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SunLit

In “Lean and Strong,” the author guides readers toward effective motivation for diet and exercise

Josh Hillis steers individuals away from harmful psychology that thwarts healthy efforts, and toward practices more likely to achieve success and satisfaction

THE TEN TURNING POINTS

The Ten Turning Points are ten things my most successful clients always figure out after about a year of practicing the eating skills. I went through my client notes, mapped them, and now I give them to clients ahead of time. It can still take time to fully internalize, but people now often have massive turning points in their practice in weeks or months that used to take a year.

To start, I’m just going to give you a preview of three:

Three of The Ten Turning Points
What WorksWhat Causes Failure
Practicing excellence and self-compassionPracticing perfectionism
Engagement/flow/goldilocksingToo much or too little all the time
Weight loss as a result of self-careWeight loss as a result of self-punishment

Perfectionism versus Excellence

There was really interesting research done on “positive perfectionism” versus “negative perfectionism.” They found there’s no such thing as positive perfectionism; perfectionism always has a negative outcome. Perfectionism is about shame, negative self-evaluations, and concern for mistakes. Perfectionism is distinguished by quitting, and accompanied by lower wellbeing.

General Nonfiction

You know people are perfectionist about their nutrition when any time they “blow their diet,” they quit for the rest of the week…or the rest of the month. Sometimes, they quit for the rest of the year. Their perfectionism results in practicing a lot of quitting.

On the other hand, let’s look at the pursuit of excellence. Pursuit of excellence is defined by practicing, making mistakes, and practicing more. This represents understanding that excellence requires making mistakes and learning from them. Pursuit of excellence means you keep practicing even after you make multiple mistakes, and continue to make mistakes.

Josh Hillis is the author of two books. His latest book, “Lean and Strong: Eating Skills, Psychology, and Workouts,” won the silver medal in the Benjamin Franklin Book Awards for psychology. He currently attends MSU Denver and is doing his thesis on contextual behavioral science and emotional eating. Josh won the psychology department’s “promising teacher of the year” award as a TA. He has been in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Men’s Health, and The Denver Post. Josh is currently the curriculum designer and head coach of GMB Fitness’ Eating Skills program.

With workouts, pursuit of excellence means doing what you can, whenever you can. Sometimes, that will be full workouts; other times, it’s half workouts. Sometimes it’s three workouts per week, and other times, it’s one or two. It’s continuing to get your workouts, even when those workouts aren’t as often or as long as you’d like.

The turning point is to notice when you’re having perfectionist thoughts. It’s okay to have perfectionist thoughts; you just don’t act on them by quitting. Notice those perfectionist thoughts, but continue to practice your eating skills and workout program anyway. 

Perfectionism versus Self-Compassion

It turns out that the primary difference between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence is self-compassion. Self-compassion is what determines whether our pursuits will build us up or destroy us.

Perfectionism has everything to do with living in a fantasyland where we can do everything perfectly. It would be cool if that was possible, but we aren’t robots. We’re humans. Humans make mistakes. Humans feel bad. Humans are, by nature, imperfect. 

Perfectionism is an unwillingness to do work when confronted with our own humanity. It’s abdicating responsibility every time we see evidence of being  human.

Self-compassion is acknowledging it’s normal to make mistakes. It’s normal to have all kinds of emotions. It’s normal to have cravings. It’s normal to make mistakes. It’s normal to feel guilty about making mistakes. 

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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Self-compassion is noticing that all of our judgments about ourselves are just thoughts; it’s noticing we’ve had judgmental thoughts, maybe for decades, and that it’s a habit. We know we don’t need to debate them; we don’t need to figure out if they’re true or false; we don’t need to fight or change them; and we don’t need repeat them and beat ourselves up. Self-compassion is noticing these are just thoughts and forgiving ourselves when they show up.

Self-compassion is continuing to practice our eating skills and workouts simply because they’re self-care. 

