I’m a big fan of Dan John. I’ve never actually talked to him, but I consider him a quasi-mentor as his books, lectures, and writings have helped shape the way I view fitness today. On more than one occasion I’ve seen him say something like, “The goal is to keep the goal the goal.” It’s such a simple phrase, but I find it to be so dang meaningful and related to almost each and every one of the people I coach.
Often times, the people I encounter are easily overwhelmed or distracted when it comes to keeping their fitness goals front and center. Can you relate? Too much to do. Too much overwhelm. Too many responsibilities. Not enough time.
I know that you’re busy. So am I. We all are.
The majority of people I encounter seem to suffer from ambivalence and procrastination. While they have goals, they spend the bulk of their days floundering about. A minority of people, however, get a lot of shit done in the face of this chaotic culture we’re part of. Their days are rooted in action.
Having goals applies to everyone. Pursuing them on a consistent basis does not.
I don’t know about you, but with the brevity of life being what it is, I’m not interested in floundering. I want to be a person of action. I have a deep desire to live in pursuit of the person I want to be… from this day until the day that I die. The goal is the process and the process is the goal. I’m not trying to get someplace. I’m trying to be.
Being a certain weight, a certain body fat percentage, a certain athlete, etc…
These things are empty in relation to my true goal. That goal is to constantly accept the challenge of becoming more than I am right now. To grow in experience and knowledge within my values. To constantly get better at the stuff I care about most.
Not because I’m not good enough as I am. But because I’m worth it. This opportunity of life is worth it. And my people are worth it.
I accept me as I am. You should accept you as you are. This acceptance can be in the same space as a desire to get better at being the person you care about being.
There are certainly more important things in this world than abs and a big bench press. Looking good naked is a losing battle as age always wins. It’s important, nonetheless, to feel good about yourself. It’s important to me. So to, though, is setting an example for my family. Protecting and guiding my children. Experiencing nature to the fullest – on mountains, in water, on my bike, with a pack on my back, on a river with a rod in my hands, running down a trail, exploring the deep corners of forests. Feeling my best. Feeling strong. Learning and teaching.
I have values… as do you.
While fitness isn’t the most important… the most important are certainly enriched by my fitness.
I recently read an article written by Dr. Travis Bradberry where he said, “The key here is to not allow fear of the whole to stop you from engaging in the parts. When something looks too difficult, simply break it down. What can you accomplish in 60 minutes that will help you slay the beast? Then, what can you do in 60 more minutes?”
This resonates so deeply with me and my coaching philosophy. What’s the very next step? There is no “too small.” Just decide on the next step and take it. We’re not after big wins
The key is to not allow your fear of the whole to stop you from engaging in the parts.
are focusing the bulk of their energy on the scale. They want to lose weight and that’s that. The intense focus is at the expense of a bigger picture of wellbeing and living out life on their terms.
I wanted to share a recent exchange I had with an online client who’s struggling to find balance and consistency. She wants nothing more than to stop this cycle, find stability and balance, and learn to be kinder to herself.
What do you feel that you’re struggling with the most right now?
Aligning my actions with my values consistently, to be honest. This shows in different ways: eating poorly, not exercising, not doing anything fun. I kind of feel like I’ve lost touch with the “real” me. I’m also struggling with my weight (of course), and I’ve gotten sucked into counting calories again, which is already not playing nice with my head. I want to change my eating habits (I’ve been making poor food choices). I want to change my habit of being all-or-nothing. I would love to stop beating myself up when I make poor choices. And of course, I want to change my weight. I really want to get back to following nutrition and exercise habits consistently.
Counting calories is not your answer. It feels coercive and you’re using it to try and control your behaviors. And in almost all cases, that’s going to backfire. Or, at a minimum, help you feel like shit.
Your motivation seems low and you’re trying to force it. But that’s just not how it works. Really it comes down to creating the conditions in which motivation happens naturally. If you think about your current situation from the outside looking in – one where you’re over-taxed, not having fun, and being forced to track the nitty gritty details of food… I’m guessing you wouldn’t perceive that situation to be very motivating.
This is exactly where I’ve been for the last few months, over-taxed and having no fun at all. And I did it to myself! I put all these crazy expectations on myself, and go go go super hard and then end up crashing and burning. Then, I see how much weight I’ve gained, and freak out and go back to what I know will work to get the pounds off. Of course, I know it makes me miserable, and the weight never stays off, but I go there all the same. You’re right, it’s not motivating at all. In fact, it feels like a punishment.
