by Josh LaJaunie and Howard Jacobson, PhD
Before you jump into any weight loss program, you need to deal with the ghosts of your prior failures to lose weight and get fit.
If you’ve never tried and failed before, we apologize for the insinuation. It’s just that we — and everyone we know — have a ton of failures and disappointments and frustrations under our belts.
And if you approach this attempt at weight loss with the same beliefs that you brought to your past efforts, you’ll get the same results you’ve gotten before.
If you’re like us, and like most of our clients, you’re all too familiar with this scenario: you start some new diet or habit or routine with tons of motivation, do really well for a time, and then hit a wall and give up.
When making a lifestyle change, you will have the inevitable challenges and setbacks; the philosophy you bring to that change will determine whether those challenges and setbacks are productive or just frustrating.
If they’re productive, you’ll gain momentum and continue, even when things get hard.
If all you get is frustrated, you’ll give up.
So let’s nip that pattern in the bud. Fortunately, it’s really easy to do with the right philosophy of change.
The Second Car in the Driveway
One morning several decades ago I (Howard) got up too early, skipped breakfast, and stumbled to my car to get to work on time.
I stepped on the brake, turned the key in the ignition, put the car in reverse, and eased off the brake — like I had done ten thousand times before.
But this time, I slammed to a halt after moving about three and a half feet. I was thrown back into my seat. I heard crunching. My heart began pounding like a heavy metal drummer.
Jolted into full wakefulness, I twisted around to see what had happened.
I had driven into my other car, which had been parked right behind the one I was driving out of my single-lane driveway.
I haven’t engaged in that level of automotive cluelessness since that morning. But in other areas of my life, I can still be an expert at getting in my own way.
And I’ve noticed that my clients and students, too, often create predictable obstacles as they ramp up their own journeys to wellness.
In this chapter, we want to share three of the most common “second car in the driveway” Mindset mistakes — and provide some tips on navigating lifestyle and diet change so you don’t crash before you even get moving.
Mistake #1: Insistence on Perfection
An old joke:
Henry is sitting on the porch next to his dog, Jake, who’s howling like crazy.Cloteal comes by and asks what’s the matter.“Oh, Jake’s sittin’ on a rusty nail,” Henry says.“Why don’t he just get up?” Cloteal asks.“’Cause it don’t hurt enough yet.”
Most of us have a lot of issues in our lives that simply “don’t hurt enough yet.” We may be annoyed at the extra 15 (or 115) pounds of fat on our frames, that broken bathroom fan, or our tendency to become belligerent with unhelpful call center reps — and we may complain and ruminate about these problems with regularity — but we generally just live with them rather than spending energy and other resources trying to solve them.
The problems rise to the level of “hurt enough yet” only when they tip past a threshold (like 300 pounds) or when an event (a house guest with really bad diarrhea) or outcome (not getting that incorrect $30 charge taken off your monthly cable bill) makes it clear that the status quo is no longer acceptable.
In other words, we delay taking action until it suddenly “hurts enough.” That’s when we feel the urgency of solving the problem. And then we want to solve it immediately, and completely, and forever.
In other words, we want to go from incompetence to perfection in a hot second.
In and of itself, aiming for perfection isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s usually admirable.
The problem comes when we make immediate perfection the only acceptable standard. When it comes to lifestyle and diet choices, we’ve been conditioned for years or decades to behave in certain ways. And all those factors are still very much in force when we muster the will to change.
Obstacles to success include:
- Our biological hardwiring to seek out super-rich foods and avoid strenuous exertion
- Our conditioned tastes and preferences
- Our immediate environments
- Our default systems for shopping, preparing food, relaxing after work, socializing, and entertaining
- Our social networks
- Our advertising-driven culture
- And many more…
Thinking that we can overcome all these obstacles to change in a single moment of intense motivation is an invitation to fail big-time.
We’ll try to bite off more than we can chew. We’ll split our focus between too many behavioral fronts, and fail to get lasting traction on any of them.
We’ll exhaust ourselves and stress ourselves out, then return to the same unwanted behaviors we were trying to change. Because those behaviors allow us to self-soothe or self-medicate, or simply because we’re too spent and exhausted to overcome our default habits.
So what are the ways to combat the initial impulse toward perfection?
1. Recognize the tendency
As I said, wanting to achieve perfection isn’t the problem. It’s when the pursuit of perfectionism causes us to overcommit and burn out that we get into trouble. So the first thing to do is to notice this tendency within yourself.
Does this pattern of overcommitting and burning out sound familiar? In the past, have you gone “all-in” and then found your commitment wavering after a week or a month?
Have you bought all the gear and the clothes and rearranged your living room for the stationary bike or treadmill, put in an hour a day for a couple of weeks, and then found yourself only using it as an expensive drying rack two months later?
