Using Your Dieting Experience to Your Advantage

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Brake or Gas http://www.lintlife.comTo begin this post, I have two choices for an opening sentence – I’ll leave it to you to choose which you like better:

“It was a dark, stormy, sawdusty and bloated night…”

- Or -

“Once upon a time, in a far away land, I was an overweight cabinetmaker.”

(I’m leaning toward the latter.)

During college, I worked as a cabinetmaker in a small shop in the San Juan islands. One of my shining moments as an apprentice (and by shining, I mean horribly painful and incompetent) was during one of my first installations.

As the apprentice my job was primarily to fetch tools, carry heavy things, and clean up, leaving the real installation work to the more experienced installer I was helping. On this fateful day however, things went slightly different.

“Here. Take this screw gun, get under the counter, and when I tell you it’s in, sink a screw to hold it until I can get down there.”

“No problem,” I said confidently.

However, apparently by, “No problem,” I was trying to say, “Great – when you say GO I’ll put a shiny new 3-inch nickel-plated screw right through the visible surface of the brand new countertop for all the world to see!” …which I did. A very expensive custom countertop, I might add. The mistake was a not a cheap one, and could not be fixed on site. It would cost us at least another day, new materials, and a week’s delay to fix my basic mistake.

In the grand scheme of things, this really wasn’t a big deal – after all, nobody got hurt, and although it was going to be expensive to fix, it was a recoverable error.

However, as the new kid I was shaken up by it, partly because I wanted to keep doing this work, and probably mostly just out of embarrassment at having made such a simple mistake. I spent much of the afternoon kicking myself, and had a tough time focusing on much else.

Later in the afternoon as we drove back to the shop, I apologized again. “I’m really sorry about the countertop. It was so stupid.”

By contrast, and to my surprise, the journeyman installer seemed fairly nonchalant about it.

“Don’t worry about it – you’re doing fine. Do you know what the difference is between experience and inexperience?”

“Uh, you don’t put screws through the surface of countertops?”

“Nope. The difference is an experienced person recovers from their mistakes quicker. That’s it. That’s the big cabinetmaker’s secret. Congratulations. I’ll teach you the secret handshake another time.”

This lesson has stuck with me ever since, and I’ve tried to apply it in almost every facet of life where I’ve made mistakes. And to tell you the truth, I can’t think of an area of life so far where I haven’t made mistakes to one degree or another.

But one area I hadn’t thought about until today in which this applies is, of course, what I choose to eat.

Your Dieting Experience Counts

As a result of years of pop culture guidance and companies with products to sell, for a long time most people viewed weight loss as a “dieting” exercise. The result? Many of us are what you might call “seasoned dieters” – for better or, in my case, for many pounds worse. In fact, you could say we’ve got experience up the wazoo on both sides of the scale: how to lose weight – and how to gain it back with a vengeance.

So like me, you may have won a few (lost 60 lbs as a teen; ran a 1/2 marathon, etc.), and lost a whole bunch (South Beach, Atkins, Pritikin, ad infinitum). But guess what that is?


Just because your experience may include more failed attempts to lose weight than successes does not mean that those missed attempts don’t count. You learned things through that experience. You learned what hurts. You learned what feels great. You learned what’s embarrassing, and how it feels to beat that embarrassment.

You also probably picked up more than a few good habits or ideas here and there, even if they might be at times overshadowed by the ones you need to conquer.

But they all count as experience. Each one.

So own that experience. Draw from it, and use it to push yourself forward.

How to Use Your Experience to Your Greatest Advantage

There are hundreds of ways to draw on the wealth of your own experience when you are focusing on diet and exercise. You may know you are more likely to exercise at certain times of the day. You may know that you have a weakness for refined sugars if they are available in your house. You may recognize that you put too much emotional emphasis on food as a means of escape.

But today, I’ll focus on just one way to use your experience to your advantage:

Lean on your experience to recover from your mistakes.

When you make a poor food choice, don’t waste time lamenting it. Don’t spend time kicking yourself over why you chose poorly; Admit your mistake – to yourself, or someone you’ve made yourself accountable to – and get on with the next step. That is powerful way of using your experience to your advantage, because having confidence in what you already know, you can immediately dismiss the past and get on with making the right choice now.

Most of us, in the moments after making a bad choice, go through that cycle of thought where we think that if we focus on the mistake, we’ll learn why we did it, as if we’re on a quest for that unknown, mysterious golden bit of knowledge that will stop us from doing that again. But is that really true? Is it of great value to spend inordinate amounts of time focusing on what we could have done better?

My assertion with diet specifically is that if you’ve been doing this for a while (you’ve got experience), it doesn’t generally require a lot of analysis when you make a mistake; it requires action. You already know why you ate it – it’s what you do next that really matters.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that if you focus on the mistake for all of 5-10 seconds, you will have learned everything from that experience that you didn’t already know. I’m betting that 99% of the time you already knew it was not the greatest idea to hit the drive-thru.

For most of us in this process of rethinking our diets, focusing on our dietary mistakes for much longer than a few seconds only leads to frustration, negativity, and eventually apathy.

Most importantly, spending your time focusing on what you did wrong prevents you from focusing on this moment, right now, when you can chose to do things right. And by doing so, you’re not giving yourself the credit for years of experience. Credit that you deserve.


I worked as a fulltime cabinetmaker for several years during college, but I eventually left it for a job in software. And I believe that being trained to have a cabinetmaker’s eye for detail has really helped me in my seemingly unrelated career since. In particular, this principle of using your experience to your advantage always made sense in an industry that is perpetually seeking uncharted territory and new ideas. As I built experience, my goal was always to find ways to recover quicker from my mistakes, of which there were of course, many.

Now however, it’s time to apply it to my eating and exercise habits, because I want the end of this story to read,

“And the fit, formerly chubby writer, lived happily ever after.”

Thanks for reading.