Bear with me: this is a bit of a long one. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what gets in the way of achieving fitness goals, even when they’re incredibly important to us. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple issue to unpack.
I don’t talk a lot about my work in this space, and when I do I tend to be complaining. This isn’t really fair to my work as there are parts of it I’m supremely passionate about, like the concept of commitment or, more accurately, competing commitments. What fascinates me about human behavior is that we can have goals that are really and genuinely important to us, yet still fail to make progress towards those goals because we act in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that work against us. In my work, I am looking at this paradox of human behavior through the lens of leadership, but it’s equally applicable to fitness goals.
How many of us have set out to improve our health at some point, to exercise more, eat less, get in better shape, run a marathon, the list truly goes on and on? Research shows that most of us suck at achieving our goals and resolutions, with studies showing success rates ranging from 8-40%. Those are strikingly poor numbers. It’s easy to simply assume that the reason we fail with these goals is because they really don’t matter to us and, following with that logic, if the goals mattered more we’d be more successful. Well, as it turns out, that’s not actually the way that our brains are wired. We can be firmly committed to a goal and still find ourselves making zero progress towards it. Enter: the competing commitment.
I have been consistently committed to my fitness for the last 12 years or so, but prior to that I struggled with sticking to fitness routines. I’d start then stop like it was my job. Was my health important to me? Absolutely and without question. So what was the problem? At the time, I had no idea. But as I’ve spent time delving into the world of human behavior, I’ve been able to shed light on this question. I share this in hopes that if you’re struggling with making progress towards fitness goals, this might help you too.
The Quick & Dirty
Here’s the thing: humans are protectionist little creatures. We are hard-wired to resist change and avoid perceived risk–and note the use of the word ‘perceived’ because in the case of assessing risk, perception is reality. The odds are stacked against us to make progress when our actions might ignite the little threat centers in our brains.
What does this have to do with fitness goals? For some of us, the reason we’re not making progress is because, in some way, the thought of taking action towards our health is perceived as a risk to our sense of self or our way of seeing the world. When that happens, we suddenly find ourselves committed to minimizing that risk. Unfortunately, in order to minimize the risk, we sabotage any and all efforts to achieve our initial fitness goal. In other words, we are committed to our health goal but we are also equally committed to reducing any risk or threat to our way of seeing our self and the world. When two competing commitments collide, the end result is that things come to a grinding halt and we make no progress towards our goal.
I’m sure some of you are thinking ‘okay, how could I possibly see getting fit as a threat?’ I hear you. It sounds ridiculous. I invite you to walk yourself through this bit of a process. I’d like you to consider the last health or fitness related goal that you had (or maybe have) for which you’re not making progress.
With that goal in mind, ask yourself what are you doing, or perhaps not doing, that is working against the goal? For me, when I’ve failed to stay on the fitness track in that past, my list included things like: telling myself I’d work out tomorrow instead of today, choosing TV or plans with friends over my workout, hitting snooze so many times that I’d run out of time to workout before work, “forgetting” my workout clothes at home, trying to run fast and frustrating myself instead of starting slow and building up. And those are just a few of the ways I was getting in my own way. When answering this question, it’s important to list actions or inactions without judging them. They are neither good nor bad. They simply reflect what you’ve done or not done.
Here’s where things get interesting. My natural reaction in the past would’ve been to assume I could just do the opposite of whatever I’d listed and my problems would be solved. Just stop hitting that damn snooze button and fitness will be mine! Sadly, when we focus on the actions themselves, we miss the underlying beliefs that are the real source of our action and inaction.
Instead, try this: for everything you’ve listed in your list of things you are doing or not doing, contemplate having to do the opposite. When you think about having to do the opposite, what worries does that raise for you? If I’m honest with myself, the thought of working out made me worry that I’d look foolish, that people would judge me for being unfit, that it would feel hard and uncomfortable, that I would lose out on time with my friends. These aren’t pretty to look at, nor should they be. Our worries and anxieties are rarely pretty, but they give us powerful insight into what’s really going on under the surface.
We have to ask ourselves: if these are my worries, what am I committed to? If we look at my worries, I was committed to never looking foolish, I was committed to avoiding discomfort. I was committed to being seen only as capable and skilled. So what’s the problem with that? Well, unfortunately getting fit was going to require me to be uncomfortable at times. My muscles would have to hurt. I’d have to struggle to build up cardiovascular fitness. I’d potentially look foolish trying out new exercise moves and not being able to master them first time around. My competing commitments were working against my health goals and keeping me in a steady state of being unfit.
Our work doesn’t stop here, though, because our hidden commitments are the manifestation of underlying assumptions and beliefs. The question becomes, for my competing commitments to be true, what must I believe to be true about myself or the world around me? In my case, I believed that people pay attention to and judge those that are trying to get fit; I believed that getting fit should be easier for me; I believed I would struggle to rebound if I embarrassed myself in the process of getting fit. Were these beliefs true? Of course not, or at least not in all cases. That’s the thing with our beliefs, though. They don’t have to be true for us to believe them at a very deep level, and to let them dictate our behaviour.
Once we start to see the underlying beliefs that are holding us back from our goals, we’re in a much better place to start to question those beliefs with small and safe-enough actions (i.e. actions that are a bit of a stretch but not so much of a stretch that they sent us into amygdala hijack).
What’s the point of all this?
If you’ve got a health or fitness goal that’s really important to you, but you’re not making the progress you want to make. Perhaps you feel frustrated or stuck and like you just can’t ‘make yourself’ do what you know you should be doing, work your way through these questions. Challenge yourself to really dig deep, to pay attention to your feelings. If you do this, you’ll notice when you’ve hit on a belief that’s been really powerful in holding you back.
Is this going to get you on track with your health goals in one fell swoop? Not at all, but it might give you a different perspective on how to make progress. So, really, what are you committed to?
**Full Disclosure: The concepts discussed in this post are from the Immunity to Change model created by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. I’m an Immunity to Change facilitator and use this model extensively in my work and coaching. It’s based on sound research by smarter people than I, so if you don’t believe me, check out their work.