Have you thrown out all your junk food and filled your fridge with enough produce and herbal tonics to keep Gwyneth Paltrow in smoothies for a year, and then shamefacedly tossed the rotting veggies into the trash a week or two later because you didn’t know how to prepare them?
Simply acknowledging that you have the tendency toward perfectionism is the first step. Realize that it comes from a good place. And remind yourself to cool your jets, and approach lifestyle change in a more sustainable way so that, this time, you can succeed.
2. Set mini-goals
Perfectionism thrives on a binary state of affairs: things are crap now, and they have to be marvelous. There’s no in-between, no on-ramp, no pathway to success. It’s “Beam me up, Scotty” or nothing.
Real life works differently. We make progress toward our goals in steps. This progress may be glacial or tectonic — small, almost imperceptible improvements, or bigger shifts — but rarely happens all at once.
So take advantage of the way reality works by identifying and working toward milestones along the way.
If your intention is to exercise hard for an hour a day, six days a week, and right now your fiercest exertion is operating the manual seat height adjustment on your minivan, then plan out a bunch of smaller goals along the way.
Maybe walk for 20 minutes three times a week. And then 22 minutes. Then 25. Then four times a week. Then five. And keep adding increments until you’re where you want to be.
You get the idea. Break your ultimate goals into small steps (really, the smaller the better), and hold yourself accountable for achieving the possible rather than the unrealistically heroic.
3. Celebrate small wins
In addition to setting mini-goals, it’s crucial to reward your brain by celebrating your progress.
The nice thing about having these mini-goals is that you get frequent positive reinforcement each time you reach one. In other words, ongoing motivation. So the lower you set the bar for each new achievement, the more small wins you experience, and the more frequent those boosts of motivation.
Think like a casino operator: you get people addicted to the slots not just by promising the extremely improbable gargantuan payout, but by giving them smaller wins along the way.
Instead of having your perfection-craving mind sabotage you by urging you to leap across a too-wide behavioral chasm, you can give it constant “we’re on the right track” feedback to make it an ally in your transformation.
Mistake #2: Misinterpreting Failures
I would love to tell you that once you commit to a sustainable path of lifestyle improvement, you can simply stick to the plan and improve continually. That there won’t be any backsliding, any doubts, any moments of weakness. That once you’ve sworn off certain foods and behaviors, you’ll never look back.
But it just ain’t so.
If you’re human, then you will make mistakes.
The problem is not that you will make mistakes. The problem is not that you will experience failures along the way.
Mistakes and failures are perfectly natural, are to be expected, and frankly, they’re the engines of your long-term success (I’ll explain in a minute).
What will cause you to flame out is interpreting those mistakes and failures as signs that the whole project is doomed. Seeing mistakes as proof that you’ll never succeed will kill your motivation to keep trying.
Let’s say you decide to eliminate refined sugar from your diet. You’ve been perfect for a whole month, and then you’re stuck in a deadly dull all-day sales meeting, complete with PowerPoint presentations and line graphs and spreadsheets, and you’re seriously considering getting the insides of your eyelids tattooed with images of your favorite Marvel superhero — when someone arrives with a box of Krispy Kreme assorted.
Your willpower shot, you succumb to peer pressure and have just one bite of a cruller . . . which leads to another bite and another, and then to – what the hell! – a cinnamon dusted and a raspberry-filled chocolate glazed.
Later that night, you think back on the carnage and decide that you simply don’t have what it takes to give up sugar. Rather than resuming your avoidance of sugar right after the binge, you give up altogether and add cookies, donuts, and sodas back into your diet on a regular basis.
Here are three antidotes to the despair that comes from giving too much power to your inevitable failures.
1. Reinterpret failures as fight-thrus
In their wonderful book Organize Tomorrow Today, Jason Selk and Tom Bartow describe the three stages of successful habit change:
- Honeymoon: You’re just starting, you’re totally psyched, motivated, and energized; everything seems easy and hunky-dory.
- Fight-thru: You're stressed, in a challenging situation, exhausted and emotionally strung out, and are sorely tempted to fall back on your old default patterns rather than put the extra energy into maintaining your new habit.
- Second nature: You can maintain your new habit no matter what life throws at you.
The second phase, “fight-thru,” is the key to success on your habit-change journey. The trick to winning fight-thrus is to target a habit or behavior that you can achieve roughly four times out of five.
That’s right: your goal here is to earn a perfect B minus: 80 percent.
If you lose every single fight-thru, then you’ve set your sights too high at this point in time. You’ve fallen into the perfectionist trap, and so are likely to end up making zero (or perhaps even negative) progress. Find a smaller step you can take, and chalk up those wins while building up your fight-thru muscle.
If you win every single fight-thru, then you’re probably not making real progress either. You’re in a holding pattern, not challenging yourself to achieve meaningful changes, which require more effort. Now is the time to go after a slightly bigger accomplishment.
