In an older post, I mentioned the importance of patience. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out here. This time around I’d like to address a growing problem in the realm of self-improvement advice. This little problem is becoming increasingly worse, and it’s unlikely that it will get any better over time.
What is this growing problem?
TOO MANY TACTICS
What do I mean by that? Well, let me answer that question with another question. How many different posts and articles or videos have you seen that sound something like this?
“56 Ways to Lose Belly Fat”
“10 Reasons You Haven’t Got a Raise”
“14 Strategies That Every Billionaire Uses and You Can Apply”
I could keep going. But I won’t.
Now, please hear me out. I am not saying that some of these tactics are not useful and that you shouldn’t consider testing them for your self-improvement. My concern is regarding the sheer volume of tactics we are exposed to.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you are never more than a Google search away from finding 10+ semi-informative answers to your burning questions. Some answers are incredibly helpful, yet the majority are absolute crap. But it’s what we do next with this information that is causing the biggest problems.
THE PROBLEM OF OVERDOING IT
Since it’s an easy one to work with and universally understood, let’s take the example of losing weight.
When we see the list with 56 ways to lose belly fat we think “This is amazing! There are so many different ways to do it, this should be easy!”
We’re so jacked up and inspired we immediately decided to try every single one. AT THE SAME TIME (Well, maybe not all 56, but a whole butt load of em). And so, you set out with the highest of hopes to try implementing these bold new tactics.
THE PROCESS LOOKS A LITTLE LIKE THIS:
The article said that working out 3–4 times a week is an ideal goal. It also said that you should cut out things like greasy Food, sugary drinks, salty snacks, and processed foods.
Oh! and you should eat more fruit & veggies, and drink waaaayyy more water. One last thing…for some odd reason, they mentioned that you can reduce belly fat if you do lots of ab exercises. So do lots of those as well.
So WEEK 1 comes around and you actually went to the gym four times. Amazing! You didn’t eat any unhealthy food. Or at least you think you didn’t. Is cereal a processed food? Still haven’t figured those ones out. You even started eating things like bananas, apples and carrots for snacks.
WEEK 2 is more or less the same.
WEEK 3 passes by and you had a couple things pop up, which means you only made it to the gym twice. And on Thursday it was Carol’s birthday, so you indulged in some chocolate cake. You and your friends went out on Saturday, so you had a few beavys and some late night greasy food, as one usually does.
WEEK 4 and you aren’t feeling as motivated as you were in week 1. Guilt begins to sink and you start to truly feel like you failed. Evidently, you begin to beat yourself up, wondering why you suck at everything and you have no willpower. Next thing you know, you aren’t even trying to be healthy. You maybe go to the gym once a week, and perhaps have a sip of water if you are feeling extra parched.
Within a month, you are basically back to your old ways.
But what the heck did you expect? You tried to implement all 56 strategies at once!
I don’t care how motivated you think you are at that moment. The hardest part is going to come later down the road. The real question is this: How motivated are you 16 days in? And what are you going to do that will ensure you stay disciplined?
We all like to think that we possess incredible willpower and that when it comes down to it, we are going to choose the Apple over the Apple Pie. But for nearly 99% of the human population, that’s just the case.
THE BATTLE OF PAST YOU VS. FUTURE YOU
To propose things rather simply: Is ‘Future You’ going to want to put up with the bullsh*t ideas of ‘Past You’? If you gave Future You 56 commandments to follow, chances are slim that they are going to listen to every one.
So…what should you have done instead?
The answer is actually a lot simpler than you think. It comes down to something called the 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. Essentially what the rule says is this: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Therefore, if we focus our efforts on eliminating the 20%, we can get also rid of the 80%.
Now, coming back to my opening statement. I mentioned that the problem with self-help advice is that there are too many tactics. And more specifically, there are too many tactics that focus on addition, not subtraction. If we focus on subtraction first, we can eliminate the 20% that are the most problematic. And by removing the ‘bad’ we will naturally create space for the ‘good’.
So, in reference to our losing belly fat problem, what does that look like?
