Does trying to lose weight stress you out?
You try to eat better and hope it pays off…
Sometimes, the scales goes down, and you tell yourself “I’m doing so good!”
And then other times, the scale goes up, and you ask yourself “what am I doing wrong?”
And this cycle keeps repeating. It’s tough to tell what’s going on with your weight from one weigh-in to the next.
And it’s frustrating to see the numbers going all over the place. You are putting in effort into your eating and exercise, but you’re not quite sure if they’re paying off…
Today, I’m going to talk about how the way you look at weight loss goals could be interfering with your success at actually achieving success. And I will show you how to go from being helpless victim of the weight loss process to you being the one calling the shots.
Where Most People Go Wrong with Weight Loss Goals
Typical goal setting approaches involve assigning deadlines and making things super quantifiable. For example: “I will finish writing a 1,000 word blog post by this Thursday”.
Pretty straightforward, right? You have the end in mind, and now you can reverse engineer what you need to do. That might mean 200 words per day…and if you fall behind schedule, then banging it all out Wednesday night regardless of how many words you’re at.
But is this really something you can apply to weight loss and fitness goals?
Unlike reverse engineering writing 1,000 words, reverse engineering 12 lbs of weight loss is a bit different. Setting the goal of losing 12 lbs in 12 weeks looks pretty reasonable on paper, but what happens if the changes you make only result in losing a ¼ lb per week for the first 8 weeks? And now you have 8 lbs to lose in just 4 weeks to meet your 12 week deadline?
Whereas writing a little bit longer on a Wednesday night is a reasonable means of compensating for the results of the previous few days, forcing yourself to increase your rate of weight loss by 800% is pretty damn drastic.
Another reason that time-based outcome goals with weight loss are tricky is that we’re looking at less concrete numbers.
Because of water weight fluctuations, it takes a significant amount of time to even GET outcome feedback. If you’re trying to raise $1,000 for a charity, you know where you stand with every dollar someone gives you. If you’re losing weight, you have to wait long enough to get meaningful data, which is typically a month for women.
To recap, “having” to lose a certain number of lbs in a certain amount of time is a terrible burden to put on yourself. It’s impossible to predict exactly what impact the lifestyle changes you make have on your rate of weight loss and by the time you have enough solid data to know you’re not losing weight “fast enough”, it might be too late to get on the right pace (without going to extremes).
Introducing a Better Way – Outcome, Performance, and Process Goals
I don’t know much about sports (understatement), but I do know that goals and success are kind of a big deal for sports teams. In Todd Herman’s 90 Day Year program, Todd talks about how he uses the 3 types of goals – outcome, performance, and process goals – to help athletes perform their best and gives examples of how to apply the same to other areas such as business. From here on in this article, I’ll be talking about how to use this framework towards making sustainable health improvements and achieving lasting weight loss.
While outcome goals are limited in their utility for health and fitness goals, they’re still relatively important. The thing you need to be mindful of is that the less control you have over a goal, the more stress focusing on it can bring. And the more time and energy you’re spending focusing on what is out of your control and giving you stress, the more it can sabotage you.
Process goals (aka “habits”) are the opposite – they are the thing that is the MOST within our control and bring the least stress. And then we have performance goals right there in the middle – less stress than outcome goals and less control than process goals.
Process —> Performance —> Outcome
As we move away from focusing on process, our goals become “sexier”. An outcome appeals to us in some sort of visceral way…which is why we want to work towards it. Assuming the comment on your body is welcome from who is providing it, it’s probably going to feel better to hear “Damn! Did you drop a couple pant sizes since the last time I saw you?” than it would to hear “Damn! Did you double your cruciferous vegetable intake since the last time I saw you?”
Outcome goals: least control; highest stress; highest level of sexiness
Performance goals: medium control; medium stress; dabbles in sexiness.
Process goals: most control; lowest stress; not sexy but they take good care of you.
Since this way of looking at goals is originally from athletics, let’s look at an example using running…
Outcome: Come in first place in a 5K race
Performance: Complete 5K in 18 minutes
Process: Put your running shoes every morning and go outside.
Doesn’t winning the race sound pretty cool? Yeah, I bet it is pretty groovy. But you’ll never be able to control how fast the other runners are, so you have very little control. Instead, you can aim for YOUR best with your performance goal and hope that gives you the outcome you’re looking for. And of course, you don’t have 100% control over your performance either.
It doesn’t matter how much determination you have, if your previous best running time just 2 weeks ago was completing a 5K in 30 minutes, 18 minutes is obviously not going to happen. Now, if you’ve previously completed one in 18 minutes and are looking to do it again, it’s way more realistic. But still not 100% in your control. A crappy night’s sleep or a tweak to your ankle can easily sabotage the best of intentions.