But if you win four out of five fight-thrus, then you’re in the sweet spot. You know that you’ve chosen a worthy goal, because it challenges your current capability by just a bit, and you get positive reinforcement every time you succeed.
The key is not to beat yourself up for that one-in-five failure, but instead to interpret it as the event that moves you forward.
Instead of dreading and avoiding situations where you might fail, you can then look forward to them. Failing and picking yourself up isn’t a detour on the road to success; it’s the only way you can make progress.
That is, if you know how to prepare for and learn from those failures. Which brings me to the other two antidotes.
2. Anticipate fight-thrus
It’s one thing to fail from time to time. It’s another to be constantly surprised by that failure, to the point where you keep falling into the same trap time after time.
Remember, you’re not trying to fail one time out of five, or giving yourself an advance pass to do so. It’s just what happens when you’ve picked an appropriately challenging goal.
As you approach each situation, don’t just whistle a happy tune and hope for the best. Instead, anticipate and plan for those situations where you’re most likely to lose a fight-thru. Perform what decision scientist Gary Klein calls a “pre-mortem.” Picture the impending fight-thru in your mind. Play out the scenario and give it two endings: defeat and victory.
Start with defeat. Imagine yourself failing spectacularly, noticing the moves you make (and fail to make).
Pay attention to how you set yourself up for failure (for example, by saying to yourself something like, “I wonder if I’ll be strong enough to resist those donuts”).
Notice how your tension dissolves once you give in and take the first bite. And then notice how you think to yourself, “Oh, what the hell, I might as well finish it.”
Then observe how shame drives you to eat a second, and then a third donut.
Next, replay the scene but give it a happy ending. What has to happen differently for that happy ending to feel realistic?
Do you counter that initial doubt with a strong reminder of your aspirational identity or big goals?
“I don’t eat that stuff. It’s not food for me. There’s no need to wonder if I can resist, because eating that is simply not in the realm of possibility.”
When the box of donuts passes in front of you, do you have a response ready that makes your decision clear without causing conflict or unpleasantness?
“No thanks, my doctor wants me to stay away from desserts for a while.”
And if you do end up taking a bite, what’s your damage control strategy?
“Whoops, I lost focus for a second there. Now I’m going to count to 20, remind myself of my big goals and why they’re important to me, and quietly put the rest of the donut in the trash can. I don’t have to lose control and go into a full-on binge just because I made one tiny mistake.”
By engaging in “prospective hindsight” (a fancy way of saying, “Imagine that the future has already happened”), you can use those high-risk-of-failure situations to increase your skills and get closer and closer to the behaviors and habits you aspire to. When you imagine success vividly, focusing on your thoughts and behaviors, you build the same brain pathways that form in response to actual experience.
3. Learn from failures
Let’s say the pre-mortem didn’t lead to success in a fight-thru – or that a failure snuck up on you. The next step is to debrief what happened, so you can do better next time.
Here we recommend leadership development expert Peter Bregman’s FAST Assessment, in which you ask and answer the following questions:
- What was I Feeling? (emotions)
- How was I Acting? (actions)
- What was I Sensing in my body? (physical sensations)
- What was I Thinking? (thoughts)
The data you glean from an honest, non-dramatic FAST Assessment will help you succeed next time in a similar or even more challenging situation. At the very least, you’ll know one more thing not to do. Recalling how you reacted in these four domains is fodder for more accurate and relevant pre-mortems; it will allow you to prepare better for future fight-thrus. (We cover this methodology in depth in our free Kindle book, Sick to Fit.)
Mistake #3: Misinterpreting Successes
To recap: aiming too high can lead to catastrophic failure, and getting emotionally battered by our inevitable failures, whether caused by overreaching or simply because we’re human, can lead to giving up. The third way we sabotage our success is by getting overconfident when we do have some early successes.
As we learned from Selk and Bartow in Organize Tomorrow Today, the first phase of habit change is usually the honeymoon. Everything goes great at first. As a result, we can get lulled into a false sense of security and let our guard down.
As The Grateful Dead sang in “Uncle John’s Band”: “When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.”
It’s helpful to better understand why behavior change can be so easy at the beginning. According to behavioral scientist BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model, we can predict behavior almost algebraically:
Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt
Let’s forget about the prompt for now and just focus on motivation and ability. Basically, we will do a behavior if we want to do it (motivation) and we can do it (ability).
That’s pretty obvious.
What’s less obvious is that there’s a tradeoff between the two: as motivation increases, the more likely it is that we’ll do difficult things. And as our ability to perform a behavior increases, we need less motivation to do so.
An extreme example is lifting a car to save your child. It’s really hard, but you’re highly motivated to do it. But there are plenty of everyday examples as well — like when you find out that you are pre-diabetic and so you finally manage to eat healthier because you’re scared of developing the full-blown disease.
