she says.

For example, she made the acronym Trap to represent the literal traps of temptation, rebellion, accommodation and perfection. That are so good at derailing our best laid plans and to operationalize the joy choice. Michelle came up with another precise acronym ‘P. O. P.’ which allows you to literally pop your original plan and choose an alternative when facing a decision trap.

I’ll let her explain. The bottom line is this Michelle is redefining success in a way that helps most of us be successful. And as she so precisely puts it, isn’t that a joy? Here’s Michelle.

Michelle Segar: The formula we’ve been given to create choices or behavior changes is based on a definition of success that most people can’t achieve. And that definition of success is do it right, hit the bullseye, you do it all, or what unfortunately happens is we tend to do nothing. And so we’ve been socialized, educated, indoctrinated with all or nothing thinking. And it’s so deeply embedded in her mind. That it’s like a mental heuristic. We just go to, “Oh, I can’t do it, so I’m going to do nothing.” That definition of success sets us up for failure, feeling bad, feeling shame. You know, we can go on and on with the words that it makes us feel. And, you know, some people like my husband, are you know, what I call spitters? You know, these are people who can do the same thing no matter what they structure their lives to perfectly fulfill their exercise goals. But most of us don’t have the type of personality or ability to organize our life and keep the hubbub out.

But for any listener who hasn’t been successful long term, what I’m hoping that they’ll realize is that the system that we’ve been taught has really only been for the habitants and not for the rest of us who are uninhabitable and people who do have more unexpected and hubbub in our lives.

DH: That’s so good and empowering to know, like, there’s nothing wrong with you.

It’s the system that was created that’s wrong for you.

MS: That’s right. We’ve been brainwashed to believe the alternatives are the way it should be. So once you, I mean, the book is full of the emerging science on this topic because it’s not enough for me to say, “Oh, I work with clients and this is what I found is helpful.”

This is what the science shows is what’s going to help more people better sustain their lifestyle goals. The language basically influences how we see things and how we think about them. So, if we’re not using precise language, then we’re not going to be thinking about these very fundamental decisions and choices that we are hoping to make to stick with healthy lifestyles.

The word choice is very purposeful. Earlier in my career, I was very focused on the word sustainable behavior change, and it’s not that that’s not an important term, but it isn’t the precise term that individuals and the people who work with them should be using because when it comes down to what determines whether we stick with a behavioral over time, it’s the individual choices we make right now, and now, and now, and now.

And so we want to be thinking about this in terms of how we make choices. And, you know, what we’re hoping for is to make choices that aren’t identical every time, but that consistently support the greater goals were aiming to achieve. So the joy choice is defined as the perfect, imperfect option that lets us do something instead of nothing.

So what we’re doing is we’re redefining success in a way that lets most of us finally be successful. And isn’t that a joy to finally be successful?

DH: It’s interesting because you talk so much about in order to make good choices we need to have the room in our brain to be able to do so.

MS: There’s this emerging really important research on how our executive functions influence our ability to make healthy choices. But for the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to focus on the notion that it is our brains innate self-management system. It’s a set of skills and abilities, mental skills and abilities that lets us manage ourselves. And that includes planning and problem-solving and decision making. The premise of The Joy Choice is that whenever we initiate a change in behavior and a lifestyle behavior, we do it with the greatest intentions, with commitment, with inspiration, and with and and with hope that this time, and maybe belief, that this time we’re finally going to get it right.

But regardless of those motivational assets that we might bring to the beginning of our behavior change, inevitably something’s going to go awry, life skin unexpectedly get in the way. So if we don’t know how to successfully navigate those what I call choice points, then we’re just going to keep getting derailed again and again and again. So what we need to do is we need to understand how our brain most optimally makes decisions in novel and challenging situations.

And that’s why we need to understand our executive functions and the three primary ones that have to do with healthy eating and exercise. The four categories of decision traps that I’ve seen in the clients that I’ve been working with for decades. The first one is temptation, and that’s pretty self-explanatory. And temptation really gets set up by the other traps too.

Let’s think about how those choices when you feel tempted, let’s go right to perfection. I have to, I can’t eat any of the cake or any of that food over there. And then what do I want to do? I want to rebel against that, right? So there is no wiggle room. There’s no gray space to make a choice.

