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The Great Myth About Getting in Shape (and Every Other Goal)

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I wasn’t going to write about this topic this week but it could be somewhat urgent for some of you. Mid-January is a critical time for the fate of many annual goals, and I’m sure a lot of people are already making a particular mistake that kept me stumbling for years. In fact, I’m convinced most failed goals fail for this exact reason.

This time next week, 2016 will be 5% finished. So if you’ve got goals this year, you should be around one-twentieth done by then.

If your goal is to be a regular gym-goer, for example, then you’ll want to have two full weeks of gym-going under your belt. If it’s already a grind, then you’re probably not going to make it.

There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to fitness in America. There is a tremendous demand for this thing called fitness, and yet only a fairly slim minority end up actually making it a part of their lives. Visiting aliens would be confounded that we appear to worship this particular quality yet don’t usually embody it.

It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do. In the internet age, anyone can find, for free and in only a few minutes, dependable step-by-step instructions on how to get to whatever kind of fitness that’s humanly possible: marathon runner, bodybuilder, yoga adept, martial artist, or anything else. The same is true for all kinds of other goals: making more money, starting a website, learning French or piano or calligraphy.

What do you really have to do to get into shape? Join a gym, find a well-regarded program online, and do what the program says. We know what we have to do, and we want the rewards of doing it, so why don’t we just do it?

Often we begin well enough, but the different aspects of our lives have a way of competing with each other, and a month later we’re barely holding it together, and two months later we barely remember that we tried.

The typical refrain, from both the achievers and the non-achievers of a particular goal, is “You have to want it badly enough.”

We hear this message all the time. If you’re within a decade or so of my age you probably spent much of your schooling in classrooms whose walls were plastered with a certain kind of inspirational poster, often featuring cute animals or Einstein, and preaching about persistence and dedication. These might look familiar: 

inspiration

These posters have since been memed to death, but in our culture we still emphasize perseverance and willpower as the critical factors in whether we achieve our goals or not. The message has been drilled into us: the people that keep their eyes on the prize are the ones who make it. All you need to do is to stay focused on the horizon and everything will fall into place.

If you keep your eyes on the horizon, you’ll trip over your feet

The reason it’s relatively uncommon to achieve even a paint-by-numbers goal like losing weight or learning an instrument isn’t that we lack vision or desire, it’s that we have the wrong idea about how people actually achieve goals.

After struggling with fitness for so many years, and finally having it click in 2014, I can tell you that desiring the prize—the slimmer waist, the bigger income, the finished book—is not what most of us are missing. A minority of New Year’s resolutioners will still be lifting, running, and non-smoking in September, and an extra-strong long-term desire is not the reason.

Our idea of the successful goal achiever is that they’re willing to sacrifice their comfort and ease in the present for more comfort and ease in the future. They willingly accept a harder life now, with all of its early-morning workouts, overtime hours and spinach-beet smoothies, so that they can one day have what they want. Once they’re there, the crap they endured is behind them and it will all feel worth it.

To most of us, our initial enthusiasm gets us through a few weeks of the labor itself. But then the enthusiasm wears off, and all we’re left with is the labor, which was never more to us than a ball and chain accompanied by the promise of something great a few months down the road. Returning to normality becomes increasingly tempting, until we give out and skip the gym one Monday, then skip it again that Wednesday, and we’re back at square one just in time to eat 30 wings at the Super Bowl.

The great myth about goals is that they require us to trade quality of life now for quality of life later. This doesn’t work unless you’re a robot. We’re too interested in keeping our lives enjoyable. You cannot voluntarily make all your days worse for months in the name of optional rewards in the future. A good goal has to improve your life now, and nearly every day between now and the final result. The long-term reward is never going to drive you to keep living a life you don’t like in the short term.

Your friend who is always posting her Crossfit achievements on Facebook—do you think she hates lifting, and is just suffering through it to have that beach body come summertime?

Your successful entrepreneur-friend, who has doubled his income this last year—was he simply forcing himself to work on his app so that he could get to the payday and finally enjoy life again?

People who change their diets and lose weight aren’t choking down lettuce casserole every night, they’ve discovered how much better it feels to eat a modest, home-cooked meal than to eat a whole box of tacquitos.