But putting your running shoes on every morning and going outside? That’s virtually 100% in control.
Applying This to Health and Weight Loss
Unlike with sports, you (hopefully) won’t be competing with others for health or weight loss goals. But the fundamentals remain the same.
The part that is already obvious…
Outcome goals: how you want your body or health to change
Process goals: your daily habits
But where does “performance” fit in and how do we look at the 3 goals in relationship to each other?
In health and weight loss, “performance” is what I would call our “behavioral benchmarks”. These will vary for each person, but here are some examples:
- Decreasing the frequency/intensity of emotional eating episodes
- Getting in a certain number of steps per day or per week
- Hitting your target for the day for grams of protein or servings of fruits and veggies
- Eating a specific number of estimated calories or simply “eating less”.
These types of benchmarks are really helpful (though I’m not crazy about the calorie counting), but the trap people often fall into is stopping after setting these targets. We need to break these down into quantifiable, smaller steps. Otherwise, the “strategy” to accomplish these things becomes to just try to use willpower or force your body to be uncomfortable. And most commonly, failing.
There are two main ways that our 3 goals interact with each other..
Your process (habits) impacts your performance (bigger picture view of your behavior), which impacts your outcomes (body changes).
Process → Performance → Outcome
But also, your outcomes give you feedback on your performance, and your performance gives you feedback on the process.
Outcome → Performance → Process
Rather than focusing on “reduce the frequency of emotional eating” as a complete strategy, you would practice and test a habit to see what impact it makes.
For example, you might make a habit of using an adult coloring book (I’m told that’s not as NSFW as it sounds) for 15 minutes immediately after cleaning the kitchen.
After enough time practicing this, you will likely have some idea of how big of an impact this has had on your emotional eating. Maybe it made no difference or even increased the frequency or intensity of your episodes (anything is possible, I suppose). Or maybe it had a notable or even profound impact.
Remember, your daily process goals are all an experiment. They’re different things you play around with to see how they impact your life and the goals that are important to you.
Outcomes and performance give you direction for those process goals, and feedback on the effectiveness. Outcomes give much slower feedback (weeks to months) and performance goals give you much faster feedback – daily or weekly.
Here are some more examples of the relationship between performance and process, keeping the outcome goal as weight loss.
Performance: Eat 100-120 grams of protein per day
Process: Have a primary protein source such as a lean meat with all 3-4 meals
Performance: Eat less
Process: Eat more slowly at lunch and dinner, aiming for 15-20 minutes from first bite to last bite.
Performance: Walk 10,000 steps per day
Process: Look at FitBit every hour, and if you did not already get at least 500 steps in for that hour, go for a walk.
Performance: Decrease emotional eating intensity and/or frequency
Process: Ask yourself what specific emotion you’re feeling when you’re feeling compelled to eat your afternoon chocolate (not accepting “because I want it” as an answer).
All 3 types of goals are important, but the level of detail required for each of them varies.
In general, people focus too much on outcome goals. You probably already are as clear as you need to be with your outcome goals. If you find yourself losing focus, it’s helpful to check in with yourself and see if your priorities have changed.
Maybe weight loss was your primary goal, which made focusing on nutrition habits the most important thing. And now, maybe strength is your most important goal, which makes your exercise habits the most important thing.
Focus on outcome goals only enough to give you direction and inspiration, and be careful of the fact that it’s easy to quickly fall into the trap of focusing on outcomes so much that they consume your attention, raise your stress, and sabotage your success.
While for other pursuits, performance goals often require conscious focus, in the case of health and weight loss you probably already have performance goals. The unique challenge is that it’s not as obvious where the line is between a performance goal and process goal for weight loss as it is for another type of performance goal.
For example, if you told a football player that his daily habit that he needs to practice running a 40-yard dash in 4 seconds, he would look at you like you have two heads. That’s not a daily step – that’s something that you want to happen as a result of your daily steps. But for health and weight loss performance goals, it’s practically the norm to think of a performance goal as being the same thing as a daily action step.
To succeed with your health and weight loss goals, the most important thing is to create a clear distinction between your performance goals and the process goals that will (hopefully) make them happen. Wanting to no longer eat emotionally isn’t enough of a plan. Wanting to eat 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day isn’t enough of a plan. Wanting to eat less isn’t enough of a plan. You need to take the big picture behavior changes you want to make, and break them down into concrete action steps that you can practice and achieve.
HOW will you reduce or stop eating emotionally? HOW will you get your 5-9 servings of veggies per day? HOW will you eat less (and still eat enough to fuel your body properly)?
This is where nearly all of your focus needs to be. Process goals aren’t sexy, but they are what make you successful. And they’re what we work on in the Habit Project.