IMPORTANT: This blog represents just PART of a WHOLE journey. You'll get the most out of it if you start from the beginning.
Ask any Fitness Industry or Weight Loss professional what the key to behaviour change is, and they’re likely to give the answer, “education”. If I was given a single french fry for every time a government health policy told us that, “People just need to be more educated”, I’d be able to compete with McDonalds’ entire global operations by now.
So, are they right? Is the reason for our inability to stick to healthier behaviours because we don’t know enough? Of course not! What a f*cking industry cop-out to suggest it.
Social media influencers and government initiatives just love to ‘educate’ us, so our continued societal sedentarism and choice of diets aren’t a knowledge gap problem. It’s not like we’re all sat here with our fingers in our ears and eyeballs squeezed tight shut purposefully not listening to the advice we’re constantly given.
The problem we have is that KNOWING and DOING are completely different things. Something is always stopping us from turning our knowledge into real action. And when it comes to getting us to take this action and change our behaviour, the industry only gives us the choice between two methods:
- Use willpower, motivation, and/or discipline (AKA “force ourselves to do it”)
2. Use good goal setting (the gentler approach).
When I trained gym clients up until 2018, I preferred teaching option two. I knew that asking people to use willpower and white-knuckle their way through behaviour change didn’t work for long, if at all. Plus, I was always led to believe that goal setting was logical, plus it was in all the textbooks, so it must be science-based, surely.
When it comes to textbook goal setting the gold standard still taught today is to set SMART goals. This is setting goals by making sure they’re:
S = Specific to you
M = Measurable
A = Achievable
R = Realistic
T = Time-bound (there’s a date to achieve them by)
…we’re told that we just follow this process and we’re practically guaranteed goal success. Science.
SMART goal setting has what I call a ‘truthiness‘ about it. That is something we’ve heard so often from so many different people in so many contexts that we just assume it to be true. And we assume that the reason all industries use this SMART goal setting is that it works.
In most gyms (the one I owned included), if people don’t achieve their SMART goals, we coaches are trained to believe that it’s probably somehow their fault. Clients are conditioned to just accept the blame for their failure to reach their goals and just quietly accept it. It’s sort of an unspoken rule that the chances of us hitting our goals are low, regardless of how much we pretend like that’s not the case.
It wasn’t until about 2015-ish when I finally stopped to question how f*cking stupid that was! Why would anyone think this weird self-deception is fine and be OK with our abysmal success rates when using traditional goal setting?
And so, this is the part of my blog where my journey to the Anti-Fitness Project REALLY started… this was the first time that I questioned the truthiness of what I was taught to teach. The first time I considered that maybe the textbook was wrong and that people deserved better than the mass pretence that they could hit and maintain their health and fitness dreams using SMART goal setting.
So, for the first time, I put down the fitness industry standards and picked up learnings from outside my realm of immediate expertise. Trust me, this was a BIG moment. At that time, in 2015ish, many of the books I read (and the info I’m about to share) had only just been published. Much of it is now highly promoted across various industries, but it’s worth going over as maybe you’ll also find something new in it, just as I did. And maybe this could change how you plan for your future.
After a lot of reading, I started to see some of the problems with what we’re traditionally taught about behaviour change and goal setting. My own industry – fitness – is especially sh*t at it. We ask our “What are your goals?” questions from our client onboarding paperwork and diligently write down their “I want to lose 3 stone” or “I want to get healthier and feel better” answers. But the conversation rarely goes much deeper than a quick chat about the timeframes they’re looking at or why they’ve failed to hit those goals the previous 34 times they’ve set them.
As a coach, I heard a LOT of goals every day and almost all of them were spoken to me without much passion or belief. It’s like we’ve lost faith in our goals before we’ve even set them. They’re essentially just meaningless words to most people because we’re not ever really taught how to think about what those words MEAN to us. We think in terms of end goals, not what the end goal will mean in our real life.
