Posts in Helpful Tips
Why You're Not Succeeding at Your Diet and What to Do About It
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Imagine this:

You get a shiny new plan or program from a coach, the internet, wherever, and you are SO ready to go. You look everything over, prepare yourself in whatever way you can, and then start your new plan. Things go well for a few days and then...you’re out of the food you prepped, work stress happens, schedules get wild,  the weekend happens, and before you know it, you’ve taken a few steps back. Rinse and repeat this cycle basically every week.

Does this cycle sound familiar?

If that hits a little close to home, I promise you, you are not alone. I have always struggled with this because I’m a super planning oriented and an overthinker. I would spend HOURS writing out diet plans for myself, calculating all sorts of numbers, and making the plan of all plans, only to have Monday come around and screw up my plans. I would forget something or have an unplanned event come up or just be a giant ball of stress.  I felt like if I couldn’t execute the plan perfectly, then what the fuck was the point?

What is the issue?

One of the hardest things about making changes is making the actual changes. Planning and preparation is wonderful (and an important part of setting yourself up for success) but all the planning in the world doesn’t mean shit if you can’t execute your plan. Simply stated - you have issues bridging the gap from point A (plan) to point B (working the plan).

In order to break out of this cycle, you first need to identify where the hang up is. This requires a lot of honesty with yourself - you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and accurate in your assessment. Some of the issues I’ve experienced most often and seen my clients struggle with include:

Paralysis by analysis: Focusing too much on the small rocks when you don’t have the big rocks in place.You focus on all of the details and get so overwhelmed that you freeze. You can’t start because you aren’t sure what direction to go.

Lack of ownership: You’re waiting for the “right time” to start or you feel as if things happen TO you and that you are not in control of your eating. You feel like you can’t say no to treats in the office or not have a drink when you’re out with your friends. Basically, life or others are sabotaging your efforts. (This can be a really complex issue that at times is best addressed with a mental health professional and I highly encourage exploring that option!)

Letting perfect be the enemy of good: You feel as if executing the plan to absolution perfection is the ONLY way to execute the plan. Things must go perfectly or else it is a total waste. This leads to what I call the “fuck it” mentality. Things don’t go 100% accordingly to plan so then you feel as if the day is a waste and go way, way off plan.

Being wishy washy on goals: If you’re actions aren’t lining up with your goals, ask yourself: are my actions the problem or are my goals the problem? Do YOU, just you, really want what you say you want? Or do you feel like it is something you SHOULD want because your friends, mom, society, etc. told you you should want that? This is a subtle distinction but a major game changer. If you’re not 100% invested in the goal you are trying to achieve, it’s easy to go off the rails and make excuses when any minor inconvenience pops up.

Managing expectations: It's easy to feel like throwing in the towel after a week when you are bombarded with "lose 10lbs in 7 days!" messaging via social media. It's important to remember that it didn't take 2 weeks to get to where you are, and it may not take 2 weeks to get to another place.  Having realistic expectations helps you know what to expect and keep things in perspective.

Identifying what is causing the issue is a critical first step to being able to figure out a solution. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and there are several layers to each of these components, but taking the time to sit down and identify the pattern of hang ups is so key. This is also where having a coach, mentor, or accountability buddy can be incredibly helpful. It  can be hard for us to see the issue because it is too close to us. Discussing it with someone else can help bring some clarity.

The only way around the obstacles is through them, so breaking them down and being prepared to do the work to break through them is absolutely key. 

 

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So what do we DO about it?

Add IN, don’t take away: Add in behaviors, items, or habits that help you move through the obstacles you’ve identified. These are a few of my favorite strategies:

  • Have trouble with figuring things out on the fly? Try tracking your food the night before so you have a roadmap of what the day looks like. If things change during the day, it is easy to make adjustments and keep it moving.
  • Rather than focusing on taking away certain foods or food groups, add IN more of the stuff you want like veggies, fruit, water, etc.
  • Instead of feeling out of control, add in a daily practice that reminds you that you are in control of your actions and reactions. This can be something like exercise, meditation, or just even writing yourself a little note on your phone or planner and keeping it handy.