It’s going to have compromise that will let me make some tradeoffs so I can maybe follow part of my eating plan and also meet the celebratory needs of the moment and not feel restricted and restrained that I need to rebel against. Most often we think about that we don’t have enough self-control in these tempting situations when we succumb to whatever is seducing us, that’s going against our intentions and our plans. But the reality is, is that there are all these energies at play that make that set us up for just running toward whatever that temptation is that we were hoping to not succumb to. One thing about temptation that I think is really empowering for people to know about is there are new theories just about exercise and just about eating, which is what where we always needed to go.

These are the two behaviors that people use to try to lose weight and that weight loss goal historically, experientially, both as an individual, as an organization, as a practitioner and as a society we know that having that is the primary goal is wrapped with so many negatives and embeds so many negative experiences, self negating, shameful experiences, self-consciousness, but getting back to temptation.

There are two new theories that I focus on in the chapter on temptation. One is about exercise by Ralph Brand and Patti Ekkekakis really pioneers in the field of exercise behavior, and we come to a decision about exercising and it’s situated within our past, whole life history with exercise. So it’s been branded in general in either negative or positive ways based on our past experiences.

And so instead of thinking, “Oh, I don’t want to exercise or the couch is calling me,” the reason exercise feels like a chore, right now is because my whole past history of shameful P.E. of feeling like I’m not athletic enough for feeling like I’m not fit enough to be in the gym. All these things come to it. And so going back to the whole precise conversation, if we’re not thinking about the most precise barriers or challenges or the way it actually works in our brain that’s getting in our way, then we can’t be as precise and effective in the strategies we choose.

So that’s temptation. I’ll move on to rebellion, and that is self-explanatory, too, right? Research shows theories are all about the fact that we are innately wired to reclaim our freedom when we feel like it’s been taken away. And oftentimes when we initiate a change in eating or we decide to start a new exercise regimen, it is coming out of shoulds.

And shoulds are like this invisible jail that we feel that we’re inside of. So we innately want to rebel against it. Accommodation is when we all the time, not sometimes, but when we always accommodate other people’s needs at the expense of our own self-care needs. So someone might be following a certain eating plan and go to a party and they may not feel temptation, rebellion because they love their eating plan, they love how they’re feeling following it, but they feel that they won’t be taking care of the people at the party if they don’t eat the whole thing of whatever is being offered to them.

And then there’s perfection which sets the context for everything, right? It’s you’re going to eat the whole box of cookies or nothing, and then it leaves temptation, rebellion, accommodation to fight over the spoils. We’re not thinking about how can we be strategic and flexible. We’re actually just in reactance mode.

DH: That’s where I live most of the time.

Well, again, with the language where you talking about deprivation, I thought this was interesting, too. Deprivation versus goal shielding. So instead of depriving yourself of something, you’re protecting your ultimate goal.

MS: That’s right. But if it feels like it should, there’s no desire to protect it. So that’s why the the whole paradigm we have when we initiate a change has to be embedded in true autonomy and values in meaning, because otherwise we have no desire to protect it.

DH: Yeah. And so this can be applied to things other than food and exercise as well. Right? So if you’re seeking to write a book or, you know, other things that are challenging goals that you may be intimidated to pursue, you can sort of use this methodology there too?

MS: Absolutely. And remember, executive functioning is our general self management system that includes decision making.

So working memory is considered to be the backbone of our other executive functions. People talk about it as being a limited capacity or space to hold one or two pieces of information that we work with. So we don’t just hold the information. It’s like when we’re trying to remember a phone number and dial it. That would be using our working memory.

How can we support this limited capacity? Well, we need to make things really simple. And we need to get rid of the stressors and the negative chatter that’s getting in our way. So how can we do that? Well we understand what our traps are and when we understand it, we can name them and say, “Hey, oh, there’s rebellion. I’ve been rebelling for 20 years, but now that I’m truly making the joy choice, I don’t need to rebel against it because this is for me and it’s going to help me be successful.”. So when we are able to have awareness about what is getting in the way or a reaction that is not optimal, when we notice it in name, we actually are taking back some of our cognitive control and getting out of the reactive mode that has always fully controlled our choices.