When we say we want to weigh less, is it really the relationship between our body mass and gravity we want to be different? Doubtful. What we really want is to feel more confident or have our favourite clothes fit again. When we say we want to exercise more is that because we want to spend as much time as possible in the interior of a fitness facility? Fuck no… we want to keep up with our kids and not feel like our lungs are going to explode after climbing up the stairs to our office.
Deciding on what we really want and framing that in an emotionally appealing way is everything when it comes to changing our behaviour. This video explains what I mean: How To Set Meaningful Goals
Once we have a goal with some significance behind it, we can begin to figure out the “how” of achieving it. Most high-value goals – if set correctly – are highly unlikely to have one big “Hurrah, I’ve achieved it” moment. We don’t get an award that says “Congrats, you’re now healthy”, or “Well done for achieving peak level self-esteem”. We just one day sort of notice that we’re fitter or feeling better. It kind of creeps up on us. SMART goal setting can’t really accommodate this kind of meaningful goal, so instead of changing our goal to fit the goal-setting strategy, what we need is to change the strategy.
Zen Buddhists have an apt saying for an approach which could help us out here: “Before enlightenment, we should chop wood, carry water. And after enlightenment we should chop wood, carry water”. In other words, if we want to achieve big goals like those that we set using the SMART method, we would do better to focus on the little, daily actions that get us to that big change without us realising it. Think tortoise, not hare.
Current research suggests that we’re more likely to hit our goals if we channel our inner tortoise and focus our attention on small daily actions done consistently, focusing on process goals, not end goals. Aim for the 1% improvements, not the 180-degree shifts. Not as glamourous as big sweeping identity changes, but we’ve got a damn better shot of maintaining them in the long term, and way less disaster and depression if circumstances mean we miss a day.
And hey, here’s some good news… keep them up and we don’t just keep adding a tiny improvement each day because as long as we ADD to these small daily actions, our efforts compound and the trajectory of our lives can explode… in a good way! Watch this for a great explanation of what I mean: The Power of Compounding Habits – 1% Shifts
Approaching behaviour change in this way means that even little sh*t like parking at the far end of a car park instead of near your destination can work wonders. Replacing the bowl of sweets on your kitchen side with a bowl of grapes can end up changing an entire diet if you maintain the change and consistently add more tiny changes when you’re ready to.
The key here is that whatever you choose is something you are willing, able, and ready to do. Picking something too much of a stretch will only end up making it take longer, in the long run, to get near your lighthouse aims. SMALL compound actions for the win! Our aim is to turn these small actions into habits and build on them. And the good news is that our brain is set up to do exactly that – to create and maintain habits.
Could you imagine if every day we had to figure out the most effective way to brush our teeth, make coffee, and put on socks? We’d never make it to work on time. Instead, we rely on habitual behaviour to autopilot our way through mundane things to save on brain power. We won’t need to use motivation and willpower to change behaviour if we can instead create solid habits.
Between 2015 and 2020ish I read some really excellent books which guided me through the best way of forming habits. I’d highly encourage you to check them out with summary links here, and if any pique your interest, read the whole thing:
Here’s also a free 30-day habit-forming course from the habit master himself, James Clear
And I also thought this article was cool too.
Reading up on this habit-forming malarky changed my life in some awesome ways as I hope it will for you. But it also opened a brand-new set of problems that I didn’t realise I had. And guess what… that’s what the next blog is about.
In the meantime, I’d highly encourage you to grab a fresh notebook or journal and consider recording your own Anti-Fitness journey. It might help you make more sense of how the information you’re reading fits into your own real-lived experience of life. Because as it turns out, we don’t just need more education to create change. We need better ways of taking action.
Here are some questions to get you going – the same questions I started asking myself…
- How is the information showing up for me in MY REAL LIFE?
- What if I stopped thinking about how I’m ‘supposed’ to feel or act and started to explore what is ACTUALLY happening for me here. Is the ‘traditional’ or ‘standard’ way of seeing what we’re told to see working for me?
- What would happen if I took this new information and ‘tried it on’ for a little while to see if it works in my actual real life? Does it help or does it hinder and what can I learn from either?
Your life is an experiment not a set formula, so start experimenting. It’s a journey with many paths to explore, not a GPS with a defined end route.