Practice the hell out of it: The only way to get better at a certain skill is to practice it, and dieting and habit change is no different! Do something that moves the dial closer to your goal every day and view it as practice. You don’t walk into the gym and squat 315 if you’ve never squatted before - you have to practice. The same principles apply when it comes to dieting.

Track it: I’m a giant data nerd so I like to track everything. Find a way to track your daily wins, skill practice, etc. so you can have some accountability and incentive to complete the task at hand. As totally dorky as it may sound, I use stickers in my planner to help me institute new behaviors. If I drink all my water for the day, I get a sticker. If I’m 100% compliant to my diet, I get a sticker. If I navigated a tough situation by using a new skill I’m trying to build, you guessed it, I get a sticker. If you’re not into stickers, there are apps like HabitBull that help you track various behaviors and habits as well. You can also check in with an accountability buddy and share your wins with them.

Find a way to win everyday: Dieting is a bit of a long game (as in, it's not a 2 week process, but it also isn't a lifestyle - it should start and end) so it is helpful to find ways to "win" throughout the process. Find some small daily and weekly goals that are relevant to you and focus on winning at those items. 

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What are some of your favorite reflection strategies?

What are some tools you use to help yourself get through roadblocks?

Consistency Series Part 3: Routines

photo by Turning Point Photography

If you’ve missed parts 1 and 2 of the series on consistency, check them out here:

Part 1: time and effort

Part 2: mental fatigue, willpower, and motivation

So speaking of routines….I sort of, kind of got out of the routine of writing. Oops. Honestly, I’ve been traveling nearly every weekend and just haven’t had the capacity to put something together so there’s that. Onwards and upwards.

 

Let’s talk about routines, shall we?  I LOVE ROUTINE. I am 100% a creature of habit who loves structure, color coding, and specific instruction. If I could plan out nearly every second of every day, I probably would. That’s not the healthiest habit ever, by the way.  I realize that I’m likely in the minority here - especially when it comes to nutrition and exercise. Most of my clients and others I’ve talked to have busy lives filled with work, family, relationships, social obligations, etc. that make it difficult to stick to a strict nutrition or exercise regimen. Consequently, when life inevitably happens, people will feel “bad” about falling out of their routine and fall into the shame spiral of feel bad, wallow in the bad feeling, say fuck it, do something else that makes them feel bad, and so on and so on. Not only is this not productive, it’s not a particularly kind thing to do to yourself. If you’re thinking, “well, if I can’t plan out a routine to stick to 100% of the time, why even bother?”, I hear you and I totally get that. As we’ve discussed before, do not let perfection be the enemy of good. With that said, let’s explore why routines are helpful:

 

  1. Routines help us save mental energy: How many times have you found yourself driving and then suddenly arriving at a destination and saying “uh, how did I even get here?!” That’s your brain on autopilot. You’ve driven those streets so many times that it has become automatic. Routines can help us do the same thing. They help us save mental energy for important, pressing tasks by allowing us to somewhat automate our food and exercise.

  2. Routines provide us with a safety net: Creating a routine can help you have a “blueprint” for what to do when things get a little disrupted. Routines can bolster you and help give you a little nudge when you need it.

  3. There is no “right” way to build a routine: Routines work because they work FOR YOU. What works for one person will not work for another person so think of creating a routine as an endeavour in personal exploration and a bit of a trial and error process.

 

You’re probably like, “I get it. Routines are good and stuff. Now, how do I actually DO this?” and I hear you. Investing in creating a routine and recognizing what you need your routine to do for you is a huge part of building something that works. So let’s get straight to the point with some tips on how to build that useful thing:

 

  1. Start small: Add in ONE or two things every two weeks until you are satisfied. For example, if you’re looking to start prepping your meals, start by prepping one or two items.Maybe start by prepping two or three items that you know you’ll throughout the week 0 like rice, chopping veggies, etc.

  2. Be flexible to find structure: Rather than locking yourself into only option, have a few options on deck. For example, my schedule isn’t always predictable so I block off two different blocks of time where I can get to the gym. Do I always use both? Nope. But just having a back up plan helps me tremendously. I know that if I can’t make my first option, I’ve got another option or I can split up my training into two sessions if needed. If you have the ability to have options, use them!

