“Every little bit doesn’t really count”–The MUCH longer version
I wrote an article for Fitocracy a few months ago titled, “Every little bit doesn’t really count.” When I write for my own blog, I don’t pay attention (much) to length. But when writing for someone else’s audience, I tend to think that most people won’t tolerate my typical length. Most of my blog posts are quite long in comparison to a lot of fitness bloggers, or even science bloggers. However, a lot of comments I got back from the Fitocracy piece suggested to me that 1) Readers will tolerate longer posts and 2) In my attempt to keep things short, I missed the boat in adequately delivering my message. Here’s the longer version. I’m not entirely convinced it’s much better than a short version or that it will piss less people off, but pushing the “Publish” button is, in the balance, probably better than sitting on the article.
My thoughts on the “every little bit counts” mindset remain basically unchanged. There were lots of comments about busy lives and raising children, as well as taking stairs and parking farther. I’ve written about goal-setting before, but this issue is slightly different. Winning your personal war involves multiple steps, and you can lose the war in any of these places by allowing yourself to believe that every little bit counts.
Step 1: Define your purpose
I’m not talking about a SMART goal (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound) here. That’s looking at things from the battle level. What’s the long-term goal over the next year, or years? Where do you see yourself in 2-5 years? Do you want to lose weight? Gain muscle? Hit your blood work target? Just live longer? Do something you currently can’t do? Just have the energy to play with/keep up with your kids? Find your “precious”? There’s nothing wrong with having multiple goals, but pick one that is going to be your main focus.
How the war is lost: Wars are lost at this phase in two main ways: 1) Allowing other people to define your enemy, and 2) Mistaking rituals for goals. Your albatross should be your own, because there’s nothing worse than pouring your blood, sweat and tears into someone else’s dream. Your doctor can tell you that you need to hit a BMI of 25, but you have to own the desire to do it; because in the tough times, sometimes, your burning desire is all you have to fall back on. I don’t claim to be an authority on what goal you have. You just need to own it.
But more importantly, don’t think of your short-term steps in place of your long-term goal. The SMART framework is great for creating behavioural victories (Yay! I walked up the stairs every day this week!), but your long-term purpose isn’t necessarily going to be immediately attainable. Confusing behavioural victories for goal attainment is how people end up with the statement, “We killed the Balrog (yay!), but the Ring still ain’t in the fires of Mount Doom,” or “I successfully ate healthier (yay!), but didn’t lose weight.”
Step 2: Determine your current position
A lot of comments I got in feedback to the short article had to do with differences in positions. “Little steps” to some people are “big steps” to others. A patient who has two shattered wrists is going to have a different set of goals than the one who has a (without getting too jargon-y) sprained finger. Both patients might have the same ultimate goal of normal hand function, but two-shattered-wrists guy is going to hit a major milestone when he can wipe his own bum–a seemingly simple task for just about anyone even with a sprained finger (for one, sprained-finger guy can still use his other hand.) Knowing your current position puts the “bits” into perspective as “big” and “little”.
How the war is lost: The war is lost when you confuse “little” and make it “big”. It’s never when you think of something as “little” and it turns out to be big. Taking the stairs is a “big thing” if you’ve done no physical activity before and 2 flights of stairs is an effort. It’s not a”big thing” if you can run a half-marathon. “Not throwing up” is a “big thing” for a patient on some forms of chemotherapy. For most of us, that’s not even a register-able activity. “Big things” also change size and become “little things” as you win more and more battles.
Step 3: Figure out your resources.
The best wars are the ones that you know you can win. Some wars are ones you can’t win. No matter what resources you have, you can’t grow substantially taller. With excessive resources you can grow a little taller. Most of us fall in the wars that we hope we can win, but victory is certainly not guaranteed, no matter how much “belief in yourself” we have. Ideally, in the wars that we define for ourselves, we never want to lose. Losing has potential long-term impact on the success of future goals. It’s part of the reason why people who are unsuccessful at losing weight become more unsuccessful at losing weight, and why people who are poor at math tend to continue to be poor at math. Success begets success.
We all have different resources; some comparatively less or more than others. Do you have a whole army, or just a few hobbits? There will always be competing forces that draw us away from our war; whether it’s children, or school, or work, or personal illness/issues. Taking realistic stock of what time, energy and money you actually have takes us to step 3.
How the war is lost: Most people get discouraged when they fail to meet their own expectations. While success begets success, repeated failure can really be a challenge to overcome. Taking stock of your resources means setting up your battlefield to be in your favour.
Step 4: Commit to winning, or go back to Step 1.
Once you’ve decided on your war, and defined your resources, you need too make the decision to commit to your war. Does it feel like something you can win overall? And what’s the rough timeline for this? Figuring out the limits of your personal resources feeds back onto defining your enemy. Sometimes, it means adjusting how we define our enemy, either in the short-term or the long-term, because again, there’s nothing so demoralizing as losing a war that you defined for yourself–it’s like the ultimate form of letting yourself down. If you haven’t got a lot of resources, for example, time; then are you okay with taking longer to reach those goals? This also might mean that as you experiment, your expectations may need to be adjusted as well. This is where someone with more knowledge or experience can come in handy; they might not take you by the hand and lead you to victory, but they can at least tell you what’s realistic given your set of circumstances.
How the war is lost: Wars of convenience. For the purposes of this article, if getting into shape just isn’t that high of a priority for you (and there are lots of reasons why this might be the case–career, family, illness, bad things happen to good people,) then don’t start a war of convenience. A war of convenience is the fight you take on when it’s convenient for you to fight it. It’s a war that you will ultimately lose, whilst frittering away your resources. Either go back to Step 1 and redefine your war to something you can commit to, or don’t fight at all, and save yourself to fight like the dickens another day.
