Taking a Leap….and then Connecting the Dots

4 Apr

She said, “I want to be healthier” when asked what her goals were. “I want to feel better,” she continued. “I want to look thinner.”  

She went on and on, listing what she wanted to accomplish by the time she was done with her program.  I was encouraged by her motivation, her excitement.  She had obviously thought a lot about what she wasn’t satisfied with.  I let her stay grounded in her laundry list for a while longer.  Eventually she trailed off, and there we were. 

“So tell me what being healthier means to you,” I requested.

“Ummm,” she paused, “hmmm….I’d like to lose at least 50 pounds.”

It appeared we had some work to do. Of course we did. This woman was overweight, unhappy, wasn’t teaching her kids how to eat well and be active, her self-esteem was in the toilet and she was avoiding spending much time with friends.  She could barely walk up a flight of stairs without gasping for air, her chest heaving. And she clearly did not understand what my question was getting at.

I wanted her to identify the definition of healthy. If she couldn’t, we were going to hit a brick wall fairly early in her weight loss and health journey. Fifty pounds is a terrific goal, and she absolutely needed to lose weight for a myriad of health reasons, but I needed her to be able to identify those. She would need to see what I did in terms of the value of her weight loss to connect to the meaning of it and to have a ruler with which to measure its significance in her life.

Not surprising to me was my new client’s need to hold her goal at arm’s length, creating some psychological distance between it and herself.  Additionally, keeping it vague allowed her to not get so bogged down in the minutiae of detail, essentially the steps required to actually get there.  Some evidence exists that this creation of distance actually impacts self-control, and when we’re talking health behaviors, more specifically, dieting to lose weight or even managing our weight by delaying gratification, we can see how this  might be important.

Essentially what researchers have assessed is how high or low level thinking, abstract/theoretical (why do I moderate my food intake?) versus practical (how do I moderate my food intake), respectively, impacts self-discipline. What they found is that those individuals, who are primed to think more abstractly, are more apt to display self-control.  Additionally, they demonstrated a greater tolerance for discomfort. In this study, it was for physical discomfort, and an increase in endurance. In essence, projecting into the future caused the study subjects to think abstractly, allowing for greater physical endurance.  Think of the value of this when beginning an exercise program.  I often use this when teaching my higher intensity functional training classes. If I said to them, “Okay guys, we’ve got one minute of this exercise, then we’re going to do a functional drop set, and you won’t be able to rest until you know you just can’t do one more squat hop, and then we have about 10 more minutes of intervals doing variations of mountain climbers…” they’d likely walk out on me.  But when I can project into the future and say, “All right! We’ve got 10 minutes. That’s it. Of your 24 hour day, 10 minutes is nothing. Think about how energized you will feel when you’re done. Why are you here? Now let’s move!” they are obviously more excited, ready to dive in, get the job done. They are no longer thinking so much about the possible pain and discomfort.

But now let’s consider those situations in which you’ve thought, “I really need to lose weight,” and you’ve imagined yourself wearing those smaller jeans, going out with friends more often, actually wanting to be social, being able to run and feel lighter when you’re playing with your kids, but you have not thought through how to get started, the steps that need to be taken, and broken down the goal.  All of us can relate to procrastination. I hear it every day from those who are sitting across from me. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, Kori.”  Or “I told myself two years ago that I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”  Sounds to me like it was on her to-do list for a while, and it probably stayed there but kept getting shuffled to the bottom.  How come?

Could it be that the way we think about things influences our tendency to postpone it? And if we are relegating a goal to some distant future, rather than identifying concretely what it would take, might that cause us to put it off? If you’ve ever read any of my previous posts or articles, you are well aware of how crucial the way we think about things is to attitude, achievement, goal-setting, and motivation.  Scientists demonstrate this repeatedly.  Those who procrastinate operate more abstractly, not digging into the immediate how-to details.  But when one does this, identifying concretely not only what will change but how it will change, including the where’s and when’s of the task, a sense of urgency and immediacy is experienced.

My new client and I went back to her list, starting with her “healthier, feel better, and looking thinner” goals. And we broke them down. What needs to happen for you to get there? Action steps. Her walking through my door was a big one. Now it would mean tracking her food. Planning her meals. Developing new skills.

Harder? Depends on how you look at it. Personally, I’d rather spend the half hour it takes to clean up that chicken breast and have it ready to go for the entire week then spend half my life wishing I’d made a different decision about learning how to eat right for health.

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