From: Howard Jacobson <>
Subject: If your only tool is a sledgehammer

How to break free of harmful programming

The next Josh/Howie health retreat is coming up in March 2020, in New Orleans, LA. It's gonna be amazing! Find out more and apply here.

For some reason, the most popular TV channel at my gym is HGTV.

Maybe I'm still 8 years old inside, but I can't think of anything more boring than watching other people fix up their houses. Give me cartoons. Give me golf. Give me bowling, for godsakes, but please don't let me pound out mile after mile while watching young couples practically orgasm over their new open floor plan.

What is it with the open floor plan anyway?

The Mysterious Open Floor Plan

I grew up in a house with actual rooms downstairs. 

There was a kitchen with an informal dining area (that got a hell of a lot more informal after we bought a small color TV and started watching Wheel of Fortune instead of sharing conversation at dinner). 

There was a formal dining room, complete with the sideboard where my mother hid the Hershey's chocolate bars (and where I could reliable get my secret fix as long as I didn't take enough to raise suspicion; milk chocolate on good days, Special Dark otherwise).

There was the living room, with the bookcases and the sofa and the piano, where I never ever spent any time except when I practiced violin or we had guests. I suppose the orange-brown shag carpeting just screamed "too fancy for everyday use."

As you can tell, I have mixed emotions about my childhood.

But I'm certain that an open floor plan would have made everything worse.

Sneaking chocolate would certainly have been more challenging for me. Violin practice would have been more challenging for everyone else. 

The Appeal of the Open Floor Plan

Open floor plans have fallen out of favor at the big tech companies, who discovered that serendipity and collaboration aren't nearly as important as a quiet space where you can actually get shit done. 

But shows like Love It or List It, which inexplicably airs every time my training schedule calls for treadmill incline work, always call for renovations to the downstairs of these charming/opulent properties that remove walls and create giant open spaces where everybody can be in everybody else's business all the time.

I was confused.

Until I heard the reason. The secret, nefarious reason. 


I Wanna Be Your Sledgehammer

According to New York Times journalist Ronda Kaysen, there's a very good reason that HGTV executives insist on renovations that turn multi-room dwellings into open floor plans: the male viewer.

HGTV started in 1994, and was originally called Home, Lawn and Garden Channel. Programming was basically Martha Stewart-inspired kitsch and projects and fluffy cushions with sequins. In other words, content aimed squarely at the ladies. (I'm talking like a TV exec here, you understand, not the woke spirit that I actually play in my podcast.) 

In order to get the big advertising dollars, HGTV needed male viewers. The advertisers needed couples watching their ads, and deciding jointly to buy products and services.

HGTV solved the problem of overwhelming female viewership by taking a playbook from the movie Titanic. James Cameron's film was both a romance and an epic adventure flick. Something for everyone.

So what was the adrenaline-pumping content HGTV could add to shows about redecorating? 


Kaysen told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, "... the reason that [HGTV execs] are so big on open concept is because it gets the male viewers. Like, guys like to watch sledgehammers and, like, taking out walls.

And, in case we didn't get it the first time: "Dudes will only watch HGTV if there's sledgehammers. This is how you get your boyfriend to sit with you on the couch and watch it if you get to watch Jonathan Scott, like, knock down a wall."

Now do you see why the open floor plan is such a strategic choice?

It has nothing to do with the architectural needs of the house.

It's unrelated to the homeowners' experience of their space.

It's all about the money. 

You and I are being sold, show after show, a vision of domestic living that is driven by the need for ever increasing advertising revenue rather than what helps humans feel comfortable and safe.

What Else Are You Being Sold?

Let's talk about your health for a minute.

Our culture is selling us ideas about how to get healthy, and about what healthy means. And unless we pay attention and get a bit suspicious, we're in danger of accepting those ideas and suffering for them.

One idea: losing weight is about food restriction (aka "dieting").

Another: you need to buy fancy equipment and clothing to start exercising.

And yet another: eating healthy is really complicated.

Want one more?: pills and surgery are the very definition of "health care."

And, seasonally relevant: loving yourself with junky foods is a totally acceptable and natural behavior.

Follow the Money

Can you see how each of these ideas (and all of them collectively) support various industries' bottom lines rather than your own wellbeing?

The diet industry (worth $72 billion in the US alone) thrives because it maintains the problem of overweight rather than solving it. 

The so-called "healthcare" industry does the same thing around our worsening health, just wrapped in a brighter halo of selflessness that distracts from the naked profit motive that permeates it.

