I hate this time of year.
Starting on January 2nd, my gym is totally overrun by people who have been pretending to want to be in shape all year, but who have suddenly decided to give slightly more of a shit because the last digit in the date has changed. These people clog every machine, every barbell, every dumbbell, and every inch of floor space.
Then, three to five weeks later, things go back to normal at the gym. It’s like clockwork. The throngs clear out, leaving the same handful of regulars who were there in December.
The guys who own my gym absolutely love these people — a group my old fitness forum called “resolutionists.” Resolutionists are the perfect customers. They allow the owners to overbook the gym the way airlines overbook flights because they pay their money, then never actually show up.
Now, when I say that I hate this time of year, you might think I’m being an elitist prick. I promise that’s not my intention. I don’t, in fact, dislike the people who join in January, and I don’t like it when they leave.
What I can’t stand is the phenomenon. I can’t fucking stand New Year’s resolutions.
The whole idea is so annoying and disgusting and spineless. It’s a ritual wherein everyone — including folks who can’t stick to ONE. FUCKING. COMMITMENT to themselves or others — is pressured into concocting a bullshit promise that they have no intention of keeping, and no real reason to follow through on.
See, real life improvement doesn’t happen only on New Year’s Eve. It happens on February 12th, June 23rd, September 18th, and every other day. It happens whenever it happens, and it happens because something within a person recognizes an urgent, burning need for change. It doesn’t happen because some asshole chinks a glass of champagne against yours and asks you to come up with a socially acceptable lie.
I guess I could put it this way:
If you want to make a positive change in your life, then Godspeed to you. Promise yourself that you’ll do it, and then do it. But if you’re not going to make a change (a totally legit choice, by the way) then don’t promise that you will.
And if that’s the case, please just shut the fuck up about your “resolutions.”
That opening is pretty harsh. I’d wager that I lost at least thirty percent of the people that are here reading me for the first time. It’s a shame, because I’m in no way anti-self-improvement. I love it when people want to become better and then actually become better. I’d go so far as to say that “becoming better” is my prime mission in life, and something I love helping others to do whenever I’m able.
And as a tool to achieve that self-improvement, I love goals. If you want to improve, setting goals is a great way to do it and to measure your progress.
But a New Year’s resolution isn’t a goal. It’s a drunken, ill-thought-out, socially induced promise. People set resolutions because they think they should, not because the subject of the resolution actually matters to them. People set resolutions based on what they think others expect of them rather than what they actually want. Resolutions are obnoxiously righteous. Resolutions scream, “THIS YEAR, I WILL MAKE SOMETHING OF MYSELF!” And because they’re so loud and pious, you can bet that the definition of “making something of yourself” being used is probably your mother’s, your father’s, or your boss’s.
Do you truly feel you should quit smoking? Or does your spouse think you should?
Do you really want to lose fifteen pounds, or are you fine with how you look and feel but figure that you could lose the weight, and your resolution has to be about something?
If you actually care about what you’re resolving, why do you need New Year’s Eve to remind you to do it? If you do care, shouldn’t you should start your little self-improvement project whenever the thought occurs to you? And if you don’t care, then why are you promising anything?
But hey, I get it. The thrill of resolution-making is hard-wired into us at this point. And so if you absolutely must make a resolution, I suggest you make this one:
This year, I will stop pretending to care about things that don’t matter to me and will instead begin pursuing goals I DO care about whenever inspiration strikes… regardless of what date is on the calendar.
Resolutions, taken at face value, aren’t bad. Resolutions are good. It’s good to gather your will and commit yourself to doing something that matters.
Just be sure that you’re doing those things on your own time, for your own reasons.
How to keep your resolutions, regardless of what day they’re made
There’s no way for me to write this next part without sounding like I’m trying to appear perfect and awesome. I promise that’s not what I’m trying to do. I fall short of goals all the time, but if I’m going to give an example of how to stick to a goal, it’d be really dumb for me to tell you about one I screwed up, right?
So instead, let’s talk about a goal I set and then actually achieved. Let’s talk about how I lost 30 pounds that I would have sworn to you six months ago I didn’t have to lose.
1. Know what you want, as specifically as possible.
Oftentimes, people make goals that sound like this: “Lose weight,” “Advance at work,” “Make more money.” But think about it… what do those phrases mean? How will you measure your progress toward them? How will you know when you reach them?
Those goals are way, way too vague to be effective.
When you create goals, pretend that a jerky lawyer is going to try to convince a jury that you’ve failed, so you’ll need to demonstrate without question that you’ve succeeded. So for financial goals, set a number. Nobody can question a number; either you hit it or you don’t. For relationship goals, determine how many times a week/month you’d see/talk to that person and what topics you might feel comfortable discussing. If you want a new position at work, name that position, and say which office you’ll be in, how much money you’ll make, and so on.
I said above that I lost 30 pounds, but that wasn’t my initial goal. (I actually didn’t think I could lose that much weight, which is something I’ll talk about below.) My goal, instead, was that I wanted to get a six-pack. Specifically, I wanted visible separation between at least six segments of my abdominal muscles even when relaxed, clearly visible in a normally lit room.
