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Habit Strategy Contrast


Jamie stepped off the scale, “172 again?  That’s it.  I’m done.”  In that moment Jamie closed the books on another attempt at weight loss.  It was February 1st, exactly one month after Jamie started a strict diet and hour-long cardio classes four days per week.  Every other year for the last ten years Jamie tried a new program to get in shape to start the year.  On the odd years she couldn’t even attempt to lose weight, because she was still demoralized from the year before.  As a single mom with a full-time job in financial services and a side job selling homemade crafts, Jamie had a full life.  Sometimes, she wondered “Why can’t I just make a little time for me?”  Feeling selfish, she waved those thoughts aside.  
At 5’6” Jamie wasn’t obese by any standard, but she knew she was carrying extra fat.  She used to play sports in high school when she was leaner and strong.  Jamie gained fifteen pounds in college and lost her athletic build.  You’d never notice Jamie’s dissatisfaction with her body when you were around her, but it was a constant companion.  As Jamie dressed for her brunch date, she thought “Why is everything so easy for Mary?”
Mary checked her body fat after getting dressed, “22%?  Must have been the Christmas party.  Back to normal this week.”  Mary is a clinical researcher, married with two kids, a dog, and parents in a nursing home.  She feels like she never has time for herself, but her motto is “Make it work.”  Mary says she’s “lean and mean” due to eating lots of veg, regular walking breaks at work, and a couple short kettlebell workouts at home each week.  Besides bi-yearly blood tests, Mary monitors one number to gauge her health each week – Body Fat %.  When body fat is up or down 1-2%, Mary doesn’t worry about it.  Anything greater and she doubles down on eating clean, scanning her calendar for dinners or parties that will throw her off so she’s prepared.  Even though she always hovers at a healthy 20-22% body fat level, it still bugs Mary when she’s higher.  She wonders “Why can’t I just accept my body for how it is now like Jamie?”
Jamie and Mary, both dissatisfied with their bodies, look to each other for guidance.  Mary wants acceptance.  Jamie wants results.  Jamie takes on big improvements and fails repeatedly.  Mary stays in shape by keeping things simple with a system that works for her.  Acceptance is not my forte.  Today we’re focusing on results.  How do we make it easier to achieve our health and fitness goals? 

Yearly Resolution Statistics

Going into a new year half of us set new goals.  We envision a better life.  We plan new habits.  We attack our goals with gusto.  
Then we fail.  
According to a 2016 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology summarized here, only 8% of people that set resolutions are successful in achieving them.  You might think you’re better off not setting goals.  You’re wrong.  People who create resolutions are 10x more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t.  That means you’re less than 1% likely to achieve your goals if you don’t explicitly create them.  
Not only do we fail, but we fail fast.  After one week, 25% of people give up on their resolutions.  After one month, 36% quit.  After six months, 54% stop.  
Why do 92% of people fail?
Why do we quit so fast?
We take on too much too soon.  We assume that our motivation will carry us through.  We make it hard to succeed.  It doesn’t seem hard the first week of the year when we had extra free time to plan out our week, prepare a healthy meal, and get to the gym.  Then, we’re back to work.  Our day is full.  We didn’t remove anything.  We only added more activity to an already full schedule.  The new habits last for a week.  Then it’s too much.  We’re tired.  We’re stressed.  We’re overwhelmed.  We revert back to your old habits.
Why do some people succeed with their goals while others fail?  What do the 8% of people that achieve their goals do?

Successful Strategies

Successful people use one of three strategies to achieve their new goals.
  1. They cut old activities to create time time for the new.
  2. They experiment with unconventional protocols.
  3. They make it easy and give themselves more time.
We’ll skip number one, since most of us struggle to cut existing responsibilities.  If you can remove responsibilities, read Essentialism for useful frameworks on how to think to get hyper-focused.  
We’ll skip number two, since most of us don’t like unconventional methods.  If you use the scientific method, like experimenting, and want to improve your physique, read The 4-Hour Body for atypical fat loss, muscle-building, and sleep improvement protocols.
“Make it easy and give yourself more time” is the path of persistence and patience.  Easy to say.  Hard to do.  We want drastic immediate benefits.  We want that dopamine high from a crazy-hard workout to let us know we did a good job.  The rest of this post will contrast two common models for improving fitness to illustrate why easier methods are more effective in the long-term for most people.