Self-compassion is reminding ourselves that no matter how together everyone else looks on the outside, everyone has human issues. People have different easy and difficult things in their lives, but everyone has hard things. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re human.

Self-Kindness versus Self-Compassion

A common misconception about self-compassion is that it’s “letting yourself off of the hook.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes, but not always, self-kindness is letting yourself off the hook. Sometimes, self-kindess is a glass of wine after a long day at work. And sometimes, that’s totally appropriate. Self-compassion is something else.

Where self-kindness can just be “treat yourself,” self-compassion is values led behavior.

Self-compassion often includes the very hard work of coming to terms with our imperfections, experiencing normal human pain, knowing what really matters to us, and taking actions that take care of our well-being in the long term.

Engagement/Flow/Goldilocksing versus Too Much or Too Little

Humans love doing things that are engaging. A meta-analysis of 28 research studies found that the right balance of skill and challenge is a robust predictor of engagement and flow. 

  • If something is too challenging, we get crushed. 
  • If something is too easy, we get bored.
  • When something is right at the edge of our abilities or just beyond our comfort zone, it’s engaging. That’s where we find flow.

Most people in the diet world do too much…all the time. They sprint out of the gate, trying something way too hard and unsustainable, then they crash and burn.

Most people in the habit world do too little…all the time. They build such small habits and progress so slowly that they get bored. 

In Lean and Strong, we’re going to do an approach where we customize your practice to be engaging and challenging. We want to be just at the edge of your abilities.

People have different tolerances for making mistakes. This has a lot to do with our history of success or failure in a certain thing. In general, when we have a history of success with something, we tend to look at mistakes as learning experiences. 

On the other hand, when we have a history of failure, we often imagine mistakes as a personal failing. It’s normal to have different tolerances for mistakes in different areas of your life. You should expect that the longer you practice skills, the more comfortable you’ll get with mistakes as an important part of learning.

Rules of thumb:

  • If you don’t make mistakes, the endeavor is probably too easy.
  • If you make mistakes 10–15% of the time, it’s probably right at the level of challenge where it’s engaging.
  • If you make mistakes more than 15% of the time, you’ve probably set your practice up to be too hard.

For your food skill practice, it’s fine to plan to work on a skill or guideline at just one meal per day if that’s how much you can expect to be successful 85% of the time. Some skills are harder than others. Sometimes for an easier skill, we can start shooting for practicing at every meal. Other times, for a harder skill we might practice only three or four times per week. All practice is good practice; just set it up so you’re successful 85% of the time.

For workouts, your form should be really tight 85% of the time. Most lifts should look perfect. Once in a while, you’re going to push the weight up and things might be a little sloppier that first workout. That’s fine as long as you’re within a safe range—just stay there until your form is awesome again.

THE DEFAULT SETTING OF MOTIVATION

The default setting for human beings is to look for motivation from one of two places:

  1. Reward or punishment;
  2. Contingent self-esteem or guilt.

Both are valid forms of motivation, but they’re the forms of motivation that come with the lowest enjoyment and lowest wellbeing. They’re the forms of motivation where the satisfaction is fleeting when you hit a goal. Blink and you’ll miss the feeling of accomplishment. They’re the kinds of motivation that really suck.

The feelings of accomplishment disappear so fast that people immediately lose motivation. Often when people hit a goal, they either quickly set a new and bigger goal, or they give up completely. 

Setting a new and bigger goal sounds like the right thing to do, but it’s really just getting on a hamster wheel. You end up running from one goal to the next and being shocked every time hitting the goal wasn’t enough to change how you feel about yourself or your body. 

Spoiler: The existential crisis that wasn’t fixed with hitting the last goal won’t be fixed by hitting the next goal.

  • Punishment loses motivation the second the whip stops cracking;
  • Reward loses motivation the second a reward is attained;
  • Contingent self-esteem fades within weeks of hitting a goal;
  • Guilt, which in the short-term motivates, turns into shame…which de-motivates.