These are the outcomes you’re looking for. Our mission starts with the processes, though, as I know you know.
I think the more we can get you to reflect on your choices and take an interest in your behavior rather than worrying about judging it… the more in tune you’ll become with the idea of learning and growing.
It’s having the courage to lessen your grip on these outcomes, stop the mad dash and extreme pursuit toward them, and create the space for dialing into an evolving flexible process that actually meets you where you are and sets the stage for experimentation and learning.
It’s the difference between a fine chisel and a jackhammer.
You mentioned above that you want to start aligning your actions with your values. What are your core values? Put differently, what do you care most about in life?
Obviously, my family is first and foremost. That being said, the things I care most about in life are being active, being outside, photography, “adventuring” with my husband, having fun (preferably with my husband, but I’m good alone too, as long as it’s safe). Also, feeling healthy and strong…very important to me.
And what do you think it looks like to live in accordance with these values when it comes to fitness?
Actually doing these things, for one. NOT sitting on the couch for hours after work, watching TV (or sitting at my desk for hours working on my business stuff). Eating the right kinds of food in the right proportions. Enjoying treats. Not drinking alcohol. Getting enough “formal” exercise to be able to do the things that I enjoy, but not too much because that messes with my head. Having a good balance in my life (this I always, always struggle with).
Okay, why do these values matter to you?
Is it too simplistic just to say that these are the things that make me happiest? That when I’m doing them, everything is right in the world. The other day, sitting in my kayak, I tilted my head back to feel the sun directly on my face, heard the waves lapping on my boat, and literally felt the stress melt away; I really don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time we were out. That feeling is why these things are important to me. They make life so, so much better.
I think that’s a phenomenal answer.
When you’re immersing yourself in your values… you feel yourself. And when you feel yourself… you feel happy. And we all want to be happy.
We also all want to get better at the things we care about.
Which relates to…
As for being healthy and strong, I need to be those things in order to do the activities that make me happy. I want to live a long life, and I want to continue being able to hike and kayak and ride my bike for as long as possible. Plus, I enjoy how I feel when I treat my body right, when I’m eating properly and exercising. I have more energy, I’m in a better mood, etc, etc, etc.
Fitness is the means by which you literally magnify your experience of life and your values. To me, personally, it’s the method by which I make everything I care about better. Like you, I value being active outside. I ride my bike up hills harder, climb mountains higher and faster, hike further, and see more because of my fitness. I value the hell out of my family and I play harder, hang better, lead by example because of my fitness. I value feeling my best and this isn’t possible without my fitness.
On and on it goes…
It’s easy to practice exercise and eating nutritiously when doing so is directly tied to everything I care about.
It’s so much more than looking better naked. Sure, I care about that, too. But it’s not my north star. If I solely make it about weight, abs, or whatever… I lose my zeal for it in a hurry. I feel the cultural pressure to look a certain way just like everyone else. But that pressure is more coercive and controlling than anything else.
I feed off the pressure I apply to myself. This intrinsic drive to mold myself into the person I want to be. To live by a code that’s in alignment with my values. When fitness is a piece of this puzzle, there’s no coercion. There’s merely this deep satisfaction stemming from the actual process of living life the way I want to live it.
It’s not a “should” to me.
It’s a “want.”
Based on prior conversations we know that you understand the concept of a growth mindset. One where you literally embrace challenge and lean into failure in order to learn more about yourself and to grow. Understanding, though, isn’t enough. Cultivating a growth mindset that’s void of extreme thinking and self-hate in the face of challenge takes time and practice. It’s a skill, like any other, that requires reps.
It’s easy to let this knowledge fade into the background in the heat of the moment. The option to frame a challenge in a growth mindset sort of way is always there. We simply need to systematize it into your schedule. This is why we’re going to be focusing on a small handful of habits and reflecting on them daily. We’ll drown out judgment by embracing the opportunity to learn more about the process and ourselves.
It’s no longer about winning or failing. It’s about becoming within the scope of your values… and we do this one step at a time with an open mind and a self-compassionate heart.
An online client recently explained how she’s struggling to come up with a goal. She loves fitness, runs marathons, lifts weights, eats great, etc. But she’s never quite happy with herself. She works her butt off but doesn’t really know what it’s for. She continually circles back around to wanting a smaller mid-section and being leaner. She recently said to me, “I really wonder what goal I should have.” She was aware enough to add on, “I really hate that word – should.”
