Focus on Behaviors, Not Outcomes

Magnifying Glass

It is that time of the year, and many of us are focusing on our New Year’s Resolutions. I do not have any firm statistics, but I am guessing that not an insignificant number of those resolutions have to do with health/fitness/weight. And (again without firm statistices) my guess is that many of us will be no more successful this year than we were last year.

At a gym where I worked previously, every fall there was a big promotion for a weight loss challenge that would begin in January. The male and female participants who lost the most weight as a percent of their total weight won a prize and bragging rights for the year. One year, I was put “in charge” of the challenge with a couple of other trainers and we decided to shift some of the focus away from weight loss entirely; we knew there could only be two winners, but we wanted everyone to succeed by creating healthy habits. There were two sets of winners: 1. those with the greatest percentage of weight loss, and 2. those who had the greatest number of overall “points.” Points could be earned through weight loss, and also through participating in a fitness class, setting and meeting a fitness goal (like doing a 5K or planking for 60 seconds), or participating in special events like the Indoor Triathlon. We also split into teams, banking on the fact that when we work together in a supportive setting we are more likely to stay motivated. Not surprisingly, attrition during the challenge was quite low; participants really stuck with it because they knew that it was not just about dropping pounds, but also about being accountable to themselves and their teammates–and about building a healthier lifestyle with good habits for the long term.

Unfortunately, most of us do not focus on the permanently changing our lifestyles; we obsess over the number on the scale. I am a firm believer in setting and adhering to simple rules to help make those changes; I even blogged about it. Make a few rules that are do-able, like “no eating after 8 pm,” or “I will go to the gym 3 times each week for 40 minutes,” or “I will take the stairs each day rather than the elevator.” These are all simple, measurable, achievable rules. They are much more concrete than “I will be more healthy,” or even “I will lose 20 pounds.” Neither of those has a plan; they focus on a goal rather than a behavior.

Those who focus on a goal find that it is difficult to stick with it if results do not seem immediately forthcoming. On the other hand, those who focus on the behaviors can be proud of progress on a regular basis. This is much more useful in building a healthier lifestyle.

I have not decided what (if any) New Year’s Resolutions I will make; I am more apt to do this around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In any case, if/when I do I will be certain to focus on what I will do, not where I hope to arrive. It is all about the journey….and eventually we make it to the destination.

Simple Rules for Fitness

Several years ago an associate recommended to me the book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald N. Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt. Although the book is really directed at the business world, it has applications far beyond that field.

The argument made by Sull and Eisenhardt is that often we seek complex solutions to problems (or we don’t seek them, but they end up being the solution we go with) when simple rules can serve just as well. The process involves getting down to the roots of the problem–understanding what is truly at work–and then applying a consistent set of rules that correspond to the values/qualities/outcomes we seek.

For example, if someone is looking for a person to fill a position at a company, s/he may receive hundreds of applications. That person may put together a team to go through the applications to find candidates who might fit. Those applicants can then be re-reviewed, etc. The Simple Rules philosophy would have him/her set very limited criteria (just a handful or less) and eliminate all those who do not fit from the get go. This cuts down on the amount of work and speeds up the process, while leaving little room for subjectivity. This is, of course, not a perfect approach…but we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a complex world, and sometimes the best approach is to simplify.

What does this have to do with fitness? Often when individuals seek to improve their fitness they come up with plans that are too complicated; they become more trouble than they are worth. Take a diet plan, for instance; counting calories, weighing portions, keeping track of calories burned in exercise might be too much for some people–especially those starting out. It is intimidating and overwhelming. The Simple Rules approach would say “come up with a few behaviors to change that are simple;” base them on an honest assessment of where you think your weaknesses are. Examples could be: it’s ok to fill my plate, but no seconds; eat out only once per week; no “grazing” after dinner; or no calories from drinks. These are not complicated and don’t require overthinking. Choose a few and change the behavior.

When I started to get more serious about my own fitness, the Simple Rules philosophy was central to my initiative. I started by committing to seeing a personal trainer for an hour each week, doing cardio at least 4 times a week for 30 minutes, and not eating after dinner (except for very special occasions). The results were easy to see and I could sense the progress. Over time, I have changed the rules, but always kept them to a few, and simple enough that I don’t need a paragraph to express it.

What do you think? Simple Rules…too simple or simply a wonderful idea? At the very least, I think it’s worth a try for those who find diet and exercise to be too overwhelming/complicated/intimidating.