In the 1930s, the famous author Ernest Hemingway took part in a fishing tournament in the Bahamas. Despite competing against locals who had fished the area their entire lives, Hemingway won the tournament along with a hefty cash prize. The inhabitants were furious they’d been defeated by an outsider. Hearing this, he made them a deal; the community could have their winnings back, but only if one of them beat the writer within three rounds in the boxing ring. Four challengers agreed, each of them falling within three minutes.
For a man who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1954, you might wonder how someone with such a varied life away from the typewriter ever found time to write. Hemingway, however, was a machine at work. He’d begin at sunrise every day, stopping only when the writing was done, returning the next morning to throw out anything that didn’t make the cut. His mantra was “If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good”.
It was never Hemingway’s goal to become a famous novelist or to win the Nobel Prize. If you didn’t know his routine, it could seem like success just fell in his lap. In reality, what he lacked in goals he made up for with a ruthless system for success. Writing wasn’t just a living, it was his lifestyle. When you have a weight loss goal, it should seem like the motivation to hit your dream weight should be enough to get you through, but the evidence points to the contrary. Like Hemingway, it’s a system that you need, instead. Here’s why if you can’t stick to your weight loss goals, maybe you should have them at all.
When I tell people that setting goals normally backfires they are sceptical, and I get that. Every person we hear about who climbed Everest or won an Olympic gold seems to be driven by a clear intention to achieve something amazing. But for every world-beater, there are millions like you and me who have goals that we can’t stick to. Although these are anecdotes, there is real evidence that goal setting is counterproductive, especially where weight loss is concerned.
One particular study tried to identify the role of goal setting in weight loss results.
- The study took 1785 obese people who wanted to get leaner and asked them to examine their motivation for weight loss and identify, what the study called their dream weight.
- After 12 months of lifestyle change, 923 of the 1785 people originally in the study had dropped out.
- What was clear in the data was that it was the people with the higher expected one-year weight loss and a lower dream weight who were more likely to drop out.
- Goal setting, or in this instance lofty goal setting, was more hindrance than a help. .
This phenomenon isn’t new. The psychologist Carol Dweck put people with goal-driven behaviour into two categories; performance goals, and learning goals. The types of goals might not sound too far away from each other, but where results are concerned they are radically different
People with performance-based goals are all about showing or validating their capacity to do something. The ability to stick to a diet or exercise five days a week for example. The problem with this, goal-based, behaviour is that you are always one step away from failure. You can either do the thing, or you can’t. If you can’t, you might as well quit.
Learning goals, on the other hand, are all about learning from mistakes and acquiring knowledge. Learning goals fit with what I refer to as a system. If you are working to become a better version of yourself some time in the future, you have a goal. If you have a process that you stick to, and learn from every day, you’re using a system.
When I work with clients I try to steer them away from the all or nothing, goal approach. I don’t help people “achieve their weight loss goals”, I teach people their own, unique, system to manage their diet.
My client Kelly lost 43kg in 31 weeks by using a system designed around making simple food and lifestyle choices every day.
Coming up with the kind of structure I recommend is simple, it just takes a bit of time. Hemingway didn’t write first thing in the morning because he was a natural early riser, it was because he identified that he was at his most creative then. That daily routine was his system.
- If you struggle with snacking while working from home then making sure you don’t have any treat foods in the house is part of your system.
- A system where you plan what you eat the night before could be helpful if you struggle with impulsive food choices during the day
- If you struggle not to buy junk when you go to the local cafe for lunch, then part of your system could be making sure you always bring food to work from home.
While these examples can seem simplistic, small changes like this that can be stuck to every day no matter what are hugely powerful.
By always thinking about the endpoint, you lose focus on the here and now. Creating a system that helps you improve each day is the best way to change your body for the better. If you can’t stick to your weight loss goals, maybe you shouldn’t have them.
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