Emotional Health

A Single Key to Achieving Your Goals? Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

What is the difference between success and failure? Why do some people find themselves in the same place year after year while others make significant changes that last?

Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses — and we all have both — is essential to achieving any goal. If you want to exercise more but know that you have failed when trying to take up running, analyzing where the problem lies can help. Are you the kind of person who needs a deadline or a commitment to someone else? Perhaps you would do better if you had a partner, group, or even trainer. Maybe the problem is the sport itself. Some find running boring and tedious while others relish the time to be alone with their thoughts in nature.

The point is to try to find the winning combination of activity, timing, companionship, and motivation. If you have failed in the past, take a look at what contributed to that failure and try a new approach. Almost everyone can find a physical activity that is acceptable and many who stick with it find it becomes a pleasure rather than a burden.

We sometimes wryly define insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” If this keeps happening to you, analyze whether it is the method, approach, or the goal itself that needs refining. One of the most vexingly elusive of goals is weight loss. Maybe for that reason, it is the most common and apt to be repeated resolution. Few of us who have tried to lose weight have not found out how difficult it is to achieve a weight that we feel happy with and maintain it for long.

 

Illustration: C.A. Martin

While for decades scientists have insisted that calories in=calories out is the simple formula for weight control, those of us in the trenches have known from experience that this is not true. Now they are doing exciting and important research that is illuminating what a complex process it really is. Factors as diverse as genetics, hormones, intestinal microbiology, social status, and yes, diet and exercise are all in the mix.  Furthermore, the relative influence of each of these factors differs for all of us. While some people’s weight is heavily determined by heredity, others’ are more easily influenced and thus manipulated by such lifestyle factors as diet. They are even finding that different diets work or don’t work for different individuals.

What is a person who wants to lose weight to do? Some researchers have been finding that dieting itself does not work for many, and is even contributing to obesity. This is the bad news about why dieting can be counterproductive:

“Some experts argue that instead of dieting leading to long-term weight gain, the relationship goes in the other direction: People who are genetically prone to gain weight are more likely to diet. To test this idea, in a 2012 study, researchers followed over 4,000 twins aged 16 to 25. Dieters were more likely to gain weight than their non-dieting identical twins, suggesting that dieting does indeed increase weight gain even after accounting for genetic background. The difference in weight gain was even larger between fraternal twins, so dieters may also have a higher genetic tendency to gain. The study found that a single diet increased the odds of becoming overweight by a factor of two in men and three in women. Women who had gone on two or more diets during the study were five times as likely to become overweight.”

If dieting makes you fat, is there any other way to achieve your goal of losing weight? Perhaps this is an example of a method that must be modified and a goal that needs to be tweaked as well. It is probable that the last 10 pounds that you have never been able to lose, no matter what you do, are never going anywhere, and it may even be that your attempts to lose them through dieting are making things worse. Careful self-reflection is in order, even though we often don’t question being thinner as a worthwhile goal. Are you someone who is meant to be a certain weight, perhaps higher than you would like, and need to accept that? Research suggests that, except if you have a medical problem, it is possible to be healthy and overweight if you maintain good eating habits and exercise. Perhaps you can re-orient your goal to trying to be as healthy and as attractive as you can at your usual weight. Paradoxically, people often lose weight naturally when they do this.

Learning to be fit and healthy, to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full are invaluable tools. Seeing food as pleasurable and nutritious, rather than as an evil enemy to be fought and defeated can lead not only to better eating habits, but a more pleasant  life. Essentially, if you have been at war with your body for years and dieting is your weapon, it may be time to reconsider both your goal and your tools. Changing one or both is not giving up, it’s acknowledging reality. There are many things we can all do to feel about our bodies, and ourselves but dieting, in the traditional sense, may not be one of them.

Aldous Huxley said, “experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” If you want to succeed in your goals this year, take a look at what has tripped you up in the past. Distinguish what ways your aims and methods can be improved upon. Use your experience of failure not as an ending but as a learning tool and starting point on making a better plan. Sometimes the plan requires a new approach. But usually you need to admit that doing the same thing you did last year probably won’t work.

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