The incentives that keep people moving towards their goals are things that happen now, in everyday life. They’re not just a bright glow on the horizon. The work we do on our goals has to be gratifying in the short term too. At least some aspect of getting there has to be fun, or exhilarating, or otherwise appealing.

It’s not a tradeoff, it’s a better road altogether

I probably wouldn’t go to the gym if there weren’t any long-term rewards, but I would never see those long term rewards if I didn’t find that it feels awesome today to beat my numbers from last time, or if I didn’t love the feeling of walking home with that proud, post-workout soreness. Our desire for short-term gratification is often demonized as a goal-killing weakness, but usually it’s what’s missing.

Of course there will be times when we have to use willpower as a kind of afterburner to get past tough bits and bad days. But it can’t be our main source of energy.

So what if you don’t like lifting or running or going to French class?

Don’t worry. I can almost guarantee you that if the end goal is appealing, there is some way you can find a path to get there that is also appealing.

Many of us get stuck in “not for me” syndrome. We have a bad experiences exercising or taking classes, and we think that we’re just someone who happens to hate exercise. I don’t believe there’s anyone in the world who is incapable of finding intense physical activity really gratifying, if they just looked around until they found the right form of it.

Of course, that requires a spirit of experimentation. For me, I tried running and hated it. Then for some reason I went back to it and kind of liked it, got better at it, and liked it more. Then winter came and I hated it again. So I started boxing, and really liked it, then started lifting barbells and loved it, and now you can’t stop me from going to the gym. The path meandered for a bit, but I’m firmly on it, and I know I’ll never have to grind my way to my goals.

We do need to use a bit of that willpower-boost to find what we like about getting into shape, or practicing guitar, or studying Japanese, but if it’s really something we want in the long-term, we can find bits of that joy and fun throughout the whole path.

So forget this idea that it’s about suffering now in the name of later. You’ll never make it if that’s your strategy. The goals that become real in the future only work because they make life better today, and every day.

***

Photo by Gelner Tivadar
Namita January 11, 2016 at 2:23 am

Ah, such delightful timing with this one. Thanks man! Was just the gear-changer that I needed ;-)

Andrey January 11, 2016 at 2:34 am

Great post, thanks, David!
By default I’m one of those “try and power through suffering” types. Now I make a conscious effort to find little pleasantries in most mundane chores, this makes a huge difference to me.

Jana January 11, 2016 at 3:02 am

Wow! An aha moment! :-)

Thanks for stating the obvious: “So forget this idea that it’s about suffering now in the name of later. You’ll never make it if that’s your strategy. The goals that become real in the future only work because they make life better today, and every day.”

Cynthia January 11, 2016 at 3:37 am

David–you are spot on the money. I have lived in France for the last 15 years, and they absolutely do not have this punishing, ‘I have to work at it’ idea–instead everything should be a pleasure, here and now. So at out Tai chi classes, everyone knows each other and spends the first 10 minutes of class saying hi and hugging and catching up, then cracks jokes throughout the class. If someone isnt in class one day, someone sends a text to make sure they’re ok. we go out to dinner after class at the end of the year. If hiking with a group, there’s laughs along the way and a great picnic with wine at the end, no one is obsessed about counting numbers or tracking their life, they’re PRESENT and WITH OTHERS. This is just one example, but it is soooo different from the solitary, alone, ‘punishing myself’ workout class at the gym. we even say ‘work out’ rather than the brits who ‘do sport’…
thanks for what you do,
cynthia

David Cain January 11, 2016 at 8:48 am

I love this “joie de vivre” philosophy, and all the little present-minded habits that go with it. Much better than the “I’m horrible until I finish these nineteen things” Protestant Work Ethic that predominates over here.

Naomi Alexander February 18, 2016 at 5:56 am

Hi Cynthia- Your Tai Chi class sounds a lot like my yoga club (I’m a Brit, not French) which I go to 3 times a week. We also do social things together now and again – it really is a ‘club’ – and I go there as much for the yoga as the community. I also do Zumba twice a week which is a different and more random/changing selection of people but we are all there for the loud music and to jump around really! It’s fun. If you don’t find exercise fun, you probably won’t go!