I even had a few photos that represented what I was shooting for. Here is one of those photos. Now, I’m not as big as ol’ Alcide and will probably never have a look as impressive as his, but it was an ideal representation of what I wanted.
2. Know why you want your goal… and understand that it’s YOU that must want it.
I’d tried to get the fabled six pack before many times. I never really got quite as lean as I wanted to be because I wasn’t clear about why I wanted it. My reasons used to be things like “because it’d look cool” or “to be hot.” And those are okay reasons, I guess, but neither was enough to drive me to do what it would take to get what I really wanted.
This time around, my reason was simpler but more powerful. It was “to prove that I can.” That simple imperative may not move you, but it was and is tremendously motivational for me. If you read this blog, you’ll know that I talk a lot about how few things are actually impossible and how “normal” expectations are bullshit. And although I wrote about those topics, I realized that I wasn’t walking my talk as purely as I could. Getting lean is a matter of discipline, so if I wanted it but couldn’t achieve it, it was because I lacked will. How could I write about conquering your will and becoming Legendary if I couldn’t do it myself? And another thing: I’ll turn 37 this year, and people think it’s nearly impossible (or at least highly impractical and unreasonable) for a guy who’s knocking on the door of 40 to want the body of a twenty-something. So of course I had to jump all over that heap of bullshit.
But whatever reasons you have, make sure you understand them, and make sure they drive you.
But most of all, make sure they’re actually YOUR reasons.
A lot of people rush to get in shape for a high school reunion. Plenty more get an advanced degree to please their fathers. Both are a bad idea. If you want to get in shape, do it to feel more confident in everything else you do. If you want that degree, make sure it’s because it’ll land you your dream job and allow you to pursue a lifelong passion.
At one point after I’d lost most of what I wanted to lose, I half-jokingly told my wife Robin that “I did this to be sexy for you.” But she doesn’t buy into my bullshit, so she rolled her eyes and said, “No you didn’t. You did it for you.”
3. Act immediately.
I made my goal — my “resolution” to lean out, if you will — in April of 2012. I made it because I read an article in Men’s Health about Zac Effron, of all people. In that article, Zac was talking about getting ripped for a movie and said something like “I may not be the strongest or the fastest guy out there, but I can outwork anyone.”
That struck a chord with me. As the guy who wrote “Everything is Simple. Nothing is Easy,” I shouldn’t have found Zac’s statement to be a revelation, but I did. I thought, Duh. It comes down to having the discipline to work very hard for a long period of time. That’s all it is.
Something clicked. It dawned on me that if I simply committed and did — and even better, if I could hire someone to hit me with a virtual stick to keep me on track — that I, too, could outwork anyone.
I was reading that article in a hot tub. I didn’t even have to get out. My phone was within reach, so grabbed it and emailed a friend to ask if he’d hook me up with his trainer. I knew his guy made his clients work hard, but got results and wouldn’t hesitate to put a boot up my ass if I slacked off. So, later that week, I was talking to that trainer — by now-buddy Roger Lawson — and had received my marching orders.
I started that very day, without any delusional “the diet starts tomorrow so I’ll get my fun on today” bullshit.
4. Be honest with yourself.
This part is haaaaaard. I thought I was always honest with myself, but it turned out that I was one seriously lying fucker.
I’d weighed 204 pounds for forever, and I was convinced — convinced! — that I was lean. I mean, I’m fairly strong for an amateur, with a best parallel squat of 395 and a best deadlift of 475. I could work like a horse, so I told myself that I just had a ton of muscle. I used to yell at my Wii when we played Wii Fit because it said I was obese. I said that the BMI charts aren’t meant for athletic individuals. When I hired Roger, I told him I wanted to lose “that last ten pounds” and become TOTALLY ripped… versus the “already pretty ripped” I was at the time. I figured I could maybe — maaaybe — get down to 190. But that was it, because I already had it going on.
The very first thing Roger told me to do was to take a series of pictures. I will never forgive him for this. These pictures showed me a different person than I saw every day in the mirror.
Here’s what I saw in the photos:
The guy I saw in those pictures wasn’t exactly fat, but he sure as hell wasn’t lean. I immediately made up all sorts of justifications for why I didn’t see the right person in those photos. The flash was washing me out! I was standing funny!
Well, you know how they say that the camera adds ten pounds? That’s because when we look in the mirror, we lie to ourselves. The camera isn’t “adding” anything. It’s just showing you the truth. And for me, once I admitted the truth, resolving to change became easy.
Oh, and by the way… because my fragile ego can’t take having that “before” photo hanging out in the wind, here’s a “just a few pounds left” photo of me today, at 174:
If I’d continued to tell myself that I was only able to lose ten pounds, that “after” photo wouldn’t exist.
You need to be honest about where you are right now, before you embark on the pursuit of a goal. For fitness goals, being honest might mean using a camera. For financial goals, it might mean getting an accountant’s opinion. For creative goals, it might mean critiques or reviews. At the very least, ask for the unfiltered opinions of a handful of friends.
