Sunday, January 27, 2013

Forget Goals. Focus.

I've written about goal setting and SMART before, see here and here.

And I will concede that for a certain proportion of the population goals work. These tend to be the individuals who like to manage everything and control every variable, they follow their program precisely, write down everything they eat, and enter all their competitions a year in advance and plan to peak for every one. This is a small minority of people.

For most people goal setting obviously doesn't work, otherwise gyms wouldn't be full of people every January and February trying to lose weight for the umpteenth time after failing on every other occasion. And yes, many of these people would have written their goals down and made them time bound and all that, and it doesn't work.

So what is the alternative? And do all super successful set goals like we are lead to believe?

Why people leave gyms, why do they fail?

Straight up let me state that you don't have to join a gym to get fit or lose weight or get buff. Having said that, these are the reasons most people join gyms.

There just happens to be data that attempts to explain why people leave gyms. We can use this data from the microcosm of the gym, as it is informative in explaining why people fail to hit their goals in every day life as well.

The biggest drop out rates from gyms occur in the first 2-3 months. Bear in mind, this happens to be the 11-12% of the population that were motivated enough to go to a gym and join up in the first place.

Do you know the number one reason people say they leave gyms within 12 weeks? It is they didn't feel comfortable, ergo they were uncomfortable in the gym environment. They didn't feel they fitted in or it is where they belonged. There are a whole series of training courses now aimed at fitness professionals, they help the people in the fitness industry make these people feel comfortable.

Here's the problem though, no one whoever reached for a goal or tried something new felt comfortable. The very nature of trying new things is getting out of your comfort zone. If it was comfortable, they would still be sitting at home on the sofa eating Pringles.

To use the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water being gently heated, they are so comfortable they don't even realise they are being cooked.

The second most common reason cited by people leaving gyms is they got bored. Yes, after 2 months, which for most people is 8-16 workouts they got bored. This leads to several possible conclusions:-

  1. Their every day lives are so exciting the gym just can't compete. They spend their days base jumping and wrestling bears so lifting weights is boring.
  2. The program they were given is boring, do 10 minutes on the treadmill followed by 10 minutes on the recline bike forever or until you pass out from boredom.
  3. They're lying, they didn't enjoy the experience, it was too hard, they didn't like it or they were too far out of their comfort zone.
I think we can dismiss  conclusion number one, as statistically a large proportion of those people will spend their days in a cubicle farm working for a faceless corporation and will go home at night and watch structured reality TV shows to numb the pain of boredom.

It is a possibility they don't enjoy the gym, but that is different from being bored. Yes, working out can be hard at first and if you don't enjoy it go and do something else. That is the first point with goals, you can be so obsessed with the end result that you forget how you are going to get there. You have to engage in the day to day process. Otherwise the end result at any cost becomes overwhelming. For example, you've decided you are going to lose half a stone in time for your holiday, a set time bound goal, but along the way you slip, you found the gym 'boring' (i.e it was f**king hard and you were out of your comfort zone) and a glass of wine here and there won't hurt, will it? Then before you know it, your holiday is in a week, so you starve yourself, do whatever it takes. Bingo, you lose half a stone, you then go on holiday, binge eat and drink and put all the weight back on.

Cubicle farm - you've already bought the farm, you just don't know it yet

You met the target, you hit the goal, but you were living in the future, never focusing on the here and now of your life. You didn't enjoy the journey, because there wasn't one, just 6 months of panic.

I can't remember the third most common reason people state as to leaving gyms after 2-3 months, its probably something like they don't like the music or they are afraid of catching MRSA from the machines. In fact, all reasons should be 'I'm out of my comfort zone, and I didn't want it enough'. Maybe, some of these people leave and go and achieve their goals anyway, but the stats on obesity and fitness would suggest not.

Goals are limited.

If you set a goal you have limited yourself. I will lose this amount of weight and no more, I will run this fast but no faster, I will lift this weight but no more. A goal can become a barrier, the 4 minute mile is a case in point, most people thought it was impossible at the time, but then one man didn't, the rest is history. Of course, most of us aren't running 4 minute miles but we still limit ourselves.

To explain this I will take a few liberties with the Central Governor Model. Tim Noakes proposed the central governor model to explain why the body stops you killing yourself during exercise, the body will maintain homeostasis at all costs, so it will make you slow down running even if you have enough fuel in your muscles, are not at your VO2 max and have not recruited all your muscle fibres. Your brain tells you to stop.

To take it a step further, if you run any distance your brain has already worked out how fast you should run and what pace you should keep, hence you run faster over 100m than you do over 40k, unless you are a complete novice or idiot and have no reference point of how fast you can run.

This helps to explain why even marathon runners sprint finish when they see the finishing line. Your brain calculates that you have enough energy and enough muscle fibres to make it to the line and says 'yes, it is safe to sprint'. The runner then collapses as soon as they reach the finish line - their goal. If the finish line was 100m closer they would have collapsed then and if it was 100m further they would have collapsed then. Their brain matched their effort to the goal distance (of course, other things are at play when people do die - sudden cardiac death, over hydration etc).

Noakes has explained that this model can be used to explain other types of fatigue and motivation

"This new interpretation is the first to allow a more reasonable description of a number of phenomena that defy rational explanation according to the traditional ‘‘limitations’’ models of fatigue. These include, among many others, the chronic fatigue syndrome, in which affected individuals experience evident fatigue at rest, and the role of psychological and motivational factors, centrally (brain) acting pharmaceutical agents, hypnosis, shouting or sudden unexpected gunshots, or other forms of distraction including music or premeditated deception on human exercise performance."