Andy January 11, 2016 at 3:55 am

“A good goal has to improve your life now, and nearly every day between now and the final result.”

Very insightful and very true. I don’t think anyone can truly force themselves to do something they hate for long periods of time. You get to the goal by finding enjoyment in the small steps along the way.

David Cain January 11, 2016 at 8:49 am

Right… you can do it for little gaps though, which is probably necessary for getting things done on bad days, but you can’t really live like that.

sally January 11, 2016 at 5:00 am

Oh yes, perfectly timed thank you! My healthy eating routine needed a good shakeup this year and I have been trying to power through on willpower alone. However maybe I need to focus more on really enjoying my three healthy meals every day. So tonight, after reading this, I really enjoyed my lentil/pumpkin/kale/tahini salad and it was gorgeous. Looking forward to enjoying good food again tomorrow :)

Happy New Year David!

David Cain January 11, 2016 at 8:52 am

Yup, you need to enjoy your meals or you won’t want to eat that way for long. Luckily, there’s a lot of different ways we can enjoy the same thing. You can enjoy food by eating fried/salty/processed stuff, or you can enjoy it by making delicious fresh foods. Change doesn’t mean making something unenjoyable, just learning to enjoy different aspects of it — ones that create a better life for ourselves.

Luciana January 11, 2016 at 6:55 am

The same idea applies to new year´s resolutions regarding people and situations that make you feel down or bad about yourself, or that make you feel completely immobilized and you have no idea how to deal with: overwork, emotional abusive people you are constrained by social settings to deal with. Trying to get out of these situations some minimal positive aspect may be a way of giving yourself a window of opportunity to react and do something that lightens the way to asserting yourself and getting out of the situation.

Sarah Noelle January 11, 2016 at 7:08 am

Ah yes, I think this is very wise. Like it or not, we’re mostly focused on how Activity X makes us feel on a day-to-day basis. This is why I’m able to do yoga super consistently but can’t keep up a running schedule. Both are good for me, but I love yoga and hate running.

I do think that in addition to this, fear of failure is another thing that can keep us from sticking to an activity that might produce a long-term goal. Like if someone wants to write a novel but can’t seem to get started or stick to a writing schedule, they may be subconsciously thinking, “Well, as long as I don’t actually start the novel, I don’t have to worry that it’s poorly written!”

David Cain January 11, 2016 at 8:54 am

Fear of failure is a huge thing, and deserve a whole other post. It’s been a huge factor in my life — I wouldn’t do something that I wanted to do because I felt I couldn’t bear learning that I couldn’t do it very well. So I didn’t do it at all. It makes no sense, but life is driven by emotions, and they don’t always make sense.

David January 11, 2016 at 7:37 am

“You cannot voluntarily make all your days worse for months in the name of optional rewards in the future.”

This statement should be handed to everyone who makes a New Year’s resolution as a warning like those that appear on cigarette packs.

David Cain January 11, 2016 at 8:55 am

Warning: You need to enjoy life. But health can be enjoyable too.

Tom Southern January 11, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Hi David,

“If you keep your eyes on the horizon, you’ll trip over your feet”, I love these grab-by-the-scruff remakes of trite affirmations. This one especially. Personally, I’ve never been a goal-setter, not really. Yes, there are things I want to do and, if I do them, I know that I really did actually want to do it. That it wasn’t just some pipe dream. An aim in life is good to have.

Maria January 11, 2016 at 1:01 pm

I would just like to add that some failure/trial and error makes eventually realizing that a good soup & salad is comparable in pleasure to the wings and the taquitos. I’d say an almost necessary pit stop. The same for developing a sense of enjoyment for exertion during movement. You have to feel what it was like before you could not run/lift/bend to appreciate your endurance skills.

Chaitanya January 11, 2016 at 1:39 pm

What a great idea, David. Thanks for sharing it.

trillie January 11, 2016 at 3:15 pm

“only a fairly slim minority” => I see what you did there ;-)

I’m not starting any new resolutions until march, when I’ll hopefully move into my new home. So no need to hurry up your posts for me! ;)

Paul Anthony January 11, 2016 at 7:49 pm

I think you presented some valid ideas.

