On Your Mark, Get Set . . . Fail

When I signed up for my first marathon, I didn’t train at all. I decided to do the whole thing without building up to the entire 26.2 miles. Instead, I bought all new gear — clothes, expensive running shoes, a fancy watch — and threw out all my old stuff. I set a goal of finishing in less than three hours, and all I could see was the medal around my neck.

I started the race out strong, going faster than my usual pace. But by mile three I was struggling. By mile five, I was completely burned out and hating life. By mile seven I was done. I never even crossed the finish line.

So I immediately signed up for another one and did the exact same thing. And I did it again, and again, and again.

Only a complete masochist would do this, so I hope you’ve figured out that I’m only kidding. I did cross the finish line but only because I spent months training for the race, adding to my mileage with every run and slowly improving. My finish time was five and a half hours, but that didn’t matter because my true accomplishment was just being in the race.

My made-up story sounds crazy because it is crazy. No one in their right mind would sign up for a marathon without training for it, nor would they put that kind of pressure on themselves to finish so fast. They would be excited just to be there. They would know that there is no finish line, because the real prize is the feeling of self-worth and the sense of accomplishment you get as you train.

Okay, so now I want you to clean out your kitchen, throw out all your food, and go buy all new food — the kind you never eat. Eat half of what you usually do, and do all of this for the next 30 days. If you can’t stick to it, start over again and keep doing the same thing until you can.

Somehow, this scenario doesn’t sound as crazy, because it’s so familiar. For some reason, we keep dieting even though it never works. So let’s break down why the all-or-nothing dieting approach to losing weight is the equivalent of trying to do a dead sprint to a marathon finish line.

You make too many changes, all at once. Changing everything you do at the same time is unsustainable, especially when the changes involve doing the complete opposite of habits you’ve taken a lifetime to establish. Trying to change multiple behaviors at once is overwhelming and takes away your feeling of control, which you need to persevere and to make changes stick.

Furthermore, you can’t make distinctions about changing individual behaviors when you change them all at once. As a result, you don’t learn what works and what doesn’t work through the process of trial and error necessary for habit change. Also, making distinctions takes time, and you don’t have this opportunity when you’re trying to do everything in the next 30 days.

You have to use willpower. Making so many changes at the same time requires enormous willpower. Using willpower to try not to do what you want to do — like binge on chocolate — means you’re making that thing more desirable. When what you’re trying not to do becomes more desirable, you need even more willpower to avoid doing it. So you’re depleting the very resource you need to succeed. You’re effectively working against yourself and keeping yourself stuck.

You start off feeling resistant. When you start a diet and know that you’re going to have to change everything in no time at all, you dread the experience. The feeling of dread introduces resistance, and resistance must be neutralized. If what makes you feel better is to eat, that is what you’re going to do. So you start a diet feeling resistant, which feels bad, which makes you want to feel better, which makes you want to eat, which means you use all your willpower to try not to, which means you eventually give in to your urges — which means you fail.

The all-or-nothing dieting approach to lose weight sets you up for a pressure-filled, miserable experience that ultimately fails and puts you back at square one. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Taking the opposite approach means that you make small changes over time, so there is no pressure. You learn as you go — you experiment and figure out what does and does not work for you. You make distinctions and form habits. Making small changes over a long period of time requires zero willpower, so you work with yourself rather than against yourself, increasing your chances of being successful.

If you want your weight-loss “marathon medal,” you have to be willing to sacrifice the immediate gratification that comes with getting it. You have to be willing to switch your mindset from all or nothing to patiently and consistently making small, steady changes over time.

The difference is that the confidence you gain in the process will be the real prize. And you’ll also get your medal.

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