Chaotic Systems are governed by a few simple rules–and so are our lives! That’s one nugget I’ve retained from a Systems Thinking Conference I attended many years ago.

Chaos Theory was the basis of a wonderful presentation by storyteller and author David Hutchens (Outlearning the Wolves, and many more titles). You’ve probably heard the bit about how a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a thunderstorm in the Midwest, or some variation on that — well, that’s an illustration of Chaos Theory. It governs our weather and a host of other natural processes as well.

Among other things, Hutchens proposed that it may also describe the way our lives unfold (I’m doing my best to remember here, my apologies to David for any inaccuracies):

Chaotic systems such as weather follow a few simple rules that result in highly complex activity. People also tend to make the same choices, (follow the same “rules”) over and over again, and the cumulative effects of those choices show up in every aspect of our lives: our work, our relationships, and our health too.
These aren’t necessarily big, hairy, momentous choices either–it’s often the small ones we make all the time that make the biggest difference: “given A or B or C, I always choose B” . (Maybe it’s that we’re a bit shy, so we usually don’t strike up a conversation when we encounter someone new, or perhaps we generally put off making a decision till the last possible moment, or we love to make lists and check things off, or maybe when something unfortunate happens, we tend to shrug it off and move on…) Each choice has consequences, many of them unintended and unseen.
There are so many choices we make on a daily basis! And we’re not even conscious of making them most of the time. Yet, piled on top of one another, day after day, year after year, they account for a large share of our personal stories, and our current situations.

The beauty of understanding this is that it means that creating a major change in our lives doesn’t necessarily require major alterations in our behavior: we can accomplish huge things by making small changes in our choices and being patient. Conversely, trying to make big changes rapidly often ends badly: “Major Transformations” attempted by individuals and organizations often fail because of the little things, these unseen rules we live and work by.

So how does Chaos Theory relate to your weight?

For most of us, eating is governed by many different factors. Each time we eat, there’s a situation or trigger and a response: eat something. The “rules” that govern our eating are different for everyone, but we all have them. I work with people to discover their particular set of rules. Once those are out in the open, we can tweak them, often very gently at first. (They’ve been in place a long time and they’re usually there for a very good reason.) Sometimes it just takes awareness to make another choice possible–in that case, the individual can simply work to be more conscious in the moment and less mindless about eating. Sometimes, however, it’s really complex or heavy and we need to work on strategies to handle the underlying feelings and circumstances.

Over time, the result of tweaking our eating rules is stabilized weight and often, weight loss: we eat more and more out of hunger, usually stop when we’re satisfied, and our weight gradually moves toward its genetic set point and then levels off. Diets don’t work this way–they fit into the “Major Transformation” category mentioned above. The weight may come off rapidly when we dramatically change our eating behaviors, but over time, the vast majority of us revert to our old rules and the weight comes back. All too often, the diet actually magnifies the “eat something” response and we end up gaining more weight than we lost in the first place. (there’s new research on this!)

You can start to uncover your own rules:

  • What triggers thoughts of food for you?
  • Does eating trigger feelings of guilt? (Guilt make things worse, not better–try to let that go)
  • Did your family have “food rules”? Are they still governing your eating?
  • Do you crave certain foods? When?
  • Do you sometimes eat too much? Why? What’s going on then?
    Being AWARE of your rules is the first step in making new choices. The next step is coming up with alternatives to the “eat something” response. (More on that another time…)

    IMPORTANT NOTE: The trick here is to not be judgmental, be curious instead–judgment blocks understanding. Once we’ve judged something, we shut out other information. If you want to choose wisely, you need all the information you can get!