Process, Results

With February just around the corner, we’re about to hit The Big Resolutioner Fall-Off in gyms the world over. Statistics show that, after a month, more than 50% of people have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions, and by the first week in February, gym attendance drops precipitously from its January peak to the lower leves seen through the balance of the year.

Obviously, people give up on their resolutions – and their fitness resolutions in particular – for a slew of reasons. In most cases, however, there’s a single, over-arching cause: after a month of full-bore effort, most people don’t feel like they’re getting results that justify the effort.

Sure, there are more or less effective ways to improve your fitness. But body recomposition (losing fat and gaining muscle) is slow going in even the best of circumstances; research by the CDC and others has shown that people who sustain weight loss (rather than just yo-yoing back up) are those that lose about a pound a week. And as most people who take up exercise again after a break initially add muscle as well as losing fat, it’s pretty common to see scale weight only drop a pound or two over the course of a first month, even with strong, consistent effort.

When most people set goals (like New Year’s resolutions), they think in terms of results: “I want x to happen by time y.” For project goals – starting a company, buying a home, etc. – that makes sense, as you can then break those goals down into a series of sub-goals along the way, and chart your progress by seeing how well you knock off those projects. But losing weight (like, say, learning a language) is more of a process goal; it doesn’t break down well into smaller goals, but is instead just about doing the same thing, consistently, for an extended period of time. Worse, process goals rarely achieve linear results; instead, progress usually fluctuates up and down, like prices on the stock market, even while the overall trend moves in the right direction over time.

So evaluating process goals by their short-term results is a fast track to feeling demoralized and giving up. Instead, people who succeed tend to be those who make the process itself the goal: they evaluate their success not based on how much weight they lose, but on the percentage of their weekly meals they eat according to plan, or the number of times they work out in a given week. The always-insightful Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) talks about this as the difference between ‘systems’ and ‘goals’ – the goal being weight loss, but the system being eating healthfully and working out.

In our experience, that kind of system-focused thinking is far more effective, because it’s much more self-reinforcing. If you’re solely focused on results, in a given day, you’re unlikely to see enough physical change to feel good about yourself; but if you’re focused on process, on executing your system, every healthy meal, every trip to the gym is something about which you can pat yourself on the back.

So, if you’ve been pushing hard through January, but are feeling a dit demoralized, and on the brink of giving up, we’d strongly suggest you switch your thinking to a systems / process approach instead. Ask yourself which habits you could sustain at an 80% level or better over the balance of 2017 would make a real difference. Maybe it’s walking 10,000 steps daily, cutting out refined carbs, or hitting a gym class three times a week. Then start evaluating yourself, day by day, just on how well you hit those habits. Maybe even buy a calendar, and draw in a smiley face for each day you pull them off.

In all honesty, that still won’t move you faster along the slow path to weight loss, fitness, or health; but it will hugely increase the odds that you keep going throughout the balance of the year, in a way that will allow you, one cumulative step at a time, to actually reach those goals in the end.