To take it a step further, if you think you can only run a certain distance or lose a certain amount of weight it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The limitation in the brain has been set.

But don't all successful people set goals?

We've been led to believe that successful people - athletes, celebrities, business people - all set goals.

In his article Consider Not Setting Goals in 2013 Peter Bregman shoots down an urban myth.

"Like that study done on the Harvard Business School class you may have heard of, in which only 3% of the graduating students wrote down clear goals. Twenty years later, those 3% were worth 10 times the worth of the rest of the class combined. Compelling, right? It would be if it were true. But it isn't. That study doesn't exist. It's pure urban myth."

Also, I was interested to read in a recent chaos and pain article that Hugh Jackman doesn't believe in goal setting. To quote Jackman

"That's Jackman's primary driver: Instead of setting goals, seek defining moments. Those are the real tests, because you have to be willing to fail in a pressure situation in front of other people. "That fear holds all of us back," Jackman says. "And that's the toughest thing about aging. With age, you see people fail more. You see yourself fail more. How do you keep that fearlessness of a kid? You keep going"


 "I don't set goals in life," he says. "In this country, people are all about goal setting. And I concede, to a point, how it can help you get going. But we limit ourselves with goals. We have far more ability than we give ourselves credit for. You see that in people under pressure. How does someone run a 100-meter race at the Olympics? When it's once every 4 years, with everything they've done leading to that? It can't just be adrenaline." Then he nods and smiles. "Maybe it's just the mind getting out of the way."

(Both quotes originally appeared in mens health I think)

(You can see the full article here, but be don't go to this site if you are easily offended)

The idea of seeking defining moments is pivotal. (Not only is Jackman, 6' 3", ripped and can sing, yes Les Mis is a great film, he comes out with great quotes like this; I want to hate him, but I can't).

Next time you're in the gym, feeling strong, try that extra weight on the bar, see what happens. Out for a 30 minute run but everything is flowing, just keep going, run until you get lost. Haven't exercised for years, go for a walk, what the hell have you got to lose.

Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners are the epitome of not limiting themselves. They all seem to think they can win, and run a 2.04 marathon, sometimes they crash and burn, but sometimes it becomes a defining moment. That's why they are so scary to run against, they have't accepted limits nearly as much as some of the European and American runners have.

So what to do? Focus of course.

Peter Bregman proposes areas of focus. Rather than focus on the outcome and the goal, focus on what you are doing here and now, the  task you are doing at this moment with no future reward in mind.  Stay in the present.

"How do you do it? It's simple: identify the things you want to spend your time doing"(Bregman)

You have to have fun and enjoy it. Bregman is focusing on business, but its even easier in training because you don't have a boss telling you what to focus on.

If you like lifting weights, lift the weights for the hell of it, focus on the perfect rep, or mastering an olympic lift. The process is important. Don't be wedded to one program or a number in your mind. Those poor saps who dropped out after 2 months, they were focused on some future reward, countless people have said to me 'I hate exercise, I hate the gym' but they feel they have to do it, they've already failed, I feel like telling them - 'go and get your money back now and leave, this wont work for you', if you don't love the process, then all you are going to do is blame the monthly cost, or the water fountain or the cleaners in the gym, because you didn't like it or it was too hard.

As I've stated before, you have to be intrinsically motivated, no one will do this for you. And if you reach some pre-determined artificial point in the future, you will feel hollow, wonder what to do and will have missed living in the present.

Stop being distracted by frivolous things, how many things can you really focus on?

To quote Pavel Tsatsouline

"Over the years people have asked me why don’t I offer motivation tips. The answer is: I have none. We are all adults here: either you have it, or you don’t."

There are no goals - go ultra.

With running its easy to get obsessed by numbers, we all have Garmins and stop watches. We can become OCD about measuring our average speeds, mileage and PBs. All the while missing what we should focus on - the joy of running.

As Peter Bregman has said in another blog 'stop focusing on your performance'.

We live in a society where everything is measured, performance evaluated, KPIs, we become goal driven. Yes, our society has benefited from the technology and the advances but in recent years it has also been our un-doing. Measure everything, then people just fix the numbers to hit the goal, because the stats are all that matters, and winning is everything and the quality is gone. And no one sticks their head above the parapet because no-one wants to be seen to be the one who fails, because you'll be the first one in the firing line when it all goes pear-shaped.

In ultrarunning the guys and gals at the front are trying to run as fast as they can, but behind them is another sub-culture. Those who are running just to run. The Caballo Blancos of this world. Run just to run. No watch, no distance in mind, they explore. Also described by Rob Schultheis in the book Bone Games, a whole group of people not entering races or thinking in terms of 50 or 100 miles, but just drawing a straight line on a map and then traversing that line for no other reason than to do it, be in the moment, the zen mind.

And at that point you've gone beyond goals, and the need for external validation and chasing some future you.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” - John Muir

If you're lucky you get to focus on what you want to do all the time. However, realistically with financial needs and family responsibilities you may have to devote a large chunk of your time to something you don't like that much to make ends meet. In which case, for f**ks sake do not waste your precious spare time on things you hate or are not engaged with, focus on things you actually want to do and don't blame anyone else if your don't.

Forget goals. Relax, let it go and immerse yourself. Enjoy.

Don't get distracted by looking too far down the road. Focus on where you are now.

Zimmerman, Mike.  The Hugh Jackman Workout: The X-Factor.  Men's Health.  2006.  Web.  23 Jan 2013.

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