One week into 2016, while everyone’s New Year’s Resolutions are still fresh, I can’t think of a better time to talk about what it takes to be one of the few who sticks with it. Every year, it takes about a week for the guilt to set in and then people flock to gyms like a stampede, only to leave them exactly as they were by the time February comes along.
If you want to be the exception, and set yourself up for long-term success, then you’ll do better to mimic the qualities below that you’re likely to find in people who live a healthy lifestyle for more than just a few weeks at a time. Regardless of the time of year or your specific goals, these are the qualities that I see time and time again in the people I work with who achieve their goals and change their lifestyles for good (and no longer need me to keep them going when they get there).
1. They Learn to Enjoy Exercise
Small children who still run and play are fully aware of how enjoyable and exhilarating exercise is, but unfortunately most of us lose that once we go to school and exercise begins to be viewed as punishment. Even within fun exercise activities, like sports, things like running laps and doing push-ups are forced on you when you do something wrong, so most people never experience what it’s like to actually enjoy running – or exercise in general without a competitive goal revolving around winning or losing a game.
Those who learn to tune into the sensations of exercise rather than trying to block them out, however, tend to fall in love with the feelings they once dreaded, but had never truly experienced. It’s really not much different than a child who is convinced that any vegetable must be disgusting, and even if they are forced to eat it they choose (unknowingly) to hate it. Once that resistance is gone later in life, we find that we love many foods that we thought we hated, but never actually gave a try.
2. They Don’t Look at Healthy Eating as Work
Following off of the example above, healthy eating doesn’t have to be punishment either. Those who make long-term lifestyle changes with their eating habits usually find that they enjoy eating more than they ever did before, and that the junk they used to eat now seems disgusting. Eating healthy is not about forcing yourself to eat healthy food. If you don’t like a particular “healthy” food, don’t eat it! There are plenty to choose from, and you have preferences for a reason – we don’t all respond best to the same foods. That being said, we’ve also found many ways to trick our taste buds with artificial foods, so following your preferences only applies to natural, whole foods.
3. They Take Ownership of their Program
Since people seek me out to essentially tell them what to do, this one can be a little tricky. But the truth is, the person actually doing the work can’t simply resign to the role of being a follower. A great teacher goes a really long way toward speeding up the learning curve and providing extra accountability, but nothing can ever replace the lessons that you learn from experience, but only if you’re truly paying close attention and trying to learn for yourself.
Just like anything else, knowledge is important to get on the right track, but experience is what takes you from there. This also goes back to the 2 points above, because as long as you continue to just follow orders without an active role in the process, it will likely continue to feel like punishment.
4. They Don’t Look to “Earn” Bad Behaviors
This is one of the most common approaches to exercise that I see, and it never works. Going on a run because you ate some cake, or eating cake because you “earned” it by going on a run, will never get you ahead. Even aside from the fact that most people drastically over-estimate how many calories they burn from a single exercise session and under-estimate how many calories they get from a bad meal, this simply isn’t a healthy approach. Once again, this turns bad habits into rewards and good habits into punishments. If you cancel out the good things you do with “rewards”, you’ll never gain enough momentum for big changes and you’ll never cultivate a mindset conducive to a healthy lifestyle.
This doesn’t mean you can never eat an unhealthy meal again. It’s okay to eat something bad from time to time, just allow yourself to actually enjoy it when you do, and don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can “cancel it out” with a single action, as if it never happened. After a misstep, just pick right back up where you left off and keep your eyes on the long game. If it helps, you can even set designated times for cheat meals so that you don’t feel suffocated or resentful about your goals. Even just one cheat meal per week can go a long way toward making you feel like you aren’t depriving yourself of ever experiencing one of your guilty pleasures again.
5. They Set Smaller Short-Term Goals and Bigger Long-Term Goals
It’s no surprise that we live in a quick-fix society that wants instant results, but that’s not how your body works. Sure, a better program can definitely get you to your goals faster and more effectively, but trying to use shortcuts or “hacks” is only going to start the beginning of a vicious yo-yo cycle. Setting smaller short-term goals also makes your task less daunting and gives you far less risk of crushing your spirits when you fall short of the miracle you were expecting – and most people quit altogether soon after this happens. Some people might read this and think I’m telling you to aim low and limit yourself, but this isn’t the case at all.
It’s far more motivating to blow away a smaller goal than to fall short of an impossible goal, even if the actual results are the same in both cases. Beating your goals is what creates momentum, so set yourself up for success and allow time for your progress to snowball. Even if you do have a slower week (and you will), now you won’t feel like you’re so far behind that you can’t catch up. Consistency is what wins in the long run, not fast starts that flame out.
On the other end of the spectrum, most people actually undershoot on their long-term goals. Losing 50 pounds in a year may sound daunting, while losing 20 pounds in a month sounds doable, but 50 pounds in a year is less than 1 pound per week, compared to FIVE pounds per week to lose 20 pounds in a month. If you don’t get ahead of yourself in the short-term, then anything is possible in the long run. Pick a long-term goal that excites you enough (and likely scares you a bit) to make the process worthwhile and keep you motivated.
6. They Focus on the Process, Not Just the Results
Once you’ve set manageable short-term goals and exciting long-term goals, the next step is to shift your focus to what you can control. Focus on the process and the habits that you need to cultivate to reach your goals. Obsessing about your goals won’t help you achieve them. I recommend picking ONE new habit at a time, writing it down, and only moving on to the next one once that one becomes automatic.
Will power is an incredibly limited resource, so the most reliable way to use it is to channel it all into a single place until a habit is formed. Once something becomes a habit, it no longer requires much will power to continue, thus freeing up your supply to focus on the next habit. This is how you change your lifestyle without ever becoming overwhelmed.
It’s helpful to set intervals to check your progress and make sure you’re on track in case you need to make adjustments (I recommend no more than once per month in most cases), but the rest of the time you need to keep your focus on what you can do NOW. In short, to be successful you must know where you’re going, but be where you are.