What is the hardest part about changing a behavior; a lifestyle? Is it believing that whatever you’re doing is no longer working for you, or is it something more or less, or in between? In The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, one of my recent favorite authors and all around amazing guy, he explores this concept of changing a behavior, and adopting a new one.

Tim, to provide some background, is not your average Joe. He is a highly successful entrepreneur turned author, who is fluent in several languages, and also an amazing athlete who can pretty much teach himself any skill or hobby he wants. Whenever I’m reading or listening to one of his podcasts, I’m thinking about his thought process. How is he able to adopt these new skills so swiftly, and so efficiently? There has to be some recipe, some formulaic way of thinking and doing whatever it is that he is doing.

Indeed, there is.

And one of the main analogies, which is a foundation for a lot of what Tim talks about when giving advice, has to do with simply thinking about how to go about adopting a new lifestyle or behavioral trait. There is, according to Ferriss, a  certain reward ceiling that each person has, whether they realize it or not. A low reward ceiling is easier to get to. A high reward ceiling, harder. Regardless of how high or low it is for you, or anyone, the reward ceiling should be accounted for and realized, and thus factored into whatever behavior or new new lifestyle you plan on adopting.

He talks about a certain individual, who can really be representative of anyone who is trying to lose weight in this day and age, who tries to change several behaviors at once. This person wants to go on an organic diet, eat less processed food, exercise more, cooked more home cooked meals, and learn some new recipes. Sound familiar?

But this person, I hate to break it you, has already lost with his/her new goal in mind. There’s no way you can do all these at once. Okay, maybe you can for awhile if you’re super ambitious.But take a step back. Think about it. Changing all of those behaviors at once? It seems ideal but it is hardly realistic. The reality of the situation is that by the time this person goes out and spends X amount of dollars buying all of the ingredients for their new lifestyle, buying the right cooking equipment, finding out what new meals he/she is going to cook, cooking them, and then actually eating, and probably not liking how the food tastes, he/she will call it quits. It’s too much all at once. It’s exhausting.

A better approach is to change one behavior, not 5, at first, and see how that goes before implementing more change into a modern lifestyle.  Start with a lower reward ceiling that is more realistic. Start with something that is more manageable. More sustainable. The sustainability aspect is key. It doesn’t matter how conventional or straightforward your goal may seem, if it’s realistically not sustainable, you’re going to quit sooner or later, it’s inevitable.

Some other unsustainable behavior I witness, just to cite some examples, involve all of the New Years Resolutionists I’ve seen at the gym I’m a member of. I call them Resolutionists, not because they have some new goal, or some new resolution to set in the new year, but because it describes a larger category of people, myself at one point, for those who have pretty conventional expectations, for those who think about goal setting with a certain mindframe, year-round. This type of goal setting only focuses on the results, and not so much the incremental steps and thought process of what is happening along the way. However unattainable the goal may be, this person sees the end result to justify the means of getting there, instead of the actual learning process which is infinitely more important.

So really the crux of the argument is that it’s more important to think about how to think about setting a goal, before actually setting it, if that makes any sense.

Just some examples of the Resolutionist type (sorry if that sounds bad):

  • A guy in his mid-40’s, who just bought all new Under Armor gear, who is going to run .5 miles on the treadmill.
  • Another male, maybe in his 30’s, who is focusing on the amount of weight he is lifting with dumbbells, instead of the actual technique involved in lifting and his breathability.
  • A female who is doing a spinning class that involves more cardio than she has ever done in her life.

Again, the sustainability aspect comes to mind with all three of these types. The Under Armor gear will not help said individual on a path to becoming a better runner. It may boost his/her confidence slightly, but it does nothing to improve his/her cardiovascular health. Instead, a couple one step, single dose options might be: stretching twice a day before and after running to increase flexibility, supplementing with an Omega 3 rich diet to decrease joint inflammation and help  with muscle soreness, or even having a set music playlist to help stimulate your brain before running.

The guy who is lifting 40lb dumbbells is also setting himself up for failure. Before even getting into a heavy lifting regiment, you really have to make sure your diet is sound. This guy, who I’m assuming doesn’t come to the gym regularly, is going to be extremely sore and is going to need to eat an extremely large amount of protein, maybe 80 grams or so, just for his body to recuperate from the stress he is putting on his muscles. Not to mention his technique is off, and he’s going to have back pain and muscle spasms for a few days. Combine all of this with having a day job, and not always having access to the right food at the right time, and a high stress level, it just sounds like a total disaster. I feel slightly bad for him, for the change his body is about to take in the next few days. It’s completely unsustainable to get back into the gym and do the same routine when you consider all of these factors. And just because you can pull it off for a few weeks, even if it is uncomfortable, what are you really accomplishing?

The girl I won’t get into because I don’t want to imply anything that other females might take offense to. Also I’m a guy so I don’t know a lot about female hormones, so I won’t pretend like I do.

So enjoy your new goals, but definitely think about them not in a societal context. Goals are goals, and it’s my own personal belief that they should be a little bit whimsical at times, a little bit thrown out there and not be so conventional. They should be based on a state of mind; a state of being. That’s why its hard to make the goal in the first place. You have to separate yourself from what you think the goal represents and what the goal is as its own entity.