How our Personal Perceptions Shape Outcomes
Henry Ford said, "If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right." When you start a weight loss journey assuming that you will fail chances are you don’t try as hard as you would if you begin with the mindset that you will be successful. Our minds protect themselves from the humiliation of failure by imposing limitations on our efforts. If you do not try very hard, and you do not succeed then your failure is justified. If you try hard, and do not succeed then your innate abilities, your sense of self-worth is threatened. You feel worse than if you did not try at all.
An example is a student who spends an hour on a 10 page paper vs. a student who spends a week writing the same paper. If the student who spends an hour on it receives a low grade it is easily brushed off with, “Well, what do you expect? I barely spent any time on it.” A student who spent a week on the assignment and receives a low grade assumes that effort is not enough to compensate for their poor writing skills, and feels worse about the grade the received.
We do this with our fitness pursuits all the time. Someone who is trying to lose weight that goes to the gym every day, diets on low calories and does not lose a certain amount of weight feels like a failure. They conclude that there must be some outside force, or lack of ability to explain their inability to lose weight. Another person that admits to going out for drinks on weekends, and skips the gym regularly can brush off their failure to achieve a weight loss goal because after all, what did you expect? When one applies substandard effort, they achieve substandard results, but their perception of their abilities remain unchallenged. They could lose weight if they really tried.
“It is widely recognized in our society that personal worth depends largely on one’s accomplishments. Moreover, because ability is seen as a critical component of success, and inability a prime cause of failure, self-perceptions of ability become a significant park of one’s self-definition. Thus, self-worth theory stresses ability perceptions as a primary activator of achievement behavior.” (Covington 1984) What this means for you is that your perception of your ability to complete a task is central to your ability to perform. If you begin a diet with the mindset that you are going to fail your chances of failure increase dramatically.
“In contrast, failure-avoiding persons often select achievement tasks that are either too easy or too difficult, thereby creating the very failures and poor record of achievement that they are attempting to avoid.” (Covington 1984) We see this in weight loss all the time. People set up goals to lose 30lbs in 30 days, a task that is impossible for the vast majority. Part of the extreme goal setting is a result of the many well marketed “quick-fix” programs that give people incredible and unrealistic expectations. Another part of that is people will subconsciously set the bar too high, resulting in self sabotage. If you don’t lose 30lbs in 30 days then you have proven yourself right; you can’t lose weight and should stop trying.
We live in a society where ability is a highly valued trait. We look at elite athletes and assume that they are one of innate ability, that they were born naturals for the sport that they play. It’s a much more exciting tale to tell, and what’s more, it gives the average person a reason for not achieving that sort of success. I’m not saying that everyone needs to be an elite athlete, but we tend to downplay the hours and years of dedication to craft that it takes for an elite to become an elite. If we are going to achieve anything new then we must try things we have never tried before, and work harder than we ever have.
So, how do you protect yourself against this? The above is a look at the big picture, but it is the small and consistent efforts that will do the most to safeguard perceptions of ability and potential for success. This is where things like progress pictures, measurements, food logs become invaluable. A good coach will have records of these; they can help you see that the small efforts over time have been adding up to a much larger change. Going back to the losing 30lbs in 30 days example, if at the end of 30 days you have lost 10lbs, instead of looking at this situation as failing to lose 30lbs you should look at it as succeeding in losing 10! It’s still a step forward, and you’ve started creating better habits that will lead to further success down the line.
This is why creating good habits is key for achieving goals. Habits are daily steps in the right direction, habits keep you going when progress is slow, or the road gets hard. By focusing on the habit, and successfully keeping the habit you are more likely to achieve your overall goals, and maintain those results in the long term.
Weight loss is good, but the bigger goal - and the hardest part for most people - is being able to maintain that. When weight loss is achieved through crash dieting, or other unsustainable means it’s no wonder that once the diet or extreme workout program is finished people tend to regain their weight. No habits were formed, no new patterns were developed. The stopping point is reached and people go right back to the way things were before. Then people tell themselves that they failed, maybe even that they are incapable of maintaining a lower bodyweight. They become defeated and stop trying.
It’s not as sexy and it’s a much longer process, but this is why habits are the keystone of true change. Robert Collier said, “Success is the sum of small efforts - repeated day in and day out”. Crash diets and extreme programs provide temporary success, but true change is achieved through daily, sustainable changes. We build our abilities with effort, and if we put our effort in the right direction we are capable of much more than we assume. Everyone from the elite to the “Average Joe” makes progress in their endeavors with the use of carefully crafted habits. The act of continuously executing habits builds self-esteem, and generates a better outlook on our abilities, which gives us better results.
Covington, M (1984) The Self-Worth Theory of Achievement Motivation: Findings and Implications. The Elementary School Journal Vol. 85, No. 1 (Special Issue: Motivation), 4-20