The problem is that the initial flood of motivation tends not to last. It’s fine for short-term heroics (like lifting cars). It works less well for long-term behavioral change. Once we get past the honeymoon period, motivation is extremely fickle. We can’t will ourselves to be motivated. We can’t choose our motivation level at any given moment.
I might be very motivated right now to get up tomorrow and go to the gym, but I can’t bottle that motivation and drink it at 5:30 AM, when all I want to do is clutch my pillow and keep my eyes closed against the coming day.
So we have to accept reality: that our motivation will wane. And that when it does, new behaviors that require us to stretch our ability will be harder to maintain. Initial success is absolutely no guarantee of sustainable success. We cannot be complacent when the first days or weeks turn out really well.
Here are three tactics for interpreting early success in the most empowering long-term way.
1. Be happy
The good news is, you’ve achieved initial success. This means that you’ve chosen something that’s actually possible.
To use a ridiculous example: if your desired behavior was flight (à la Superman, not Chuck Yeager), then you wouldn’t succeed even once, even with infinite motivation.
So early success confirms that you’ve chosen a behavior you have the ability to perform, even if you won’t be able to do it every single time in every single circumstance.
2. Be wary
Don’t get complacent. Celebrate your successes, but simultaneously recognize that your desired behaviors will feel harder as your motivation wanes and other life stressors assert themselves.
Keep looking forward for challenging moments. Keep scanning the horizon for potential fight-thrus. And do pre-mortems in which you take into account how you will feel when the initial flush of motivation has worn off.
3. Spend motivation to increase ability and add prompts
Remember BJ Fogg’s formula:
Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt
Because motivation and ability work together in a see-saw fashion to predict behavior, when motivation to do a thing is high, our ability can be low (not zero, but low) and we’ll still do it.
The same is true in the other direction: when our ability is high (i.e., the behavior is easy for us), we require very little (but not zero) motivation.
For example, most of us are quite good at brushing our teeth. We keep a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste in the bathroom, and know exactly how to perform the act. So even when we’re tired and just want to fall into bed (low motivation), we still brush our teeth every single night.
Here’s the ninja move regarding early successes: use them to render future motivation unnecessary. Motivation is already running high during the honeymoon phase. Early success increases that motivation, which in turn can support further wins, in a positive feedback loop.
But you know that motivation wanes. So spend it now to increase your ability, which is a much more stable quality.
For example, if you're motivated to eat right because of a health scare or invitation to a beach party or summer wedding, spend some of that motivation increasing your long-term ability to eat right.
You might take a healthy cooking class, or watch some videos and emulate the recipes, or ask a wellness coach to give you a healthy food tour of your local supermarket.
Or you might spend some of that motivation on upgrading your kitchen, increasing your ability to cook healthy meals by giving yourself enjoyable tools that encourage your desired behaviors.
You can also use some of your motivation during the honeymoon phrase to optimize the third variable on the right side of Fogg’s equation: the prompt.
Optimize the Positive Prompts in Your Environment
A prompt is a reminder or cue that exists in your environment that you respond to in a predictable way.
Most of us are familiar with the negative prompts in our lives — the office clock striking three that sends us to the vending machines, the Little Debbie end cap display at the Piggly Wiggly, the dessert menu at The Cheesecake Factory.
But there are positive prompts as well — and you can intentionally engineer them to support your desired behaviors. By keeping the floss next to your toothbrush, you make it easier to remember to floss. The act of brushing triggers the impulse to floss.
During the honeymoon phase, set up new prompts, and increase the visibility and intensity of existing ones.
For example, you can stock your fridge with baby carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes, oil-free hummus, salsa, and fresh berries, so you have new go-to snacks when you get the munchies.
You can put that wedding invitation on your fridge door so you remind yourself of your reason for making a change every time you open it.
You can buy a fitness tracker or glass water bottle to serve as a visual cue reminding you to walk or hydrate. (My prompt to drink more water is a half-gallon Mason jar on my desk. When it’s full, I drink. When it’s empty, I refill it.)
You can register for a local 5k race and put the event in your calendar.
If you’re proactive about spending early stage motivation, you’ll be more likely to continue on a path of progress even when that motivation inevitably wanes, because you’ve enhanced Ability and installed and intensified Prompts.
Ready for the Journey
The purpose of this post was to give you some tools to avoid the most common forms of self-sabotage that accompany the early stages of the Big Change journey.
Our hope is that, armed with awareness, you can avoid these Mindset obstacles entirely, or at least recover from them quickly, without having undone a lot of progress toward your goals.
It’s like being awake enough to swerve and avoid that second car.
Or, even better, getting in that second car and pulling straight out onto the road to success.
If you're ready to start that journey, begin by downloading the “Crush Self-Sabotage” worksheet that will coach you through this entire process.