Remember: it’s very difficult to use a map if you don’t know where you are on it.
(CAVEAT: If you don’t like what your “honest truth” is at this point, do NOT beat yourself up about it. Where you are is where you are, and if you don’t like where you are, then remember that you’re embarking on a change. Achieving goals shouldn’t be fueled by hate, but by a desire for the end product. If you don’t have peace during the journey, you’ll go nuts and sabotage yourself at every turn.)
(SECOND CAVEAT: My personal, it’s-mine-and-you-don’t-have-to-agree-with-it goal in this example was to get lean in order to prove to myself that I could do it, so please don’t email me and tell me that my six-pack quest encourages body image issues. What I saw as my honest starting point showed me that I had not yet “done it” despite the fact that I’d convinced myself I almost had — no more and no less. I might have chosen to scale Everest or run an ultramarathon, but I chose this instead.)
5. Know and accept the price ahead of time.
I told Roger that I’d do whatever he asked me to do, within reason. That was why I’d hired him. It would have been stupid for me to pay him money and then ignore his advice in favor of whatever I wanted to do.
If you truly want to commit to change, you have to go into it with that attitude. You need to truly, truly understand what you’re in for, and then commit yourself ahead of time to doing whatever is necessary.
Quitting smoking, drinking, or drugs is going to be hard. You’re going to want something very badly, and you’re not going to allow yourself to have it — probably ever again.
Dieting is going to be hard. You’re going to have to do it for a long time unless you just have a little bit of weight to lose. Don’t make the fatal mistake of assuming you can exercise a lot and eat how you’re eating now. There’s an expression that says, “You can’t out-train a bad diet,” and it’s 100% true. Make friends with the discomfort you’re going to have to face up front. Think about how hard it’s going to be in all of its gory detail before you begin.
If you fully understand the price of your goals and find yourself waffling, you’re probably best off not even starting to pursue the goal because you’re not going to make it. It’s best to know early if it turns out that you’re not willing to pay the price.
6. Take small steps.
A lot of people talk about crash diets and “bootcamp” exercise programs designed to whip you into shape quickly. I’ve always preferred a steadier approach, and so does Roger. I started in May and hit my low right before Thanksgiving (at which point I took a break, content to maintain my weight loss until I resumed in January). If you’re keeping track, that’s 6 months of dieting to lose 30 pounds, for an average of just over a pound a week.
There are a few reasons I think that moving slowly is a great idea.
For one (and this is obviously specific to fat loss goals), there’s a ton of research showing that the genetic maximum for sustainable weight loss that doesn’t erode away all of your muscle is around 2.5 pounds per week. (It was slower for me because I wasn’t that overweight and already had twenty years of weight training under my belt.)
Second, moving slowly (and this one is true for ANY change) allows you to adjust over time. Rapid changes are jarring. Going back to a weight-loss example, if you suddenly knock all of your favorite foods out of your diet and go from zero to eight gym sessions a week, you’d better have a will of steel if you hope to maintain your regimen. If instead you make slow, daily changes — which, by the way, is the unsexy but startlingly effective tagline of my Everyday Legendary community — you’ll get used to it, and the change will be more sustainable.
Lastly, going slowly is a test of your commitment. Are you in this for the long haul, or are you looking for a quick fix?
Resolutionists are looking for a quick fix, which is why they demand that change be rapid. On some level, they think that if they gut out a diet and an exercise program and GIVE IT THEIR MOTHERFUCKING ALL for a few months, they’ll then be “fixed” forever. That’s idiotic. The only reasons to think that way are 1) if you’re fine with where you started, in which case you shouldn’t bother to change at all, or 2) if you want to go through this all over again next year, after you’ve started smoking again, re-gained the weight, failed at your new business, or whatever.
Don’t look for quick solutions. Instead, shoot for permanent change. Don’t think “a period of fixing followed by business as usual.” Instead, think “creating a new permanent lifestyle.”
So yeah, I had to do a lot of work to lose those thirty pounds, but that doesn’t mean that I’m now “done” and plan to go back to my old caloric intake. Instead, after losing a few more pounds this month, I’ll increase my calories slowly, reach an equilibrium, and then watch what I eat forever. (By the way, that probably sounds like terrible, never-ending drudgery, but it’s not. After six months, you get used to a way of doing things. This no longer takes a lot of will. It’s simply how I operate now.)
So that’s it. That’s how you can make goals and resolutions that have nothing to do with peer pressure or a certain champagne holiday, and actually make the changes you want to make.
Doesn’t that sound better than doing what a calendar tells you?
AWESOME BONUS SEXY OFFER: If you’d like to hear the details of my six-pack-abs quest, my trainer Roger and I are recording a video lesson together for my Everyday Legendary community in which we’ll break down exactly what he had me do. (I also already recorded a lesson detailing my own habits and tips, and that one is already inside of EL.) There’s nothing magic to any of what we’ll discuss — and certainly no easy buttons — but if you’d like to check it out, now’s a great time to join Everyday Legendary.