All The Best Deceptions about Self-Control, Small Failures, and Falling Prey to a "Fresh Start"
Whether you’re trying to lose fat, gain muscle, or just get a bit healthier, there are going to be three things that require some massive adjustment: your diet, and your attitude, and (perhaps most importantly) your attitude about your diet.
Avoiding pitfalls is half the battle, and a lot of that comes down to having the right mindset.
To help illustrate this, let’s look at a scenario that might seem familiar to you.
You’re on a diet and doing fairly well. One day, you go to lunch with a friend, and while they are chowing down on a tasty burger you’re dutifully eating your spinach salad topped with grilled chicken and olive oil.
You should be proud of the decision you’ve made, the steps you’re taking towards your goal. But you’re not proud; you’re grumpy.
Because you want that burger.
You find yourself in a state of extreme emotional dissonance: What you are actually doing is more or less antithetical to what you want to be doing. It’s a psychological fact that you can only exist in this dissonant state for so long; something has to give—and, usually, it’s your willpower.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been in that situation, and you can literally feel your resolve crumble. You want to stay strong, but at the end of the meal, you decide to split a dessert.
Oh, yeah. We’ve all been there.
Now, let’s just establish that eating half of a restaurant brownie isn’t going to help you drop body fat, but it won’t completely sabotage your efforts, either. The problem is that the brownie is usually just the beginning.
Having worked with clients for more than a dozen years, I’ve observed most people suffer from an extreme inability to fail on a small scale. When they screw-up, that’s it for them—they believe they’ve screwed up permanently, and so they keep going.
Conventional wisdom tells us that if you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging. That’s the logical thing to do.
However, when it comes to nutrition, we are neither conventionally wise nor logical. When clients have a dietary faux pas, their impulse, paradoxically, is to make it worse; after they eat the brownie, they think, “Well, I’ve ruined today. I may as well just eat whatever I want and then be good tomorrow.”
That would be bad enough by itself. However, for many people, they carry the failure over to the next day, and the day after, and finally, “I’ll be good tomorrow” becomes “I’ll start again on Monday.”
Historically, Monday is the busiest day at gyms1. Perhaps not surprisingly, a decade of looking at clients’ food logs makes it clear that Monday is also the day with the highest level of dietary compliance.
This is ironic, because Monday is the most dangerous day of the week. Not Monday, but the idea of Monday—a fresh start, always available, never more than a week away.
All of this is part of what I call the Monday Mindset. When you’re thinking about getting started on an exercise or nutrition plan, the Mindset manifests itself with items like these:
When you’re already on a plan of some kind, the Mindset excuses look these:
As I like to call them, all the best deceptions.2. In either case, this type of self-delusion is the number on thing inhibiting your success: It keeps you from progressing because it encourages a limiting belief that you can’t course-correct during the week. Worse, it encourages you to give up when you’re close to the finish line, because of the incorrect thought that you can start over.
We’ve all heard that the definition of insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, and yet we all fall victim to the trap of Monday over and over and over again.
So, how to we fix it? There are two big steps to take.
What we all need to realize is that there is nothing inherently special about Monday. There are no magical properties about that day that make it any more or less effective in terms of achieving results.
The fact that the calendar says it’s the beginning of the week doesn’t mean that you can lift more weight or that you’ll burn more fat on Monday than on Tuesday or any other day.
What you need to do is just take five to ten minutes and really think about that. Monday is just a day.
Just because it’s in the beginning of the workweek doesn’t mean it has to be the beginning of everything else. Once you realize this, you can immediately take ownership of the fact that you can start (or re-start) your program on any day; and that makes it much easier to get back on the wagon and avoid the impulse of of starting over to begin with.
To help my clients with this, I’ll sometimes rearrange programming to avoid the issue. Monday is no longer the starting point. If people are really struggling with starting and stopping, I’ll make sure that each new program begins on Thursday. The motivation of the new workout carries them through the weekend—where screw-ups are most likely to happen—with little trouble, and they are able to focus and execute.
In fact, for some clients, Monday is an “off” day and there is no gym time at all. I’ve found that since Monday is generally a busy work day, removing the idea that you “have to” go to the gym after your longest and hardest work day actually increases compliance for the rest of the week.
If you find that the thing holding your success back is “cheating” on your diet, mastering small failures is probably the number one thing you can do to minimize the impact of stepping outside your diet.
Mastering small failures means that you become comfortable with the fact that sometimes you will slip up. This happens to everyone. None of us are perfect, especially when comes to dietary habits, and eating half a brownie isn’t some cardinal sin that immediately negates the impact of your previous successes, or devalues or invalidates your future ones.
If you can wrap your head around these things, then you will find it exponentially easier to hit the brakes—instead of the gas—when you eat something you’re not supposed to.
Consider the following situation: Say you took a trip to Vegas and immediately lost $500. If you’re like most people, your response wouldn’t be to spend the rest of your cash. Instead, you would dial back your spending and get back on track. Your diet is no different.
I suggest keeping a “play money” account of calories each week. You can easily do this by setting a calorie goal on My Plate.
If you do slip up, think of it as “spending” these calories on something frivolous—just don’t go over your budget, and you’ll be fine. Once you have spent your allotment, do everything in your power to STOP spending. Begin your budget with 300 to 400 calories (per week, not per day), and try to work your way down.
Eventually, you’ll start to develop both discipline, and a completely different attitude towards food and cheating. Of course, this can take some time, and mastering small failures and discarding the Monday Mindset is pitting you against two habits that are arguably the most difficult to overcome.
But your first step is awareness, and in some way, just reading this article will be of tremendous value and help you make changes that will help your efforts.
Whether it’s removing the temptation of an ever-present fresh start or learning to master the all-in attitude such temptation fosters, your best bet towards fixing the problem is cutting yourself some slack. Realize that messing up on one meal out of three isn’t the end of the world—nor is messing up one day out of seven.
Developing a real understanding and mastery of these concepts is the key to keeping these failures in check, and giving yourself the best chance for success. Once that occurs, you should feel confident that the rest will fall into place.
Of course, working through these things is easier said than done, and all of the strategies in the world are ineffective unless you actually employ them. This is one of the most important things I work on with my online coaching clients.
Understanding the exact challenges an individual client faces is just part of things, though; my job as a coach is to figure out how to design a program that will help them overcome those challenges.
This is possible because of the objectivity inherent in coaching; something missing from self-assessment. This is one reason everyone can benefit from a coach–and it’s why I personally have a coach of my own.
In addition to the accountability that coaching offers, it’s often the case that clients simply don’t understand their strengths and weaknesses well enough to pick a nutritional program that allows them to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
A big part of this is determining what type of dieter you are, which provides a framework from which the coach can design a program that allows you to make real, permanent progress.
Which diet you follow is dependent on your tastes and goals—but the upshot is that the above strategies will help you stay on track, regardless of how you eat.
It doesn’t matter if you’re into fasting, or cheat days, or paleo; taking control of the Monday Mindset and learning to fail small are two necessary steps towards avoiding the best deceptions, and walking the path to success.
A version of this article was previously published on Livestrong.com