  3. Keep yourself accountable: Use a system to keep yourself accountable to the routines and behaviors you want to create. Schedule gym time like an appointment if you’ve only got one block of time that works. Use tracking system for food. Use stickers or some other marker in your planner. Have a buddy keep you on track. Hire a coach! Do any and all of those things to give yourself some tangible item to attach with your behaviors and goals.


Most importantly, remember that there is no “on” and “off” switch. If you fall “off” your routine, it’s okay. Pick a small thing that you can do to help get you back to what works for you and do that thing. Think of it like a dimmer switch - you can turn it up or turn it down based on what is going on in your life and what you have the mental and physical capacity for. Building up routines and habits gradually is much easier and creates more sustainability (for most people, not all) than trying to create and execute a “perfect” strict plan.

Consistency Series: Mental Fatigue, Willpower, & Motivation

If you missed the Part 1 post on time and effort and how it relates to consistency in nutrition and exercise efforts, check it out here!

 

 

Outside of time and effort, the second most common issues surrounding consistency with nutrition (and exercise) have to do with mindset and mental fatigue.

“I wish I had more willpower.”

“I’m just not motivated.”

“I can’t resist.”

These are not uncommon statements. In fact, I'd venture to say that one or all of these statements has been said by nearly every individual at some point in their health and fitness journey. I know that I've said them more than a few times.  Here’s the thing: they’re all bullshit.

Before we move on to discuss why they’re bullshit and what we can do about them, there is one big caveat that needs to be addressed when it comes to the realm of nutrition and mental fatigue. If you have been dieting (in a caloric deficit or on an ultra restrictive plan for non-medical purposes) for over 3 months with no reprieve, you don’t even need to read any further. Dieting is not a lifestyle. IT IS NOT. For your health and your sanity, you should not be spending 6+ months in an extreme dieting phase. You can not continue to cut and cut from an already low spot - it’s like trying to continue to remove pebbles from an already empty glass. If you feel burnt out and at the end of your rope because you’ve been dieting for an entire year, you may want to stop dieting and try maintaining for a bit. I realize that sounds scary and there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the issue of gaining weight back and such, but maintaining a new body weight and building up your metabolism are critical endeavors for long term health. If you’re a little freaked out, it’s okay. I recommend seeking out the assistance of a coach to help guide you through the process.

Beyond the constant diet cycle, there are several other factor that come into play when we look at consistency and compliance to a protocol (of exercise or diet). So let’s dive right in.

 

 

“I wish I had more willpower”

Willpower is a fascinating topic that has been investigated extensively. There are several different theories about how willpower works when it comes to things like delayed vs. instant gratification, if we have a set amount of willpower, and self control. One popular theory has to do with something called ego-depletion. Ego depletion states that willpower is a finite resource and that exercising self control requires us to draw from this limited pool. Once we’re out of willpower or have drained that pool, our ability to exercise self-control is impaired. There is some debate on whether ego depletion is real thing and what things impact it, which is beyond the scope of this post (see this meta-analysis for a good review). Why even bring up ego depletion? Because it hits on an important concept, which is that willpower is not rigid. Regardless of whether we only have a set amount of “willpower reserves” or infinite willpower, we can and should utilize willpower more efficiently. 

I like to conceptualize willpower as a muscle (because meathead things) that can be worked over time. To illustrate this, let’s walk through a scenario about squats:

Trainee A is a brand new lifter. They’re really excited and enthusiastic to get started and today is their squat day. It is also the day they graduate to a barbell after spending some time learning good squat mechanics with other mechanisms. After some instruction, they put the bar on their back and proceed to squat. Since this is a new skill, they're likely trying to focus on a whole lot of stuff: sitting down and back, keeping their chest, gripping the bar, keeping their weight in their feet, etc. It’s a mentally exhausting endeavor.

Trainee B is an advanced lifter who has been training consistently for 5-7 years. They’ve been squatting 2-3 times a week for several years now.  It is also their squat day. They warm up with a few sets and then put 315# on to do their working sets. They are focusing on a few specific items but they’ve also squatted thousands of times and have ingrained certain aspects of the movement. Their set may not feel mas mentally overwhelming (or rather, it may not be mentally taxing in the same way) as the new trainee’s set.