Here was my response:
Good pick up. Should-based goals typically don’t work out so well. I find it much more supportive to intend a certain direction for yourself based on what you want and value. “Should” is for people who are trying to fit into cultural norms and pressures. What you’re told you should want isn’t necessarily what you actually want. That divergence can create a lot of strife and anxiety if you don’t catch it.
My physical goals, for example, have nothing to do with reaching a certain weight or anything like that. Right now my physical goal looks something like:
“I want to be someone who’s fit and able-bodied. I ride my mountain bike up hills and carry my kids on my shoulders like a champ. I take pride in what my body can do and take very seriously the example I’m setting for my children, family, friends, and clients. I am someone who’s in constant pursuit of learning more about my body, testing my body, and improving my body.”
There’s no rigid target. It’s this fluid, values-based construct that creates space for me to accept where I am right now yet propels me toward action to work hard and improve. It’s this theme that opens me up to imperfection since any slip-up has an embedded lesson in it that I can use to make me better going forward.
The improvement I seek can come in many forms and I fully embrace the notion that it’s not always going to be in weight or leanness. Sometimes it’s how great I felt climbing a mountain. Or how awesome it felt carrying something a friend could not. Or walking into a store with my older 2 girls hanging on my arms. Or falling and taking it like a champ because my body is tough. And yes, sometimes it’s in the reflection in the mirror where I see proof of my hard work paying off.
Again, open and fluid space allowing for total self-care, self-love, flexibility, and action.
If I were to set my goal as, “I want to weigh 185 lbs at 8% body fat,” it wouldn’t motivate me in the least. What’s the “why” behind it? To look shredded? To impress others? That shit really doesn’t matter to me.
I set my goals based on what matters to me. My physique will settle at a place that aligns with the pursuit of these things that matter to me paired with my genetics. If I’m missing my lower ab definition… so be it. If I’m not vascular… okay. I’m happy because I’m getting better at the things I value.
When I reflect on what my body is doing for me, those minute details simply fall by the wayside.
I’m not here to say that seeing crazy definition shouldn’t be what matters to you or anyone else. There are plenty of people who live for that stuff. They typically wind up on stage half naked having other people judge them. And if that’s their thing… I’m totally accepting of that.
For me, personally… I only feel my best when I’m living according to my values. Heck, when I’ve chased leanness before, I felt the opposite of “best.” What I saw in the mirror was awesome. How I felt… hungry, lethargic, and weak… was not. It detracted from my ability to live life how I wanted and no reflection was worth that to me.
To really build out meaningful goals, it starts with who you want to be and what that person does. From there, you can build out process goals that sync up with these things. This is why I personally focus on skills rather than numbers. If I’m showing up everyday and practicing skills that match my values and goals – and approaching it with an open/experimental mind – I rarely feel bad about myself.
I want to get stronger since that’s something that I value… so I track my gym performance and recalibrate my programming as needed. I want to eat mostly because I’m hungry and not because I’m emotional or stressed, so I do things like eat protein at every meal, load up on fibrous veggies, and track my treats and snacks to bring awareness to them. I want to be an intentional, present person so I journal every day. I want to be someone who’s life is based – in large part – on learning so I have a habit set to read X minutes every single day.
There isn’t some rigid ideal I’m striving for that haunts me every day. These inflexible outcome targets tend to breed perfectionistic thinking that, if anything, detracts from living out your values as they wind up feeling coercive and controlling.
So who do you want to be and how do you want to live?
Start there and then we can begin building out process goals that move you in this direction.
Life’s definitely not all rainbows and butterflies. It can get rough out there. Many people come to rely on the quick release of dopamine that highly-processed, energy-dense food provides to “medicate” the stress away. As I’m sure many of you can attest to, rather than medicating, though… it’s really doing nothing more than kicking the proverbial can down the road.
If you find yourself in this camp of relying on highly palatable foods to manage your state, learning to insert some space between stress and impulsive eating can be such a meaningful skill to develop. It’s really the only way to tackle it since there’s no escaping stress.
Sure, you can minimize it. You can quit a stressful job. Remove stressful people from your life. Learn to meditate. On and on it goes… but it’d still be unrealistic to expect a complete eradication of stress from your life.
For me, my two main go to’s when the going gets tough are listening to music and walking in nature (which you’ll see is a recurring theme below). Another big one I lean on is laying in my hammock or sitting in my favorite chair outside, music playing, and staring up at the sky. I’ll note all the sights without judgment. The airplane. The hawk soaring by. The branches blowing in the breeze. The sound of the stream. I’ll center my mind on an appreciation for the connection I have to the universe around me.