So supporting working memory by doing that, but also by keeping things simple and being precise because we’re clearing out the space for strategy and tactics. And as you know from reading the book, I created an acronym called P.O.P. Two reasons we need to operationalize the joy choice. Well, the whole notion the judiciaries may make sense to people, but how do I use it in the moment and how does it actually support my three primary executive functions while we pause because pausing lets us create a space between our automatic reaction that we may not be setting us up for the success we want and reflection so that we can go, “wait a sec, oh, I can name it to tame it. There’s perfection, not going to go there.’. And then we can harness our attention for the next step in P.O.P, which is open up our options in play. I designed this in a way that would support our cognitive thinking executive function. The whole idea behind ‘open up your options and play it’ when your plans meet a challenge or a choice point is “Okay, I can’t do the all. So I’m going to literally metaphor and metaphorically P.O.P my plan. I’m not going to go to all or nothing thing. I’m going to P.O.P it so that I can work with it and I’m going to open up my options and play with them.”. That’s a positive metaphor. I’m playing with the alternatives. “Yes. Maybe I can’t get to the gym or I can’t get outside for the 60 minutes I’d hope for. But could I do 15?”

When we are curious about what the alternatives are, because that’s what we want to be, we’re, we’re shifting from perfection, rebellion temptation, accommodation to curiosity about what else I can do. And then the third part of P.O.P, which is the culmination is the grand finale, is pick the joy choice. And the stakes are low because it’s the perfect and imperfect option that lets you do something instead of nothing, keeping you in sync with yourself and in sync with the things you care most about.

I mean, I think it’s helpful for people to understand that we’ve been set up to rebel. The reasons we’ve been taught to exercise and change our eating in the ways we’ve been taught to do it. Very punitive, very restrict, have that literally primes us to boomerang away from that which we said we wanted, right? We need to teach people how to improvise in their crazy, hectic life, how to think precisely about their choices, how to think precisely about what’s getting in the way, and how to think precisely and creatively about how they can do something instead of nothing so that we can stay on the path.

The word joy, again, is very purposefully selected because it leads us to success. It leads us to take better care of ourselves. There’s a theory that about joy that that proposes that when our momentary experience aligns with who we are at our core, we feel joy. So if we know that the choice we’re making isn’t just affirming and helping us stay consistent with our greater eating and exercise goals, it is actually helping us realize who we are as an individual, that’s joy.

DH: I’ve met Michelle twice, and yet I feel like she wrote this book specifically for me. So thank you, Michelle, and I thank you for listening, and I hope you come back next month. Till then, stay cool. And as always, Go Blue.

This will be the last time

Precision. Few qualities are more important to the advancement of science. Precision also is important to the advancement of our brains. Especially when it comes to achieving lasting change in eating and exercise behaviors.

Michelle Segar headshot

Michelle Segar, PhD/MPH/MS

Take the terms “joy” and “choice.” For award-winning translational researcher and health coach Michelle Segar, PhD/MPH/MS, these are the precise words that set the foundation for her fresh and brain-based alternative to a longstanding paradigm of behavior change she describes as “simplistic, outdated, and misguided for many.”

“The ways we’ve been taught to change our exercise and eating habits are punitive and restrictive in a way that primes us to boomerang away from that which we said we wanted,” Segar says. “We’ve been set up to rebel. Part of the reason we self-sabotage in this way is that we haven’t learned how to successfully navigate and bypass this innately human, yet non-optimal response.”

While planning will always play a role in creating changes in exercise and intentional eating, most of us haven’t learned the important — yet simple and precise — ways to manage the unexpected, in-the-moment challenges to our best-laid plans, “even if it’s as simple as not feeling motivated, or wanting to rebel,” Segar says.

Lose it

The Joy Choice

(Hatchette Go, 2022)

In her new book, The Joy Choice (Hatchette Go, 2022), Segar delves into emerging decision science and explores what motivates the consistent choices that power sustainable change.

The Joy Choice acknowledges our complex days, and it helps us create the conditions and belief systems necessary to have a more symbiotic relationship between exercise and healthy eating with our daily roles and goals,” she says.

Segar warns against the common practice of lumping healthy eating and exercise with other changes in behavior.

