Last night, I heard someone talk about how he ate less than an Auschwitz prisoner for almost a month. Were we talking about eating disorders? Nope. We were talking about goals. It was his goal to lose weight, and somewhere along the way, things got carried away.
Let’s talk about a fundamental rule of goal achieving. This rule is a good thing to keep in mind as you try to accomplish any of your goals, because it completely changes the way you think about what you’re trying to do. It’s something you may already know intuitively, but if you don’t, you might never go to business school and you might never read a book every week, because you approached those in the wrong way. If things get especially bad, you might forget you’re not in a cattle car in 40s Germany. Let’s not go there.
This rule is called accomplishments vs. habits.
Here’s how it goes.
Accomplishments are one-time things. Running a marathon. Eating at the top-ranked restaurant Next. Going to business school.
Habits are things you plan to adopt and keep up forever. Lose 20 pounds. Walk 10,000 steps per day. Read a book every week. No one has the goal of losing 20 pounds once and then not caring about their weight. The pounds come off and stay off.
Accomplishments are finish lines that can be raced towards. In fact, if you don’t race towards them, you may never finish. Habits cannot be raced towards– not normally, anyhow. You have to start with something small and only increase it a bit at a time.
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Every few months, I go to a wonderful meetup of total nerds called Quantified Self. It’s for people who are interested in tracking data about themselves– usually things like eating, sleeping, and exercising. It was at this last meetup that I heard, straight from his acutely underfed mouth, how one man could eat so little.
He described the graph he kept of his weight. Each morning he’d measure himself and the program would plot the point on the downward slope of his weight over time. A little dotted line far below represented his goal weight. How fast could he make it plummet? This was the question on his mind, and that was what drove him to the verge of anorexia.
But let me suggest a different question: how slowly could it float?
Whenever your goal is actually something that includes the tacit addendum of “and for the rest of your life X” (like, “I’m going to bench press my body weight… and for the rest of my life always be able to bench press my body weight”), then getting to that goal is just as important as staying at that goal.
For that reason, don’t be in a rush. Sprinting for the finish line only works when there’s a finish line nearby. If you’re changing something for life, then take things slow. Float. That’s far healthier.
Let’s apply this to diet.
At the second-to-last Quantified Self meetup, I heard about someone who did something called the “Hacker’s Diet”. It’s a way to lose weight that is astoundingly simple. It goes like this: weigh yourself every day and keep a 10-day running average.
That’s all. No prescribed meals, no calorie-counting, no banned foods or cheat days or point systems.
It’s just you and a simple feedback mechanism that you can experiment with. The fact that you keep a running average means your daily weight fluctations (“Oh, I gained two pounds yesterday!”) are not important. Because let’s face it, unless you take an insulin shot and eat a cheesecake, you aren’t gaining two pounds of fat. You just have two more pounds of food/drink traveling down the primrose path of digestion, and only a fraction of that will actually stick to your gut.
Because there are no prescribed changes to your diet, it’s not hard to keep doing. It’s up the dieter to figure out what they want to limit or cut out. The person who spoke about the Hacker’s Diet said she started only with very small changes. Over a few years, she eventually cut out huge swaths of processed food from her diet, but every change was slow and gradual– and by the time her diet had changed significantly, she had already lost tens of pounds.
I am confident that until the day she dies, she will be one of the healthiest eaters I know.
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So here’s how you deal with these two categories. When you’re working on an achievement, always be thinking about the next possible step and when you can do it. Race towards the finish line. The idea of “now” is important for habits too (you can’t say “I’ll walk 10,000 steps today, but not now” forever), but for accomplishments, it’s practically the only important thing.
When you’re thinking of habits, however, think about sustaining. It doesn’t matter where you are; it matters where you’re headed. If you aren’t comfortable with where you’re at, fine. Don’t move forward yet. But if you are, keep going. If you’re walking 8,000 steps and loving it, bump it up. This will happen naturally. Just let it. Float slow.
Break down your habits and accomplishments. Start them both tonight, but don’t go at the same rate.
What are your habit goals? What are your achievement goals? Have you had success from floating slowly?