You need to create a smarter plan. In self-determination theory, the motivations are lower on the self-determined side. We have 30-plus years of research showing that the more you pull from the less self-determined side, the weaker the motivation is, the faster the motivation fades, and the less satisfaction and wellbeing you derive from hitting goals…if you ever hit them.

Self Determination Theory’s Four Kinds of Motivation
<— More externalMore internal —>
Reward or PunishmentContingent self-esteem or GuiltGoals derived from your valuesValues integrated into your sense of self

YOU HAVE TO WATCH OUT FOR CONTINGENT SELF-ESTEEM BEING YOUR ONLY FORM OF MOTIVATION.

Contingent Self-esteem: Being motivated by avoiding guilt and/or attempting to meet a societal standard or comparison 

We all want to believe we’d finally feel worthy and good enough and loved and adored if we hit the right fitness level. We’re preprogrammed by social media and TV—and often our friends and family—to believe that’s the truth about life.

Contingent self-esteem is the default setting in the fitness field. We are always swimming against that current. If you don’t intervene with your values, you will always backslide into feeling like fitness goals will give you self-esteem. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

I’m going to give you some radical advice: Give up the pursuit of self-esteem and simply practice things that matter to you…and get better at them. Trade the endless and slippery pursuit of trying to feel great about yourself all the time, for the simple contentment that comes from doing things that matter to you, day in and day out. Take pride not in social comparison, but in your own progress and skill development.

Business philosopher Jim Rohn used to say: “The good will always be attacked. The weeds will always attack the garden.” 

It’s like that with motivation; we have to find better motivation and we have to defend it.

A BETTER PATH: SELF-DETERMINATION

On the flip side of punishment/reward and contingent self-esteem, we have more self-determined forms of motivation. These are much more robust and they last longer.

  • Goals that align with your values: Doing things that relate to a personally meaningful goal or value;
  • Values integrated into your sense of self: Taking actions that are based on clarified values, integrated with your sense of self, and matter to you to express the kind of person you want to be.

And here’s what that usually looks like in fitness:

Self Determination Theory’s Four Kinds of Motivation
<— More externalMore internal —>
I work out so I can have a cookie afterward.
or
If I miss my workout, no carbohydrates tomorrow.
I work out to meet a societal standard of beauty.
or
I work out so I don’t feel guilty. 
I work out because I have a goal that aligns with my value of strength.It’s deeply important to me to be strong. Working out is an expression of being the kind of person I want to be.

At this point, you can probably see how you may have pulled from different forms of motivation at different times in your life. You might remember times when you tried to motivate yourself with rewards or punishments; that worked for a little while and then it really started to suck. You might also remember times you worked out so you didn’t feel guilty or because you wanted to meet a societal standard—and how completely miserable that was.

We know that the left side of the chart are things that totally blow. It’s okay to pull motivation from them once in a while or in the beginning, but they’re too horrible to use as your only form of motivation. 

You need motivation that doesn’t suck: You need to add intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from clarifying your personal values.

A TALE OF TWO CLIENTS

SusanMelissa

Uses punishment and guilt as motivation
Practices diet rules
Repeats the diet cycle of failure, over and over again, for decades. It gets more difficult every time and she regains more weight, every time.

Uses her personal values for motivation
Practices eating skills
Eating skills get easier every month. She gets results every month. The whole process gets easier every year. Eventually, the eating skills and her leanness and strength are just an expression of who she is. 

Your personal values and intrinsic motivation are related to three things:

  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Relatedness

In self-determination theory, these are called “basic psychological needs.” If you build these into your food skill and workout practices, you’ll create the conditions to motivate yourself., 

Just remember:

  • External motivation is the motivation to use if you want to repeat the diet cycle of failure.
  • Internal motivation is the awesome kind of motivation you want to use for your Lean and Strong food skill practice and workout practice.

Read an interview with the author.


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