In one sense, this idea of sacrificing now for some reward in the future sounds a lot like how a lot of religious organizations (especially the more corporate types, e.g., Mormonism) make their pitch to entice people to join and stay loyal to their church, i.e., pray…yeah, sure, however you absolutely must obey and PAY lest you lose your reward because God demands these sacrifices to prove your worthiness. However, a lot of so-called ‘intelligent’ people cannot seem to do otherwise, even in the face of having doubts about their so-called ‘one, true church’. Until the day they die they will still sacrifice their time and money for this pie in the sky goal/reward, even though this endeavor is continually restricting and not all that satisfying on a day-to-day basis. So what’s up with this when there is no high degree, if any at all, “short-term gratification”? Is it because of some form of gut wrenching, deep seated fear that cannot be dismissed?

Hence, maybe people should think of their weight loss goals in some sort of fervent, quasi religious, fear-based way — “If don’t lose this extra weight I will surely suffer an imminent ‘hell’ (die of heart disease, become diabetic, etc.). Or, “If I don’t quit smoking, I will suffer the eventual ‘hell’ of getting emphysema, or lung cancer, or BOTH!” However, perhaps denial and rationalizing sets in — “It will never happen to me, though.”

I don’t know. I like what you wrote, and agree with you, but I still may to give your thesis on goal setting and achievement more thought.

All the same, it was a good blog article.

malena January 11, 2016 at 7:54 pm

This post is just so freaking amazing. I feel like I’ve read you say this a thousand times before, but this time it sunk in with such tremendous weight. I’ve kept my resolutions so far (got a nice Seinfeld-ian chain of red Xs going), but lately they have been feeling kind of grind-y. This post has made it all so clear. THANK YOU

Anne January 12, 2016 at 4:05 am

“Our desire for short-term gratification is often demomised as a goal-killing weakness, but usually it’s what’s missing”. I’ve been reflecting the last couple of days on how poor I am at delaying gratification or consistently working towards long-term aims- you’ve just given me another piece in the puzzle that is my life. Knowing the strength of my desire for the instant reward, I have to build that in when trying to make changes. Many thanks, David.

Michael January 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

Frustratingly, I find it is also true from the perspective of my own attitude – even if I’m doing something important and that needs to be done, if I enjoy it too much, or I find it easier than I expected when I began, I feel guilty that I’m not being productive enough. Which is stupid, really.

uncephalized January 12, 2016 at 3:33 pm

Fitness got easier for me when I discovered longsword fencing (yes, like knights and nobles did back in the days of gore. No, not with sharp swords). It was so much fun that I wanted to bout every day–so I started looking forward eagerly to the twice-weekly club meetings. Exercise is an inevitable side effect of having fun learning to hit your friends with swords.

Then, since I am somewhat competitive, working out at home on non-fighting days becomes a no-brainer as it makes me a better fighter. So I don’t need some nebulous motivation like “I want to look better”. Instead it’s “I want to hit the other guy and not get hit, and I’m too slow, so better get my fat ass on the floor and do some squats and pushups”. Presto, no more motivation issues.

uncephalized January 12, 2016 at 3:34 pm

Haha, I meant to write ‘days of yore’ but autocorrect thought I meant ‘days of gore’, which ironically is probably accurate also.

David Cain January 12, 2016 at 3:42 pm

Days of gore!

That actually sounds like a lot of fun. I wonder if there’s recreational swordfighting going on in my city too

uncephalized January 14, 2016 at 10:32 am

The term you want to search for is HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts). I don’t remember what area of the country you’re in but it is getting more popular these days and there are groups in most cities.

Maybe I’ll see you at SoCal Swordfight some year!

uncephalized January 14, 2016 at 10:47 am

A quick perusal of your About page reveals you are in Winnipeg, and Google informs me that your local group is Winnipeg Knightly Arts. They’ve got a website. You should check them out. Make sure to wear your bruises with pride. :-)

Dan January 12, 2016 at 7:01 pm

In his book “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brings up the word “autotelic” – coming from the Greek “autos” (meaning “self”) and “teleos” (“goal”). He describes it as “a self contained activity, one that is not done with the expectation of future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward…when the experience is autotelic the person is paying attention to the activity for its own sake. When it is not, the attention is focused on its consequences.”

