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Hope you’re having a great week.
Let’s get to it.
Could I do this forever?
Over the past few weeks we’ve been discussing some of the mental aspects of behavior change.
In Ironic Processes we explored how the mind is drawn to that which we focus upon…even if that focus is “negative.”
In Dominant Thoughts we discovered “priming” – a simple method for programming our subconscious to engage in the behavior we want.
I shared some of my own experiences using priming to adhere more closely to my nutrition plan.
Before we move away from behavior change, though…
(Do we ever really move away from behavior change?)
…I’d like to deal with a critical component of all effective change:
Before and after pictures are pretty amazing.
There’s a reason these images are the cornerstone of ALL health and fitness marketing:
You look at the image and think “Hey…look at what they were able to do. If they can do it, so can I!”
Never mind that there is an entire industry dedicated to faking before and after photos, or that you can engineer a seemingly “miraculous” transformation in an hour or so with the right lighting.
We know all this, and we fall for it anyway.
And so we buy the DVD, or the class, or the program, or the diet, and we’re off to the races.
And a few weeks later?
The material lies unopened.
The diet is back to what it was.
And the change we hoped for never occurs.
It’s very common, in this situation, to start beating ourselves up.
You’ve done it, I’ve done it.
“Why can I get it together? Why don’t I have the discipline? Why can they do it, but I can’t?”
There’s much to be said about the abuse we heap upon ourselves…
But in this email, I’d like to focus on two concepts that will help us make sense of what’s happening here.
Those concepts are:
Credit my friend Nic for that specific language, by the way.
Imagine any goal that you want to achieve.
Maybe you want to be financially free.
Maybe you want to have the marriage of your dreams.
Maybe, like me, you’re looking to establish a healthy relationship with food.
No matter what the goal is, there are any number of ways you could try to reach that “finish line.”
Those different methods are going to vary in intensity, difficulty, and effectiveness.
For example, if I wanted to lose 20 pounds there are any number of ways I could it:
- I could go onto a strict diet, like Paleo or Keto.
- I could run 5 miles every day.
- I could wrap myself in a garbage bag, sit in a sauna, and sweat it out.
Each of those different plans is going to have a different timeline for hitting my target:
- Paleo and keto will take 6 months to lose 20 pounds.
- Running 5 miles every day will take 3 months to lose 20 pounds.
- Garbage bag and sauna will take me just two days to lose 20 pounds.
Each of those different plans is also going to have varying levels of difficulty for me personally:
- Maybe I’m already mostly paleo, so switching my diet is no big thing.
- Maybe I’m not in particularly good shape, so running every day will be hard on me.
- As for the garbage bag/sauna thing…well, UFC fighters cut weight all the time and it does not look very fun at all.
Despite all these varying timelines and levels of difficulty, it’s safe to say that I could do all of these things.
I could change my diet; I could run every day; I could cut weight in a sauna.
All of these things are within range of my maximum achievability, the upper bound limits of what I’m capable of.
Anything you could do “if someone put a gun to your head” is within the realm of your maximum achievability.
But what happens after you lose the 20 pounds?
Are you going to stay strictly paleo….forever?
Are you going to run 5 miles a day…forever?
Are you going to sit in that sauna…forever?
Truth be told, probably not.
That’s because something that’s within the limits of your maximum achievability is not necessarily within the limits of your maximum sustainability.
Think of sustainability as your ability to maintain a habit or behavior…forever.
Not just for a little while, not just until you hit your goal…
After all, you don’t just want to hit your goal – you want to stay there, right?
No fun to be financially free for a month and then suddenly need to get a job.
No fun to lose 20 pounds for a month and then gain them right back.
Our problems tend to emerge when we look at proposed solutions to our problems and think “Yes, I could do that,” instead of “Yes, but could I do that forever?”
If we shift our focus from what is achievable to what is sustainable, we will be an interlocking network of habits and behaviors that will not just maintain our gains but magnify them beyond our wildest imaginings.
Because positive behaviors and habits compound over time.
The most wildly successful among us tend to be people who have engaged in positive behaviors consistently over a long period of time.
In other words, they were engaged in sustainable behaviors.
Obviously, not everything needs to last forever.
You might want to experiment with a potential change, and thus pick a specific start and stop point.
Or, like the “cut phase” of the diet I’m in, you might cycle through different periods where you engage in behaviors you couldn’t sustain over the long haul.
I’m currently in a 600-calorie deficit. That means I’m hungry all the time, I have low energy, I’m tired, etc. It sucks, and I would never try to do this forever. However, I know it’s temporary, and that the process will end with me consuming more calories than before.
So no, I couldn’t be “on a cut” forever.
But – and this is the critical point – I could be on my current diet plan forever.
My nutrition plan is flexible. It allows me to eat a wide variety of foods that I like. It accounts for occasional lapses. And it helps me move, systematically, towards better health outcomes.
As a result, the current cycle I’m in is within my realm of maximum achievability but not within my realm of maximum sustainability, while the diet plan as a whole is safely within both.
Whenever you’re seeking to change a behavior, it is critical to consider both maximum achievability and maximum sustainability.
No matter how much progress you make early on, the majority of your gains will come over time. That’s as true of your body as it is of investing or of your relationships.
Good behavior compounds – and so time is a critical factor in your success.
Therefore, before you take on any new project, habit, or program, ask yourself:
“Could I do this forever?”
Cool Stuff To Read:
Ayn Rand, Live From Los Angeles.
I tend to think that Rand gets short shrift from people who have never actually read her or tried to grapple with her ideas. Whether you agree or not (and I generally don’t), she’s the most influential female philosopher…ever? At least in the states, it would be hard to imagine our current politics without her influence.
This article is an interesting exploration of her early days in L.A. It also ends with an absolutely wonderful mic-drop moment that I really appreciated.2
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