Step 5: Protect your war with ruthless abandon.
If this is really important to you, you need to protect it. This is obviously within the context of your overall life. For many people, children come first. That means planning around them. But that also means putting your priorities in order. It means that you respect your self-determined order. If losing weight is next in line after your children and your job, then that means as long as your kids and your job are taken care of, that you put it at the top of your list and protect that time/energy/money with as much dedication as you would put into the priorities that come before it.
How the war is lost: Not being able to say “No.” I took care of a guy once who lost his thumb in an accident. We told him that it was possible to save his thumb, but that smoking would be a major threat to its survival. That guy quit smoking in the emergency room that day. He actually stopped hanging out with his friends if they were smoking; and his wife also stopped smoking. The loss of his thumb gave them a war to fight, and to keep his thumb, he had to say no to a lot of things, including damaging some personal relationships. This isn’t to say that it takes personal tragedy to enact positive change, but that you’re the only one who can protect what you want.
Step 6: Lose the fluff.
You’ve probably heard of the 80/20 or 90/10 rule where 80% of your earnings are from 20% of the work you do, or 80% of your profit comes from 20% of your clients, or 80% of something comes from 20% of your resources. Your resources should be spent wisely where you stand to gain the most from as little resource spending as possible. There are certain things that don’t cost a lot of resources. It is arguably easier to find a parking spot far away from your work entrance than it is to find one closer to it. It is also arguably small in terms of the benefit you gain from walking those extra 100 steps, unless you weren’t able to do that before (see Step 2.) Once the behaviour is habitual, and you get used to it, and your body changes in response to it, it is no longer a contributory “thing” to winning the war. It might help in keeping you from moving backwards, but it will stop moving you forwards.
How the war is lost: Not recognizing energy-sucking fluff. If it’s not taking up resources, you can generally keep it. Imagine having 30-minute phone calls with various clients. You spend 30 minutes with all of them. But they don’t all bring in the same cash. The obvious issue is not, “Every little client counts,” it’s, “Why are you not spending more time and energy with your money makers and ditching the time-sucks?” Taking the stairs, though a small thing, doesn’t take up any resources for most people, other than remembering to take the stairs (but in the grand scheme of things, it’s like a 1-minute phone call for a nickel–you _can_ make a fair amount of money, but you have to make a lot of phone calls). Remembering to take a supplement (any supplement) takes constant effort–it’s one of the reasons so many patients aren’t compliant with taking actual medications that they actually need. The more you things you add, the more energy you spend remembering and executing them. But there comes a point when all the “little things” aren’t giving you much return and the cost of doing them all begins to add up; and if all the “little things” are equally “little” then it becomes impossible to decide, given the constraints on your time and energy, which ones to keep and which ones to toss. This can result in keeping the things that do very little, and tossing the big stuff. It’s like accidentally firing your biggest client and keeping a time-suck because you didn’t recognize where your money was coming from.
This is of course, with the caveat that what defines “little” is different for everyone (see Step 2). If it’s making a big impact for you, then it is, by definition, not a little thing. You just don’t want to end up in the hole where you’re relying on a whole bunch of “littles” and still not getting very far.
Step 7: Realize you will lose battles
Life is far from perfect. Stuff happens, and you will lose battles in the course of your war (and if you don’t, that’s awesome.) Relapsing is part of the change process. Always keep in mind that battles can be lost but the war can still be won. You obviously can’t lose every battle, but it’s definitely not realistic to think you can win every single one either. If you find yourself losing more than you’re winning, then you might need to go back to Step 1 and define a war that you feel you can actually win. Although cliché, it’s not as much about how much you win, but how you handle your losses that define you. Pull back, regroup, and learn from your mistakes whether that’s reflecting on how you would do things differently or developing contingency plans for when things don’t go your way. Don’t lose sight of the big picture. And most of all, pick your battles.
How the war is lost: Losing your way. This relates back to the “fluff”. In the course of trying to win your war, you can get caught up in fighting more battles than you need (or can handle), or worse yet, getting so caught up at the battle level, you forget about the war. Always remember that you have a finite amount of resources. Adding things puts demand on those resources, which puts you at risk of losing battles due to being spread too thin. It’s easy to pick up something new and get caught up in the excitement of novelty, only to forget your long-term vision. Remember, that if your goal is to lose fat, then that’s your war. Your war is not to successfully avoid all carbohydrates. It’s not to be the best at adding cinnamon to your coffee. It’s not even about being “good” at fasting. It’s to lose fat. Yes, behavioural victories are important to re-enforce success; but not at the expense of the goal. Don’t mistake your battles with your war. A lost battle is a just a cue to reflect. Don’t let it rule you, but don’t ignore it either. And don’t lose sight of what’s actually important.
Nothing that I’ve written here, of course, is new. Prochaska’s “Stages of Change” have been around since the 1970’s (though not really adopted until research after the 1990’s). What was unanticipated, in my opinion, was that there could be such an inundation ofinformation that the last three stages of “preparation”, “action” and particularly, “maintenance” could become so easily derailed, not only by people trying to sell you stuff, but also the agencies (medical, govermental, nutritional, “sport-science-al”) that purport to know and yet conflict with one another.
The bottom line here is that while you can hire a trainer and a nutritionist and a physician, and read all the information you want, you’re the one that’s ultimately in control of your resources. Spending them wisely does involve saying “no” (more often than not) to new information once you’re committed to a plan until it stops doing what you want it to do. And when it does stall (either you’ve relapsed, or you’ve outgrown the plan), the solution isn’t to add more “things”, it’s to re-evaluate and make a new plan (which may end up looking like you just added things to the old one, but has involved purposeful thinking).
Protect your willpower.