“These are the two behaviors people use to try to lose weight,” she says. “And having weight loss as the primary reason for behavior change embeds many negative and shameful life experiences. New theories about eating and exercise explain how these negative memories and experiences get intertwined with our feelings about healthy eating and exercise. You can see how that sets us up to fail from the get-go. It’s not that losing weight is inherently bad, but it may not be the most strategic ‘why’ to focus on when we’re trying to change our eating and exercise behaviors in sustainable ways.”

We need to lose the conventional ‘lose it’ mentality when it comes to healthy eating and exercise, Segar says. The book illuminates an alternate, science-based approach that supports long-term success.

“There’s a theory about joy by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett,” says Segar, “that proposes when our momentary experience aligns with our identity, we feel joy. I purposely selected that word because of its deeply moving and transformative power. When we pick ‘the joy choice,’ the perfect imperfect option, it not only helps us tend to our own self-care needs (keeping us on the path of lasting change), it permits us to tend to the needs of the people and projects we care most about.”

UnTRAP yourself

Segar’s prime audience includes those people who initiate change with tremendous motivation but who quickly abandon the plan in the face of such typical decision disruptors as temptation, rebellion, accommodation, and perfection.

The traps are so pervasive in daily life – and so familiar to us – that Segar uses the acronym TRAP to help readers “name and tame” these common impediments we face to our best-laid plans.

“If we’re not using precise terms for what we’re challenged by or what we hope to do, we can’t be as precise and effective in the tactics and strategies we choose,” she says.

“Escaping our decision TRAPs and the idea of making a ‘joy choice’ might sound good in theory, but we also need a method to implement these ideas in our real lives.”

That’s why she created a decision tool to operationalize decision-making in ways that science suggests could support our executive functions, ie., the brain’s innate system for pivoting and problem-solving in the moment.

“There’s an exciting emerging body of science about the role of our executive functions in our health-related decisions and weight,” Segar says.

Pop that plan!

Segar created a tool out of this science aiming to support three of our brain’s executive functions – working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility (what she calls flexible thinking) – to strategically navigate our ever-changing “choice points.”

“By supporting our executive functioning at the moment we need it we will be more likely to follow through with our greater health-related goals,” she says

Most approaches try to “boost” executive functions via online or lab-based computer games, treating the functions in isolation via simplistic tasks. The baseline, so-called “brain trainer” Lumosity and “go/no go” trainings may show some effect in the the lab, but don’t tend to translate into improvements in the real world, Segar notes. So she decided to do things differently. She created a decision tool that aims to support our executive functions in synergistic ways. She calls it POP: Pause, Open up your options and play, and Pick the joy choice.

“Instead of computer games in a lab, we need to teach people how to improvise in their crazy hectic lives,” she says. “POP is easy to remember (supporting working memory) and guides you to pivot when you need to (supporting cognitive flexibility). Because it’s about personal choice and options, and no longer about ‘no go’ we flip the tired all-or-nothing thinking paradigm on its head and shift from needing to ‘inhibit’ ourselves to playing with the alternative options that might work. You ‘pop’ your plan, literally and metaphorically, so you can create an alternative when your plan unexpectedly goes awry.”

Imagine you plan to jog for 60 minutes but an obstacle arises in your schedule. Using POP, says Segar, one may decide to walk for 15 minutes as an option.

“The stakes are low because it’s the perfect imperfect option that lets you do something instead of nothing,” Segar says, “keeping you in sync with the things you care most about.”

The perfect imperfect choice

Segar’s POP acronym and decision tool helps us avoid the self-sabotage of the all-or-nothing thinking that has long characterized our past approaches to trying to make changes in eating and exercise. This new approach is designed to be easy to remember, fun, and spark curiosity (a motivating positive emotion) about the possible alternatives.

“POP is inherently flexible; we can use these same mental steps for many types of challenges that arise,” Segar says.

Picking the “joy choice” is the tool’s grand finale, she says.

“We have no choice but to deal with the urgencies and priorities of daily life,” she says. “So if we have a positive strategy that can flex with the ever-changing needs of our families and work, there’s a better chance we’ll make the choices that consistently support our greater eating and exercise goals, even if we do so in perfectly imperfect ways.

“What we’re doing is redefining success in a way that works with rather than against our daily needs and priorities, helping more of us be successful and feel our best. And isn’t that a joy?”

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