Friday, January 1, 2016

The (almost) universal belief that January will be different.

We humans like landmarks, patterns and milestones.

No one starts a new diet on a Tuesday afternoon in December (and if you did, please don't write to me to prove I'm wrong).

But people start new exercise programmes on Monday mornings all the time, and at the start of the month, and especially in January.

Even though these days and months are arbitrary.

And what's more, we are more likely to write something off if we fail early. Well, I've eaten badly all day, no point starting now, this evening, might as well wait until tomorrow.

Missed exercise on Monday and Tuesday, no point starting now, might as well write off the whole week and start next week.

And I'm half way through the month, no point starting now, I will wait until next month, next year. January, the mother of all beginnings, the mother of all failures.

I wonder if in countries where the new year starts in February or the day of rest is Friday or Saturday the same thing happens?

Of course, the best time to start is now. Right now. There is no other time. You don't need a specific plan, you don't need to wait until your organic paleo meat/veg box arrives or buy those new trainers.

As my colleague once said (and I'm paraphrasing) 'I could give the best programme right now, I could give you George St Pierre's programme but it won't make you George St Pierre, you don't need a programme, you need a habit, and you need to stop that other habit you have of drinking a bottle of wine a night; that will do more than any programme or personal training session.'

How to fail 100% guaranteed and how to succeed.

The number one easiest way to fail is to be vague. Nebulous statements like I want to get fit, eat more healthily and have more energy are a road to failure. Well, how much energy do you have right now, how much do you want to have? It's like saying you want to be happy. What specifically is going to make you happy. This is why most people entering the gym in January will fail, they have a vague idea that they want something to be better, but they don't know what.

They want the future to be a certain way but they don't really know how (see Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness, for a more complete discussion of why people are bad at predicting the future and what will make them happy). Hint: Your view of the future is distorted by the present, for the same reason the produces of Back to the Future II thought 2015 would be full of fax machines.

The second way is making the goal too easy. If there are no consequences, if it can be achieved easily you are more likely not to bother. Yeah, I'll get around to that at some point, it doesn't matter if I skip this workout or eat 2 kilos of Dairy Milk.

As Heidi Halvorson in her book Succeed says

"Difficult but possible is the key. That's because more difficult goals cause you to, often unconsciously, increase your effort, focus, and commitment to the goal; persist longer; and make better use of the most effective strategies."


"Most goals worth achieving require time, planning, effort, and persistence."

Case in point number 1:

I entered the Leadville 100 trail run in 2014. It just so happened that the day you can enter is 1st January. For me this was a big goal. It wasn't until August, but I went out for a run that day. I knew it was difficult, and furthermore it had cost me a couple of hundred dollars to enter and I had a plane ticket to Denver that cost me $1000. Therefore, there were physical and economical reasons why I was not going to go at this half hearted. For me, a local 10k race wasn't going to cut it, it wouldn't have had the same effect; it would not have made me go out and run in the rain and snow - I would have skipped training sessions.

But everything is relative. The goal should be difficult for you, whatever that may be and you have to attach consequences.

And the last reason for failure is lack of planning.

I often hear people saying they are going to attend the gym 2-3 x week. This is not a plan, its a wish. A plan would be writing down exactly what days and times they are going to the gym, what the routine will be etc etc.  Most people don't do this, they don't want to be held accountable. Even though the research shows this is the way to do it.

Again to quote Heidi Halvorson

"Planning when, where, and how you will take the actions needed to reach your goal is probably the single most effective thing you can do to increase your chances of success."

Now, I have written before about SMART goals here and here , and I don't think it necessarily has to be in that format.

And for me intent and 'wanting something' comes before planning. For example, I could write a detailed plan about how to become an accountant. But I am never going to do it because 1) I have no interest in being an accountant and 2) There are no consequences if I don't become one.

Conversely, when it comes to exercise I don't have a plan. The thing is I find training intrinsically motivating and satisfying, I enjoy going to the gym 3 or 5 times a week. I like training and lifting weights for the sake of it with no outcome goals. However, training for 100 mile run is different, for me that needed a plan and a mindset change.

And for me nutrition is something where I can easily drift off into a world of cakes, cheese and carbs. Eat 'better' is something I want to do, there are consequences health wise if I don't and therefore a plan works. If I write a shopping list, if I write a rough template of meals for the week, if I prepare for the week on Sunday then it works.

Case in point number 2: 

For years I tried to meditate and practice mindfulness. I knew what the research showed, I knew it was a good thing to do, I knew it would only be 10-20mins out of my day but I just never did it. I would do it once and then not bother and then it was something I was going to do in the future.

Then this January I decided to do 100 days in a row. I followed a course of meditation and when that finished I followed another one. I committed to doing something everyday, even if it was 10.30pm and I was tired I committed to doing 10-15 mins at least. There was no immediate reward, there was no end goal, the goal was the process, the goal was to do it. And I did. And then in a very subtle way I could feel the change, it wasn't dramatic but it was a habit. And now if I miss a day I don't beat myself up, because I know I still do it more days than I don't.

But this isn't about goal setting.

If you want to read about goal setting I recommend reading the Heidi Halvorson book.

And this isn't about my goals, the above were just examples from my own personal experience. I know what its like to set goals, fail goals, miss opportunities, try again, succeed, put maximum effort in, put no effort in and hope for the best. And along the way I found out one thing.

It has to matter to you. It has to galvanise you. It can't be someone else's goal or idea of what is good to do or not to do. The most important thing is to start. What is the spark that will set the wheels in motion (yep, I mixed some metaphors there).

If the gym isn't your thing please don't waste your time and money (and mine by writing you a programme that you will never follow). But conversely, you have to give it time, it should be hard, it should be challenging, you won't see results in two weeks. And eventually it should be satisfying.

All I can say is don't waste time thinking about it, don't wait for the perfect moment. Don't look for the approval of others. Start now, there is no time to lose. Doing something will move you closer to the outcome than doing nothing, however small that 'something' is.

And the last word goes to some Japanese fella back in the day:

"But don't dawdle. Imagine yourself on your deathbed at this very moment. What alone can help you?"
"The problem of birth and death is momentous, and the world moves fast. Make the most of time, for it waits for no one." - Bassui (quoted in Kapleau 2000: 190-192)
Really think about that for a moment. And then use it pursue whatever you need to pursue and don't lose sight of the impermanence of everything.

This moment will pass and it will be lost. Don't lose another year, don't lose another second.

If the day you happen to start is in January, so be it, but it won't be different to any other time of year unless you are different in your approach.

Have a good 2016, make it count.

Do you think this guy knew he was going be Iron Man back in 1995? Image source:


Gibert D (2006) Stumbling On Happiness

Halvorson H (2010) Succeed. (Kindle book)

Kapleau P (2000) The Three Pillars of Zen

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