Both of these trainees have the same muscles that have the capacity to work in a similar fashion. Both trainees have the potential to build and express their strength and proficiency at the skill being addressed (squatting). The difference? The amount of time and practice the second trainee has had to build up their skill proficiency, muscle, etc. Willpower is no different! You have to practice and develop the skill in order for it to become “easier”. The more you practice, the more routine some aspects of the skill become and the less mentally taxing the skill becomes. Are there times when it is mentally taxing? Absolutely. However, by practicing -instead of throwing in the towel the second you have to exercise some self control - you build a stronger foundation to stand on.

 

 

“I’m just not motivated”

This is probably one of my favorite statements to hear because it speaks volumes about how we view motivation and attainment of goals. Now, I’m sorry to tell you that the way motivation is conceptualized and presented in the fitness industry is a lie. And here’s what I mean by that. Motivation, or the reason for behaving in a particular way, is usually extremely high when we start something. We are so stoked to clean up our diets, hit the gym, drink all of our water, and so on. This spark of motivation may carry us for a week or month but eventually, that spark fades and we are left feeling one of two things: 1) like there is something “wrong” with us for not leaping out of bed with motivation everyday or 2) like we should just give up. That is when motivation, as it is traditionally presented, is problematic. 

Motivation is just that, a spark. It can ignite a fire in us and propel us towards action but it is not a sustainable source of everyday drive. If motivation is the spark, then discipline is the fuel source for the fire. No one, no one, wakes up every single day and leaps out of bed like an overly caffeinated Mary Poppins who is ready to eat chicken and rice, go lift, and do some cardio. And that’s perfectly okay. What is not okay is deciding to skip the gym or say “fuck it” on your nutrition plan because you’re not feeling like a Disney princess who gets dressed with the assistance of small woodland creatures (sidenote: where can I find some of those to do my dishes everyday?)

Instead of relying on motivation, we have to start to relying on discipline.  Discipline is what carries you through. Discipline is doing the things you should do to reach your goals (those things that motivate you!) when you don’t feel like doing them. Does that mean doing stuff you hate? NOPE. You should be making goals and plans that are centered around the things that do set you on fire. You should try to have to the discipline to be compassionate with yourself when things don’t go according to plan (and that will happen). Make peace with the fact that, at some point, it is going to be hard but you’re capable of doing hard things. So do them.

 

“I can’t resist”

Is someone throwing cookies down your throat? If so, that’s pretty impressive. If not, then you absolutely can “resist”. Truth be told, I don’t love the term “resist” when it comes to discussing choices about food. You are an adult who has free will and the power to make choices about what you put in your mouth. There are certainly situations when it may not be socially appropriate to whip out some tupperware and there are definitely times when you should eat something different because life and stuff. However, it is important to own that choice. No one is making you eat or not eat anything. You have the power to make the decision of what you do and do not eat. 

Beyond the fact that you can absolutely decide what you eat, I think this line of thinking is particularly damaging because it creates a negative self-narrative that can lead to some self-fulling prophecy. If you constantly tell yourself that you are going to fail at something, you are much more likely to fail because you have already set the expectation of failure. Telling yourself that dieting is going to suck and that you suck at dieting makes dieting extremely difficult. You would never tell a friend “Hey, I know you really want to do this thing but you’re going to suck at it and probably fail.”, so why tell yourself that?

It is also worth noting that sometimes having a small "taste" of something to "quiet the temptation" can do more harm than good. For a good portion of people, having juuuust enough of something the historically lack control around turns into a slippery slope of eating, guilt, and over restriction. It's okay to not have a "cheat day" or "cheat meal" if it doesn't work for you. Often times, life will provide little diet reprieves in the form of special occasions and no one should be dieting so often that they are going without for half of the year. 

Bottom line: the story that you tell yourself about yourself can influence your thoughts and actions. If you tell yourself you have no willpower and are powerless to the influence of baked goods, you’re gonna have a bad time.


All of these topics can be an entire article or articles on their own (and they probably will be) but I hope this provides a brief snapshot of some of the more relevant points when it comes to consistency in dieting and exercise.

Part 3 will be coming next week!