The Toblerone Paradox
This year, one of the things I wanted for Christmas was a big Toblerone bar. I received one from some family and was rather excited. Looking at the bar, it’s pretty large, and it will (happily) take some work to finish it.
At the same time, the start of a new year also means that my partner and I have decided to eat better. We talked about doing Dry January and eating more balanced meals. This will also take a bit of work, but I think it’ll be good and make us feel better.
Over the past day or two, I’ve realized there’s a bit of a snag with this setup: eating my beloved Toblerone and my resolution to eat healthier are at odds. Eating more vegetables and balanced meals doesn’t line up with eating almost a pound of chocolate and nuts. However, I still want to do both of these things, even if they are in direct conflict.
This leads to what I’m calling the Toblerone Paradox: How can we achieve two distinct goals that are individually desirable but also in direct conflict with one another? And more importantly, why and how do we end up in these situations with two conflicting goals?
One way to think about this paradox is to use the wisdom of the always excellent Gerald Weinberg. One of his famous quotes is, “Things are the way they are because they got that way,” meaning that situations occur based on past events. The past shapes the future, and how we did things yesterday impact how we do things today.
Take Christmas and New Year’s in the West, for example. In many places, Christmas is a time celebrated in what is winter in the northern hemisphere. During this time of year in places like Canada (hello!) and Europe, the weather is cold and potentially dangerous (snowstorms, ice storms, far below-freezing temperatures), and there is less daylight during each day due to the position of the Earth relative to the Sun. As a result, folks in these places take some time to either spend more time indoors and/or rest a bit more when not working. This is a time of rest and indulgence, enjoying time with loved ones and taking time for oneself. Traditions such as Yule and the way many North Americans spend Christmas come out of this time of year. Hence why maybe enjoying a rather large confection is a nice way to spend the winter months.
On the other hand, New Year’s signals the end of the Gregorian year and the beginning of a new year. For many people, this change on the calendar means taking a fresh start and setting goals for the year ahead. A new year is a good reason for many people to pursue goals or finally make the change they’ve been meaning to make. Based on a season filled with food and indulgence from various holidays, a focus on being healthier (eating, exercising, and listening to your body’s needs) is appealing to a lot of people. In terms of this particular goal, it is practically a trope at this point for people to join gyms and fitness clubs in January, so much so that one luxury fitness chain banned new members from joining on January 1. Using a calendar change to mark a change in yourself and your lifestyle for motivation is another helpful approach to goal setting.
Put these two narratives together, however, and you’ve got a recipe for confusion. Or at least wondering if you should open up that Toblerone.
How should I pick whether to dig in or wait until February sometime to eat my wonderful treat? Of course, I could split the difference and try to balance both. But what if that doesn’t work?
This goes beyond kale smoothies and European chocolate. Sometimes we need to choose between two or more excellent but mutually exclusive options. It may help to understand how we got to this choice so that we can make a decision that we agree with on a deeper level. Do you view winter as a time of rest and quiet enjoyment, or do you consider a New Year as a new opportunity for improvement that trumps all others?
In the end, all I really want to enjoy is my Toblerone. Maybe that’s what’s really important.