2 Models: Typical vs Continuous Improvement

  1. the “Typical” model requires large changes and time investment for new eating, exercise, or other habits as pictured in red below
  2. the “Continuous Improvement” model requires small changes and less time as pictured in green below
Typical (long time) versus Continuous Model activities (short time)

Daily Habit Visuals for 2 Models

Often we have a long break between over the holidays when we start a new health and fitness program.  We overestimate how much time we can invest and start a typical health and fitness program.  Lifting weights, running, meal prep may require a 30 minutes each per day for a total of 2 hours spent on new activities.  Even if you only go to the gym for a 1 hour class, you likely spend at least 1.5 hours when you include extra travel time.  This might work for a week when you have no work responsibilities.  You can see in the image below, which shows your activities over 24 hours, how much the new habits in red compress your normal activities.  
Once the holiday break is over, stress increases from less time for sleep, relaxation, and other routines.  The benefits of intense exercise program are muted by increased hunger leading us to eat more and increased tiredness causing us to rest more when we’re not exercising.  Program consistency decreases and responsibilities take over.  A month or two later, we’re back to where we started.  
Typical Model Daily View - Long Activities in Red
An alternative model is to make fewer changes requiring less time and effort invested.  One way to accomplish this is to use continuous improvement with small changes as pictured in green below.  With this model you make a small change, measure for feedback, and repeat the process frequently until you achieve your goal.  This sounds complicated, but we do it all the time.  When you try a new diet you might weigh yourself every day to get feedback on what you did yesterday and  adjust your behavior based on whether your weight went up or down.  However, implementing a whole new diet is a large change requiring more effort and time invested.  A smaller change might be replace white bread with lettuce wraps or replace internet browsing with walking 10 minutes after lunch.  
Continuous Model Daily View - Short Activities in Green
These smaller changes require less effort and time as and place less stress on your existing routines which you can see below if you compare the image with green to the image with red.  This increases the probability you’ll stick with the Continuous Improvement program compared to the Typical Program.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t any downsides.
Typical vs Continuous Model Daily View

Health Trajectory Visuals for 2 Models

The downside of the Continuous Improvement Program is you may not see as great of an improvement in your health as quickly.  By applying greater effort with the Typical Program you often see dramatic initial results.  However, for most people these results are unsustainable.  If you imagine your Health falls somewhere between your Best Self and a Hospital Bed, your current “Health Trajectory” (i.e. the rate your health is improving or worsening) might before your try to improve might look like Figure 1 below.  It’s getting worse.  You’re getting closer to the hospital bed.
Health Trajectory Current - Pointing Down
Using the Typical Program you might dramatically improve your Health Trajectory within 1 month (Figure 2).  However, within 6 months most people are back to where they started with their Health Trajectory pointed down again (Figure 3).  With the Typical Program results come quicker, but the risk of failure is higher.
Health Trajectory Typical Program at 1 Month - Pointing Up
Health Trajectory Typical Program at 6 Months - Pointing Down
With a Continuous Improvement Program, small changes improve your Health Trajectory but the results aren’t quite as dramatic in the 1st month (Figure 4).  However, the risk of failure is lower from less effort and time required so you’re more likely to continue making improvements at 6 months (Figure 5) and even greater improvements at 12 months (Figure 6).
Health Trajectory Continuous Improvement Program at 1 Month - Pointing Slightly Up
Health Trajectory Continuous Improvement Program at 6 Months - Pointing Moderately Up
Health Trajectory Continuous Improvement Program at 12 Months - Pointing Way Up
Your Health Trajectory can be broken down into a rough equation.
Health Trajectory = Current Health + Systemic Effort (up lever) – Risk of Failure (down lever)
This is a rough approximation because more effort doesn’t always lead to better health in a linear way.  Health improvements follow the Law of Diminishing Returns.  You can dramatically improve your health by investing 15 minutes in exercise daily.  However, if you’re already exercising 120 minutes daily, you won’t get the same level of benefit for investing another 15 minutes as someone who isn’t exercising at all.  
Applying effort is one of the major levers you can use to improve health, however it also depends on what system you use.  Whether it’s a typical program, continuous improvement, or another model you’ll results will vary depending on the system you use and the effort you apply.  
The goal for most people is to increase their health trajectory while minimizing time required and the risk of failure.  Athletes may be willing to implement a higher risk system, knowing that they have the time and experience to bounce back if they fail.  For most people failure in an attempt to improve health is a dramatic down lever on their Health Trajectory.  
Continuous Improvement programs don’t eliminate the risk of failure, however they mute the negative impacts by enabling you to fail quickly with minimal waste before readjusting.  Failures seem catastrophic when you invest 2 hours a day 5 days per week for 3 months (120 hours or 3 full work weeks) which happens to many people using typical programs.  Failures are more manageable when you’ve invested 30 minutes for 6 days over 1 week (3 hours) which is a normal cycle on a Continuous Improvement program.