I’ll progress to noticing the clouds. Clouds have an amazing ability to put me at peace. They roll across the sky so damn gently. I visualize my problems doing the same thing… gliding right on by. This helps to disconnect me from my problems. I am not my problems. I am me, and my problems, like clouds in the sky, aren’t permanent.
If I can find it within myself to hit that pause button and commit to one of these things… I can usually calm my nerves and change my state. It seems so dang simple… and I suppose it really is. But far too often for far too many… they never reach for one of these life lines. Instead, they surrender to the emotional tide and get swept away… only to “come to” after the fact as they aimlessly drift in a see of guilt and shame.
- “My Dre Beats headphones are my life. Being as they are noise canceling, it allows me to listen to my music to calm me down.”
- “Sometimes, I just stare down at my hands, palms facing up. I don’t know why it works, but I think it takes me out of my head, where all my worries exist, and back to my body, which I tend to treat badly in times of distress. It makes me think of how my body has changed over my life. I can see the little veins under the smooth skin of my palms, and the calluses from lifting. It also makes me think of how wonderful my body is, designed and refined by nature over millions of years to produce such a functional living machine.”
- “I go for long walks just to clear my mind. I’ve done this one for years, even when I was my heaviest. There is just something about walking that allows me to ground myself within minutes. Also…walking pass complete strangers and saying, “hello” or “good evening” helps to get my mood in check.”
- “Coloring or something else to keep your hands occupied like knitting or crocheting”
- “Having a private dance party”
- “For me it’s walking… It gives me a chance to regroup myself. I think most times when I lose control of my eating…it’s because I’m frazzled, tired, emotional and maybe down. Walking helps me regain my focus.”
- “Reading and walking for me”
- “5-15 min. of de-cluttering, sweeping, dusting, vaccuuming…”
- “Music is my savior! I love just walking and listening to a wide array on my playlists. I feel at this point I can overcome anything put in my path.”
- “Take a bath”
- “Going for a drive on back roads.”
- “Call a friend or loved one.”
- “Food prep- helps remind me of what my real goals are”
- “Pampering: painting nails, face mask, leisurely shower”
- “Fresh air and white noise. Sometimes I’ll get it through a walk, sometimes I’ll just sit on my front porch and listen to the leaves rustle. Sometimes it’s laying on my bed with the window open. Like the cloud analogy it helps me realize that the world moves regardless of if I do and that anything I’ve got going on can and will be changed if I choose to take action.”
- “I spend some time with my horses or dogs. There is usually one of them who makes me laugh or at least smile pretty often.”
- “Wind therapy with Dr. Harley” (Took me a minute to get this one. But I can relate with my Harley…err… I mean… mountain bike)
- “Getting out in nature is a big one. Reading. Doing something with my son–that’s a twofer, as it both inserts an activity I love and is a reminder of the biggest reason I want to be healthy.”
- “My go to has been either coloring or gaming.”
- “Sometimes I’ll take a shower. Emerging in a good book, talking to a friend, getting a pedicure or manicure. I’ve recently starting adding monthly massages into my schedule.”
The more you practice the skill of intentionally soothing and self-care, the weaker the grip automaticity/impulsivity will have on you. You’ll realize that the seemingly powerful pull emotional eating had on you is really rather weak in the wake of intentional non-food soothing. A common thought is, “Wow, I really felt an intense craving to eat X but after that walk it’s completely gone. The shackles weren’t all that strong in hindsight.” The more you note these sorts of realizations, the more exciting and empowering this becomes.
Make no mistake about it… learning to create some space and change your state is a skill. A skill, I might add, that can be developed through practice. For the next couple of weeks, rather than walking the razor’s edge trying to avoid stress, how about committing to experiencing it as a natural part of life and responding to it with intention.
What should that intention look like?
Well, of course you can start by experimenting with any of the above non-food options.
You could even start smaller. As I’m fond of saying, there’s no “too small.”
How you’re currently managing stress is likely pretty automatic. So start by simply building in more awareness. Maybe start by noting what’s causing you stress. Log it in a journal. Do this for a week or two. Next you can start to identify what your immediate impulse is when stress hits. Do this for another week or two.
As your awareness grows, you can then start practicing some of the non-food soothers above.
Practice… that’s the key word. You’re not committing to anything but showing up and trying things that may or may not work for you. If they don’t work, that’s a-ok. You’re just learning to become a better stress manager one little experiment at a time.
If you have non-food soothers that aren’t listed above, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. I’ll update this list with any suggestions that come across.
Thanks for tuning in!