Well instead of trying to apply all 56 strategies immediately, we should narrow it down to the 1 or 2 habits that are causing the most harm. When it comes to losing fat, what we eat is a good place to start. Now, before you go throwing away your unhealthy food and going cold turkey on junk food. We need to establish an incremental plan of action. If you have never gone on a strict eating plan, what makes you think you will be able to do it for your very first time.
Our most basic instincts will always push us to go back to what’s comfortable and normal. Therefore, we need to retrain our brains on what is “normal”. If you create weekly goals, your first month could look something like this:
Important Note: I am not a fitness or nutrition expert. You can follow this guideline if you choose, but my I am simply using it as a framework for how making my point.
- Eliminate all sugary drinks. Instead of juices or soda, only drink water or flavoured sparkling water.
- Workout twice for a minimum of 1 hour each. This could be either some form of cardio or weightlifting
- Find an accountability partner for both fitness and eating
- Eliminate one “bad food” category. Example: Fast Food for Lunch
- Replace Fast Food with a home cooked lunches or healthier alternative
- Maintain all habits from week one
- 2 workout sessions, minimum. If time permits do 3
- Eliminate one more “bad food” category. Example: Salty Snacks
- Replace salty snacks with your favourite fruit or assorted nuts
- Continue habits from week two
- Learn what processed foods are and only them eat them once a day
- 3 workout sessions minimum. 4 if you can manage it.
- Eliminate one more “bad food” category. Example: Beer
- Replace beer with red wine.
- Continue habits from week three
- Eliminate all processed foods
- 4 workout sessions
- Eliminate one more “bad food” category. Example: excessive cheese
- Replace cheese with Nutritional Yeast. Yes I know this sounds weird, but it’s actually pretty good
In creating a plan that focuses on incrementalism and steady subtraction, you will have an easier time adjusting to the new changes. By the time you get to week 4, going to the gym 3–4 times a week will feel a lot more natural and drinking sparkling water over a soda can become second nature.
THE KEY VIRTUES YOU NEED TO PRACTICE
It’s so tempting to measure ourselves in comparison to those around us and begin to assume that it’s hopeless. That we will never reach our goal. That everyone else has it easier than we do. But that’s just not true.
“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” — Dr. Jordan Peterson
We all see the world through our own eyes. No matter what, we will never be able to truly live someone else’s life, and therefore, we can never know the struggles and battles they have had to deal with. So next time you see someone with six-pack abs, or sitting next to you in traffic driving a Tesla, or selling their startup for over a billion; don’t assume that what they have is unattainable or that it was reached without some effort. Never buy into the hype that they achieved all of that through luck alone.
Always remember that with the right plan of action and patience, you can achieve exactly what you want. But you just can’t get caught up in trying to EVERYTHING all at once. You have to start with small changes in your routine and provide attractive alternatives that you can rely on when your cravings for “the old way” come crawling back.
And beyond that, you must have a WHY. If everything you are doing seems more like a punishment, rather than an opportunity; your willpower, determination, and drive are going to suffer in the long run. You have to figure out what difficulty is worth suffering through. You have to choose which direction you want to head in order to achieve your goals. Because at the end of the day, you are going to have to make sacrifices and work hard if you want to attain anything worthwhile. But your odds of doing so decrease dramatically if there is no higher calling or purpose.
2 STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Starting to feel a little overwhelmed and not sure where to begin? No worries, that’s totally normal.
I’ve got two challenges/requests for you this week:
- Over the next 7 days, sit down and list out 10 things you do that you don’t like. Things that are making your life worse — Things that are piling up — Even bad theories that are going wrong. Take stock of what you are doing that you know is making your life worse. Focus on those first and do your best eliminate them from your routine.
- In an ideal world, if everything was going well and you were achieving the things you wanted, what would your life look like in 1 year?
These are two simple areas to start with. Focus on elimination and then build in a vision for what your life could be like. These two steps alone will get you a long ways towards a life that is much more ideal than your current state. Build up from there and see where that takes you.
What You’re Getting Wrong About Trying to Improve Yourself was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.