Lean Body Mass Visuals for 2 Models

While those examples illustrate the contrast in Risk and Reward for Typical and Continuous Improvement programs, Health Trajectory is a bit vague.  A more concrete example is body composition change.  We’ll use ‘Lean Mass Spread’ as defined below as our measure for gauging our health and fitness.
Lean Mass Spread = Muscle % – Body Fat %
If you’re a male and you have 40% muscle and 10% body fat, your Lean Mass Spread would be 30%.
If you’re a female and have 30% muscle and 20% body fat, your Lean Mass Spread would be 10%.
With ‘Lean Mass Spread’ high numbers are good and low numbers are bad.  A high ‘Lean Mass Spread’ means you have  a high ratio of muscle to body fat.  Too low means you have high body fat and low muscle mass meaning you’re somewhere between a couch potato, morbidly obese, and a “weak, girly man”.  
‘Lean Mass Spread’ is one of many indicators of health, but it’s a highly common goal although we normally we state the goal as “weight loss” or “get stronger”.  We’re using a single indicator to simplify our analysis, however increasing your Lean Mass too high can have detrimental effects on your health.  Personally, I don’t want to be a bodybuilder and don’t consider an extreme bodybuilding physique as healthy overall.  Luckily, none of us are going to accidentally become a bodybuilder or Amazon woman.  That requires a ridiculous amount of hard work.
With a concrete measure like Lean Mass Spread you might see results like below for the Typical Program in red or the Continuous Improvement Program in green pictured below.  Time 0 is when you start either program.  The  measurements start from 6 months before you started your program until 10 months after you start.
Body Composition Change Typical Model - Lean Mass Goes Up, Then Down
Body Composition Change Continuous Improvement Model - Lean Mass Goes Up Consistently
As you can see in the red line for the Typical Program, you improve your Lean Mass Spread significantly in the first 2 months of the program by increasing muscle mass and reducing body fat.  After month 2, you’re back to losing muscle and increasing body fat.  The Lean Mass spread starts trending down.  You’re soon back to where you started.  With the Continuous Program you don’t see the same level of gains in the first 2 months, but you continue to make positive improvements adding muscle mass and reducing body fat over the 10 month period.  
Again, this is a rough approximation of a concrete example to illustrate the difference between how many people fare on programs like these.  It does not represent results for everyone.  Many people achieve excellent results on Typical Programs.  Many people don’t.  You likely know which one you are.  

Next Steps

If you’re familiar with failing using Typical approaches, you might want to try a Continuous Improvement approach.  
  • Limit the amount of time you spend on improving your health and fitness.
    • Set a budget of 15-30 minutes max per day to invest in your new habits.  
    • Pick one habit to improve.  
  • Establish that habit successfully over a few weeks before adding another while continuing to stick to your budget.  

It only takes 2 or 3 habit changes for most people to dramatically improve their health and fitness.   Normally, it’s some combination of eating cleaner, a little exercise, and better rest and stress management.  

Look for an end of the year post with an organized of easy habits you can implement on your own.  In the meantime check out the habit tag for the list to get started now.