The exercise industry makes no money from people getting off their couches and taking walks with friends, so it sells our birthright back to us by infomercializing the entire concept of natural human movement.

Nutritional "experts" make bank by portraying human nutrition as hopelessly complicated; something ordinary mortals could never get right without their guidance and proprietary supplement blends. 

Let the Buyer Beware

I'm not saying that these industries have no value.

I started this rant at the gym, a place where I pay good money to do unnatural and unproductive things like lifting the same weight 36 times and then wiping it off with a brown paper towel. 

It turns out that my "monkey see, monkey do" brain is motivated by the sight of 20 other people doing the same thing, and so I'm willing to pay for the privilege of being the 21st.

I use healthcare when I have a problem that corresponds to an effective and reasonably safe treatment.

I consult dietitians when my commonsense plant-based protocol isn't leading to the results I want or expect.

These industries have their place. I'm not advocating eliminating them.

What I am saying is that the culture's - and these industries' - agendas is not aligned with our individual or familiar or communal best interests. 

And therefore we need to keep our head on a swivel, as Josh LaJaunie puts it, rather than passively accept the ideas and philosophies and assumptions of these industries.

An open floor plan may be perfect for your home, your family, your needs. 

But don't start thinking that open floor plans are the solution to every downstairs renovation because lots of guys like watching sledgehammers and crowbars smashing up drywall and studs. 

This Week's Podcast Interview

The podcast this week features Wendy Wood, PhD, one of the world's top researchers on how to create good habits and how to break bad ones. 

She focuses on the almost-invisible influence of our environments on our behaviors. Turns out we're "doing habits" a lot of the time. Much more than we think. 

And habits are, by design, robust and resilient, and resistant to our moment-by-moment intentions. So we can say that we want to stop snacking at night, or picking up the phone first thing in the morning, while continuing to perform both of those behaviors every single day.

In The Usual Suspects, Verbal explains, "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

The greatest trick our habits ever pulled was convincing us that we're in control of our behaviors.

And the greatest trick our commercialized society ever pulled was convincing us that the products, services, and ideas it sells us are for our own good.

One of the chapters of Wood's book, Good Habits, Bad Habits, is titled "You Are Not Alone."  It's where she points out that the junk food industry has reached into our environments and our minds and created triggers that are really hard to resist. And that if we want to be healthy and lean and happy and free, we need to curate our micro-environments to mitigate its influence.

I would add that our minds are the most powerful micro-environment of all. 

Once you see the man behind the curtain, the HGTV exec turning America's homes into open floor plans to sell more riding lawnmowers to suburban guys, you don't fall for the ploy.

Once you understand that the junk food industry needs you to believe that indulgence equals self-love, you can reject the concept.

Once you recognize that the weight loss industry is selling you a subscription service rather than a cure, you can step off the conveyer belt and find effective long-term solutions.

It's Liberation Time.

NOLA, Baby!

Now that I've bashed secret commercial motives to get you to do things, it's time to sell you something!

Josh LaJaunie and I are hosting our second health retreat on March 5-8, 2020, in Josh's stomping grounds, New Orleans. 

Part of the plan is to show you how easy it can be to live healthy in the world's most decadent city. 

Part of the plan is to use our legs to celebrate the neighborhoods, the traditions, the architecture, and the music of the Birthplace of Jazz. 

And part of the plan is to build a safe, caring, community in which we can grow into the most authentic, healthiest, happiest versions of ourselves. 

For many of us, the world feels like an unsafe place. 

And it's really hard to become open and vulnerable when we don't feel seen, heard, appreciated, and cherished.

And openness and vulnerability are prerequisites for change and growth.

At the first retreat, last month, 12 of us came together and formed what felt like family. We didn't intrude on the experience by sticking cameras in participants' faces and asking for instant testimonials, so we don't have any "proof" at this point. I've asked the participants if they would reflect on their experience and share a video when they're ready, which I will share with you (with their permission).

But for right now, this has to be a matter of trust.

Trust that Josh and I will share what's in your best interest, rather than our own, if there's any sort of conflict.

Trust that we will be careful stewards of your hopes and dreams.

Trust that we will weave together a community that supports and strengthens each of us, the way human communities are meant to function.

If you're interested, please read the description of the retreat here: If you like what you see, there's a button on that page to schedule an enrollment interview with me.

Here's to an amazing 2020!