For me, for any thing that I’ve been able to “stick with” with any degree of consistency or enjoyment – from exercising to washing the dishes – I find I need to be fulfilled doing it (and doing it “well”) in the moment for its own sake. Which doesn’t necessarily call for a switch in tasks, but a switch in attitude/mindset. You also find you save a lot of “energy,” because you don’t expend as much dreading it the whole time you’re doing it. This even makes things like sweeping the floor or raking the leaves seem more enjoyable and less effortful.

uncephalized January 14, 2016 at 10:48 am

I personally have come to love sweeping the floor and washing the dishes. They’ve both become meditative exercises for me.

Edith January 18, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Great post! I will try to experiment on enjoying my process more. This year I downloaded a bunch of apps to track my progress, and since ticking off completed tasks is one of the most delicious things in the world, I have been very disciplined this past weeks! The downside is I have lost motivation in some tasks I do no track, and I don’t want to track everything I already do right.

Steven S. January 20, 2016 at 11:51 am

You’ve got a way of cutting straight to the core of vague problems that have troubled me for most of my life. I really never expected to find a solution for a lot of these problems. I really do feel like I’m getting better at being human

John H January 29, 2016 at 9:59 pm

i agree wholeheartedly with the post. When I first started working out 6 or 7 years ago, I saw it as a means to an end, and that is the wrong approach and I would go in fits and starts with it.

Then, for the past 3 years or so of doing something active (biking, gym/weights, HIIT like T25, tennis, kite boarding) pretty much every day. It has become something I just do and actually look forward to, and miss it if have to miss a day because of work travel, etc. I know that I am much better short term and long term when I get the exercise in the morning. Further, I gave up caffeine along the way as I don’t need it any more because exercise does the same thing for me. It is also a time for me to sort out my day, either when biking to work or hitting the weights, I have time to reflect and prioritize my day. The only problem is that I find that I have to continue to increase the weights or the biking distance (time) or speed to get the same benefit as the body becomes more efficient so I need to to challenge it more to get the same result. This in itself makes it interesting, to retroactively see that progress vs. seeking it out, almost a reverse goal.

Along those same lines, as you age, exercise, without diet improvement, won’t get you there in terms of health and weight. The typical American diet, unless you have a strangely high metabolism, will still leave you overweight even if you exercise daily. Someone said it is 20% exercise and 80% diet, which is probably about right depending on metabolism rate and age. However, I have found that if you change the diet, and stick with it for 60 days, you start to crave the good stuff and the bad stuff no longer appeals to you nearly as much. Rich Roll (ultra marathoner, vegan, blogger) has conveyed some preliminary findings that the bacteria in your stomach and intestines crave what they are used to getting, and studies suggests these bacteria may have some control over the cravings that trigger in your brain. So when you eat healthy foods and develop those habits and retrain the digestive bacteria, then they start to crave the better food, and not the junk. There was a time when I never thought I would be able to make that change, and now I could never go back to eating the way I used to (red meat, carbs, processed foods, fast food, fries, soft drinks, etc.) In other words, diet too, with the right mindset is not a sacrifice but becomes enjoyable in and of itself and becomes what you want to eat (fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, soups, salads, nuts, etc.). I don’t know if it is digestive bacteria driving it, but I do believe that your food cravings and what you desire when you are hungry can change based on what you eat over time if you stick with it and changing diet is not as hard either with the right mindset.

David, love the website and your posts. I agree with so many of your mindful posts and many of them inspire new insights. I wasn’t nearly as thoughtful and introspective as you are when I was at your age. Keep it up.

Chris B March 1, 2016 at 9:37 am

Wow–spot-on. This article struck a chord with me–and I thought I was the weird one. If I view something as a grind, I will most certainly stop doing it in the long run. A thought-provoking premise..if someone says they want to learn to play guitar, for example, but they absolutely hate the practice–maybe they do not really want to play the guitar…or maybe they are practicing in the wrong way. If someone hates their job, maybe they are working in the wrong way…also applies to relationships, spirituality, everything. Change your thinking, change your life.
Thanks for this…CB

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