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How the Whole Life Challenge Taught Me Impulse Control

By September 25, 2023Self-Improvement
Reading Time: 6 minutes
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Over the years and through trial and error, I’ve discovered the ways in which I move best through this world. I now have blanket policies that instruct me to avoid intense math at all costs, refrain from engaging in political posts, and resist correcting my friends’ grammar via text.

Thanks to my many shots at the Whole Life Challenge, I’ve also learned that I need accountability to control my impulses and stay in my healthy-eating lane.

But that lesson didn’t come easy.

The Not Very Productive Way to Measure “Success”

If you were my bathroom scale circa 2003-2011, you’d think I had some sort of obsessive compulsion. The scale was my main measurement tool for success and I checked it every day without fail — sometimes two times a day (because of an inane article I read about how gravity affects your bodyweight throughout the day).

Unfortunately, as with most rigid measurement devices, the scale didn’t tell the whole story of my health and I often looked at it — and, as a result, myself — with varying levels of disdain. And because the scale is simply a mechanical device (as opposed to a coach, counselor, community, or sentient being of any sort), it also didn’t hold me accountable in any meaningful way.

How the Whole Life Challenge Taught Me Impulse Control

While I generally do well with healthy habits, the nutrition part of things remains my biggest snag. I’m anything but a food snob. Actually, I’m more like a food vacuum cleaner. So maybe you can see how this tendency and the shortcomings of my scale didn’t mesh well together? My scale did the only thing it could — insult me on a daily basis — and I made it mean something about me. And even though the daily weigh-ins never made me feel good, it was like some sort of co-dependent relationship and I couldn’t break out of the cycle with my scale.

Then came my first Whole Life Challenge in 2011 and before that Challenge was over, not only was I consistently making better food choices, but I ceremoniously tossed my scale in the dumpster.

The Original Hardcore Whole Life

Now, before you start thinking I did this astride a mountaintop, completely naked, and unafraid (terrible visual, but that’s on you), know that this euphoric realization did not, in fact, come easily. To fully understand, you need some perspective and a brief history lesson from an OG WLCer. Allow me to bestow on you an age-old antidote some of my friends and I call “The Cyanide Rule.”

Back when the walking pack of abdominal muscles known as Michael Stanwyck first introduced the Whole Life Challenge to a core group of habitual exercisers at CrossFit Los Angeles, he had the basics down pat. He was prepared, he knew the rules and habits he wanted to imbue, and we could all tell he was ready to see this thing evolve.

With that, he had some rather, let’s say “stringent”, nutritional ground rules. For those of you familiar with the Kickstart and/or Lifestyle levels of today’s WLC, just try to forget those exist for a moment.

Michael went all-in, hardcore, and there was no allowance for the occasional glass of wine or the freebie dessert if you built up to an Indulgence Bonus. There were no bonus point tokens. You took a point for even the smallest infraction. Let me repeat: NO. BONUS. POINT. TOKENS.

Me and the other OG WLCers walked to the grocery store uphill both ways in four feet of snow, man. We lived the hard WLC life.

Okay, not really. But about two weeks into the first Challenge, when one of our group asked Michael if he had to take a point because he accidentally took a sip of (and spit out) his dinner partner’s vodka thinking it was his water glass, Stanwyck responded with, “If you take a sip of cyanide, do you still die?”

We didn’t have the phrase “mic drop” back then, but it was a mic drop moment.

I was stunned. We were all stunned. Various witnesses contend that the person who posed the question might’ve whimpered. I’m pretty sure I did.

I may not live (or die, as it were) by The Cyanide Rule, but fast-forward through several more iterations of the WLC and this “rule” has helped me hone in on what truly makes the Challenge — especially as opposed to the scale — work for me: in-the-moment accountability.

Vodka or Water?

My Shiny New Impulse Control Muscle

I spend my days working about twenty feet from a kitchen full of free food of varying nutritional value that magically gets replenished on a daily basis. Okay, maybe it isn’t magic since it’s someone’s job to stock it, but it feels like blissful sorcery around 3:00pm when my free lunch is wearing off. To put it plainly: the persistent impulse control and accountability imparted by the WLC is absolutely crucial in any and all of my dietary success.

And let me tell you, I’ve tried a plethora of things to keep tabs on myself. I’ve downloaded numerous apps. I’ve worn various wrist-based contraptions that tell me when to do almost everything (walk, stand up, breathe, etc.). I’ve set long-term goals without day-to-day check-ins. I’ve started daily challenges with friends. I’ve logged literally everything I’ve eaten for weeks at a time.

Some of these strategies were too complicated and time-consuming. And at the end of the day, while I can appreciate that things like a leaderboard and/or joining a team works for some people, I’ve learned these tools have absolutely no bearing on my choices when I’m staring at a tub of free cookies (damn you and your delicious biscotti, Trader Joes!).

For whatever reason (psychiatrists, come at me), asking myself the question “Is this drop of ‘cyanide’ worth the point?” at the moment when I consider indulging in a sugar-packed snack works better for me than any other metric of accountability.

And I’ll admit: some days I do choose the “cyanide.” As it turns out, small doses of “poison” once in a while aren’t a big deal (and obviously, we’re not talking about actual cyanide here). But trying to live on poison daily? Not a good plan.

So instead of mindlessly going through my day only to be disappointed when I step on the scale, I now go through my day intentionally. Instead of weighing myself, I weigh each of my choices against the potential “consequence” and move forward confidently from there.

Ironically, I know if I did step on a scale again, it would have far more nice things to say about me than it did back in the day.

How the Whole Life Challenge Taught Me Impulse Control

What I have to say “no” to on a daily basis.

It’s Just Not That Serious, Bro

I know Michael and Andy don’t think measured amounts of vodka, or sugar, are poison. I probably would’ve quit participating in the Challenge if I thought that’s the kind of strict lifestyle they were trying to push.

I know the people behind Whole Life Challenge understand the joy of partaking in a three-tiered doughnut cake at my kid’s birthday party. A little sugar will not kill you.

But you also can’t live on sugar. And for those of us who try to live on sugar, sometimes dramatizing the consequence can help make our daily choices more clear and intentional.

The WLC allows that reasonable and intentional perspective on day-to-day life — and that’s how it’s able to create a sustainable lifestyle.

Travis Gates on Twitter
Travis Gates
Travis Gates is an OG Whole Life Challenger and longtime member at CrossFit Los Angeles. He graduated from The Ohio State University with a BA in English while honing his skills as a writer/spell-checker. A month before the Writers’ Strike of 2007, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the television industry.

Travis attributes any and all of his success to timing, a healthy mind and body, and a wife who’s not afraid to tell him when he’s being a complete jerk.