One day when I was in middle school, the teacher brought in pictures of optical illusions and other pictures that could be tricky if you didn’t take the time to examine them closely. Most of us are familiar with the optical illusions these days: the black and white pic of a vase that has faces silhouetted on either side; the old woman-young woman pic; and then the wordplay: “be sure to read this this carefully” and my all-time favorite, “refuse to be put here.”
That last one really confused our class. We were all about 12 or 13 years old and didn’t understand even after the teacher explained that public trash cans (or dust bins) in England had that legend on them: Refuse To Be Put Here. We were wondering why the English would want to put us in trash cans, and if they did, why are they telling us to refuse being put there? That’s when the teacher explained that we were confusing the verb ‘refuse’ (ree-fyooz) meaning ‘to decline or reject’ with the noun ‘refuse’ (reff-yooss) meaning ‘scraps or garbage.’
All these years later, that legend still makes me smile: it’s a little bit of absurd cultural miscommunication. I think that phrase has stuck with me because most people tend to see what is familiar and go no further than that. We tend not to look at what is really there: we just see the surface, as in the other phrase: “be sure to read this this carefully.” Most of us miss the second ‘this’ because our eyes skim the sentence and our brains automatically translate it into what we expect it to say.
When I taught English, I used to tell my students to have a friend proof-read their essays or wait a few hours before doing it yourself because the same effect will happen. Our brains know what we meant to say so when we read the essay, our brains will automatically gloss over any errors. Even though we read the mistakes, we don’t really see them.
The same thing happens to us when we try to make positive changes to our eating or exercise habits. It can happen with any habit we try to change because we tend to get locked into one way of thinking or acting. We are still stuck in our old routines and the new routine doesn’t quite make sense to us yet. We are still reading ‘ree-fyooz’ instead of ‘reff-yooss.’ We get confused and fall back into old patterns instead of looking at what is really in front of us. Is that really an obstacle or is it an opportunity to change our old routine?
While this may sound like a complicated idea, it really isn’t. Example: you are going out for lunch with family and at the last minute, they decide to go to a sandwich shop. Your old routine would be “I guess I’m stuck eating a sandwich or nothing!” and rather than feel awkward not eating, you would just eat a sandwich. Are you really stuck eating a sandwich? Or can you ask for a lettuce wrap instead? Or maybe asking for the sandwich open-faced and leaving the bread behind? When it comes to making the best choice for us in unexpected situations, we all need a little practice looking at situations differently.
We’ve all heard phrases like “thinking outside the box” so often that they’ve become cliche. They no longer have any real meaning to us anymore. We don’t have to examine every single situation or go to extremes to change our habits, but we do have to learn to pause before falling back into old habits and routines. Suppose you are meeting a friend at the gym to work out and you get a last minute text saying they’re stuck with a client and won’t be going. What are your options? Go alone or not go at all? How about rescheduling? How about calling someone else? If you don’t like going to the gym alone, how about another activity, like walking the dog, or even just taking a walk by yourself or with another friend?
Recently, I was swamped over the weekend, when I usually do my grocery shopping, and frankly, I bailed on it. I just decided I am too lazy to go to the store on Sunday so I am staying home! Later that night, I took a look at my schedule and realized that I was busy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening so shopping would either be after 8:00 p.m. or not at all, unless I wanted to bail on the gym. Hmmmmm…..maybe being lazy was a mistake….. I made a quick survey of what I had in the fridge: a bag of salad greens, two half bottles of dressing, a sweet potato, a left over pork steak, five hot dogs, a package of bacon and a dozen eggs. After finishing the salad and the pork steak, it’s been ‘breakfast for dinner’ so far this week! My being lazy put me in an awkward situation and my old routine would have “I guess I have to get takeout until I can get to the store!”
We get used to thinking in terms of Option A and Option B. In my case above, it’s miss the gym to get groceries or get takeout. There is also Option C: go shopping after gym at 8:00 p.m. None of these is an attractive option to me, so I chose Option D: eat what I had available! While this isn’t a radical decision now, a few years ago it would have been. The thought of not having takeout when I obviously had no “dinner options” would have left me stymied. By my old standards, I had “no food” in the house, so takeout or shopping were my only options.
We face situations on a regular basis where we are presented with Option A and Option B: I am running late for work and I have no gas in the car. I have no time to make coffee and I have nothing in the house for breakfast. Since I am running late, I have no time to stop to pick up something. Gas is a necessary non-negotiable so obviously Option A is ‘gas station breakfast’ and Option B is get takeout breakfast and be late for work, which is also non-negotiable for me. What about Option C: have breakfast at work? Of course this only works if you have something to eat at the office, but since I bring my lunch supplies routinely, ‘lunch for breakfast’ is an option for me. (Frankly, this is one of the reasons I bring lunch supplies to the office.) Option D is to skip breakfast altogether, have coffee at the office and have lunch later on. Still totally doable!
Learning to look at things from a different angle isn’t hard once we stop and think about what is in front of us; it’s that “stopping and thinking” that trips us up. I think this is why I remember that phrase from middle school: when you are presented with a confusing situation, ‘ree-fyooz’ to be put here!