It’s the first Monday in January, which means a lot of people who didn’t write out their New Year’s resolutions over the weekend are probably doing it now. If you’ve made a list of resolutions and it looks something like
- I’m going to start saving 10% of my income
- I’m going to stop wasting my evenings watching reality shows about people who can’t throw anything away
- I’m going to lose 35 pounds
… then I have a piece of friendly advice for you: scratch that last one right now. The first two are fine, but the last one has to go. Replace it with something like:
- I’m going to buy the latest Atkins book and follow the program exactly
- I’m going to stop drinking alcohol except on rare occasions
- I’m going to stop eating all sugars and grain foods
If you adhere to the resolutions on the second list, you may indeed lose 35 pounds. Or you may not. But what matters is that the goals in the second list are the kind you can definitely achieve if you want to.
Over the years, I’ve learned there’s a right way and a wrong way to make New Year’s resolutions. Well, actually, there are two wrong ways. The first wrong way is to wake up on January 1st suffering from a hangover-and-guilt combination, and then attempt to treat the guilt by proclaiming lofty goals you’ll never actually pursue once your head clears … such as “I’m going to quit my meaningless corporate job and spend the rest of my life feeding and educating the poor in Tanzania,” or “I’m going to discover what happened to my pants and apologize to whoever has them.”
The second wrong way is to wake up on January 1st and proclaim lofty goals that depend on specific outcomes you can’t actually control. I could, for example, declare that I’m going to sell 5,000 copies of Fat Head this year — and of course, I’d love for that to happen. But ultimately, I can’t control how many copies are sold. Only the buying public can. All I can do is promote the film to the best of my abilities. In other words, I can control my actions, but not the results of those actions.
The same principle applies to losing weight. Now and then, I hear from people who ask me something like, “I’ve lost 25 pounds and feel great, my doctor is pleased with how much my triglycerides and blood pressure have improved, but my weight loss has stalled and I’m still 20 pounds heavier than my goal weight — what should I do?” My answer: whatever you’ve been doing. If you’ve lost weight and feel great, you’re on a good diet. Don’t obsess with reaching a goal your body may resist for its own reasons.
Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great to have a target in mind. As countless motivational speakers and authors have pointed out, if you don’t decide where you want to go, you’re going to end up somewhere else — probably someplace far away. The trouble is, many of them preach about the wonders of writing down goals without distinguishing between actions and results. They mean well, but focusing too much on results is a prescription for feeling like a failure. As any coach, CEO, or battlefield commander will tell you, things rarely work out as well in reality as they did on the drawing board.
That’s why out of all the motivational books I’ve read, I found the ones by Tony Robbins (you know, the guy who looks like a handsome version of Andre the Giant) to be the most useful. His programs are all about taking action. In fact, he discourages people from defining success in terms of a specific outcome.
In his book Awaken the Giant Within, Robbins recounts dealing with a client who was lean, muscular, happily married, and financially well-off, yet considered himself a failure. Why? Because the guy had set personal targets for an extremely high level of income and an extremely low level of body fat, but couldn’t meet either. Mentally, he’d set himself up to fail. Once you decide you’ve failed, it’s tempting to just give up.
That’s why Robbins encourages his readers to define a goal, create a plan for meeting the goal, but then — this is the important part — define success in terms of faithfully taking action and following the plan, not in producing specific results. He calls this setting yourself up to win. If you feel like you’re winning the game, you’re more likely to keep on playing.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should keep blindly following a plan that isn’t working. If you’re not getting good results, it’s time to re-evaluate, do some research, and then perhaps choose another plan. If you want to lose 35 pounds and stall after losing six or seven pounds, or if you feel lousy even though you’re losing weight, there’s a good chance you’ve picked the wrong diet — I certainly did more than once. But if you are getting good results, don’t set yourself up to feel like a failure by confusing good with perfect.
I know from experience that if I define success as having a narrow waist with washboard abs, I’m going to fail. I don’t have the genes to reach that goal, short of outright starvation. Ten or 12 years ago, I managed to semi-starve myself down to 165 pounds — nearly 35 pounds less than I weigh now. The number on the scale looked impressive, but I still had little love handles and some belly fat, and my muscles were starting to shrink noticeably. Family and friends began encouraging me to try to put some weight back on, or at least stop losing.
I understand now that body fat is an active and necessary part of our metabolisms, that we accumulate extra body fat partly to compensate for insulin resistance, and that there’s a limit to how much fat each of us can lose before our bodies will elect to digest muscle tissue instead of more fat. As Gary Taubes says in his new book, the proper diet will help us become as lean as we can be, but not necessarily as lean as we’d like to be.
That’s not a reason to give up and start eating Twinkies, of course. It’s a reason to define success as taking the right actions, not achieving specific results. So if your goal this year is to lose weight, I’d discourage you from picking some arbitrary number you think you should reach. But I’d heartily encourage you to
- Decide how you’re going to lose weight
- Write down your action plan
- Keep a food journal so you know if you’re actually following your plan
- Pat yourself on the back every time you do follow your plan
- Pick one or two days per month to eat whatever you like without any guilt or recriminations afterwards — but only one or two days per month
- Accept what you cannot change
The real point of adopting a better diet is to become healthier and to feel better. If you define success as doing the right thing and then do it, trust me, you will feel better. Losing weight is just a nice side benefit.
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