Many years ago, when running a smoking cessation program at MIT for a research project, I was told by one of the participants that she did not know how to fill the time left empty by not smoking. "Smoking used up time," she told me. "When I am home and wandering around not knowing what to do with myself during the evening or on a weekend afternoon, I would smoke. Now I wander around the kitchen, snacking rather than smoking. At least it uses up some time."
It is not only ex-smokers who have problems with non-committed time. Many who struggle with dieting and weight gain point to aimless eating as a frequent source of superfluous calories. This type of eating rarely, if ever, occurs out of hunger. Rather, the nibbling, mindless picking at leftovers or even baking is done because the eater has nothing else to do (that he or she wants to do).
"I could always find something that needed doing," admitted a weight-loss client. "Household chores never end, and my basement has been a disaster area for years. My mother would appreciate more phone calls, and my checkbook always has to be balanced. But these are not things I want to do, especially over a weekend when I feel I deserve to relax. So I eat while I try to figure out what to do with myself."
Does anyone keep track of the calories consumed while searching for something to do, while waiting out those endless advertisements on television or timeouts during a football game? Is one reason that Americans are growing fatter by the minute because we don't know what to do with ourselves when the action stops on a TV drama or in a televised sporting event?
Now that more and more movies can be watched through new technology on a computer rather than in a movie theater, does this mean more mindless nibbling? No one leaves the movie theater in the middle of a movie (unless it is truly boring) to get more popcorn or another hot dog, but all you have to do at home is stop the DVD player and walk to the kitchen for a snack.
Now we are approaching the time of year when we are likely to be staying home in the evening or over a weekend because going out means putting up with the cold, ice, snow, wind and/or darkness. What are you going to do to keep yourself from wearing a path to the kitchen because you are bored or restless? Now is the time to make plans.
First, observe yourself (no excuses) to see when you feel at loose ends, when you can't settle down and become so absorbed in something that you don't think about nibbling. You may see that your vulnerable snacking periods are restricted to Friday nights or Sunday afternoons or the evening that your spouse is away at a meeting and you are home alone.
Report back to yourself about whether you are using food not just to use up time, but as a way of delaying a chore or obligation that you really don't want to do. Eating as a form of procrastination has its limits; eventually the bills have to be paid, the checkbook balanced and your mother called. But if you are eating because you can't find anything else to do as compelling, enjoyable and convenient, now is the time to find something.
Right now organizations such as schools, community centers and centers for adult education are putting out their course listings for the fall and winter sessions. A quick scan on the website of an adult education center in my neighborhood lists so many offerings that it is tempting to give up one's day job just to take advantage of them. The courses range from sewing for someone who is all thumbs to learning how to make Power Point presentations on the computer.
If you want to learn a language, dabble in watercolors, make jewelry or figure out how to really use your digital camera, there is a course for that. Want to write your memoirs or start an indoor garden or learn how to crochet or sing on key? You will find courses for all the above without having to look very hard.
Not the course-taking kind? Then consider volunteering. You can help with an adult literacy program, visit the elderly, make meals for the homeless, assist in a chemotherapy ward (the patients often just want someone to talk with) or man water stations at charity walks. I have a friend who works with abandoned dogs at an animal shelter to calm them down and make them more adoptable.
Don't want to leave the house? Then consider taking courses online. An amazing number of them are available, and some have real-time interaction with the instructor and students who may be scattered all around the world. If you are serious about a course and do the homework, you will see how quickly this uses up your extra time. (I have taken online courses and found them as personally interactive as classroom teaching.)
Skype means you never have to be lonely. Communicating across continents and time zones is always accessible and does away with the "I haven't spoken to anyone all day" feeling on a Sunday afternoon.
Choosing to exercise rather than to eat mindlessly is obviously a wiser way of spending discretionary time. Force yourself to leave the house to go to a gym or take a walk. Or better yet, combine exercise with fun and companionship. Weather and geography permitting, you can go on nature walks with your local Audubon Society, kayak (good for upper body workouts) or snowshoe (great for leg muscles and balance). See if there is an outdoor photography class that involves walks or hikes through nearby landscapes. Check out dance classes; you don't need a partner to learn how to tango. The classes often provide one, and you just need to bring the shoes. Take your dog to a dog park. It is a great way to exercise if you run around with your dog and people are friendly even if their dogs are not.
The good thing about planning how to fill empty hours with something other than mindless eating is that instead of gaining weight, you may gain a new skill, a new friend or a new interest in life. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?
Follow Judith J. Wurtman, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stopmed_wt_gain