"I've ruined my diet" is a motivation-crushing phrase. We like to think that we're a pretty trustworthy analyst of our own fitness lives, but we're often wrong -- and making our own bleak analysis can actually cause a bad outcome.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that causes itself to become true. These are dangerous in fitness, where mindset is often the determinant of success. Here are three of the most common, and how you can overcome them.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy #1: "I Ruined My Diet"
After a string of bad days of dieting, not only do you probably feel like the Michelin man, but stepping on the scale may inform you that you've acquired the weight of a small child. There are two possible reactions to this, and one will actually throw you off your diet.
The first and most common reaction is to throw your arms up in the air and devour the remaining contents of your fridge. At the very least, you'll continue your streak of bad days until you finally stop. (But only because the self-loathing and binge-induced tummyache finally outweighs your desire to eat. Not that I have any experience with this.)
The second reaction is to analyse the damage -- objectively and without judgment -- and come up with a plan. However, because of your body's physiological reaction from a large caloric surplus, this is easier said than done.
When we over-consume calories, we store those excess calories in the form of either fat or glycogen. While it takes 3500 excess calories in order to gain one pound of fat, it's much easier to gain weight from glycogen. Each gram of glycogen is accompanied by three grams of water, leading to rapid weight gain and a "puffy" look that may be mistaken as fat.
But this weight is only temporary "water weight", In fact, after 3-4 days of getting back on the horse, you'll get back to your "true weight" and be able to make an objective assessment. You'll likely find that you've only gained a couple of pounds, if that.
It's not from the occasional wedding or holiday that derailed dieters -- it's the perception of the inflicted damage. So show some self-compassion and then get back to your normal routine.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy #2: "Training Is Going To Suck Today"
There's a story by renowned strength coach Bill Starr that best explains this prophecy. Bill used to be the football strength coach at the University of Hawaii, where many of his players were quite fond of smoking marijuana before difficult training sessions. Knowing that he couldn't make them quit cold turkey, he made them a deal: do it, as long as you're ready to train and set personal records the next day.
While his players had the perception that their workouts would suffer after a day of debauchery, Starr pushed them and told them that this wasn't true:
They ended up moving more weight on the various movements than they had ever done before. They were both delighted and somewhat stunned when they finished their sessions. No one had ever forced them to do that before. Before I arrived, the weight program was run by an assistant coach. When the athletes complained to him that they felt crappy, he always allowed them to do an abbreviated program or let them skip that day entirely. What they had learned was they had control over their behaviour if they also had the desire to get stronger.
While somewhat anecdotal, stories like this are prevalent among fitness coaches. Martin Berkhan, the creator of the Leangains method, has said that some of his best workouts have been after a suboptimal day -- little sleep, high stress, and so on. I've encountered many similar stories as well.
We're not saying you should go smoke a joint, get drunk, and stay up late in order to get your best workouts. Rather, you never know how you're going to perform until you start. If you skip a workout or mentally "check out" before you even warm up, then you're doomed before you begin. You might have missed the best workout of your life.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy #3: "I'll Never Get In Shape"
When someone views a before-and-after picture, there are two possible reactions. The first is inspiration: the picture shows the viewer that change is possible. The second, ironically, is demotivation: the viewer sees the picture as a reminder that they will never change. How could there be such polar opposite reactions to one picture (that doesn't involve the colour of a dress)?
The answer might come from researcher Dr Carol Dweck, pioneer of the concept of "growth" and "fixed" mindsets. People with a fixed mindset believe abilities and talents are immutable traits; you either have them or you don't. They take negative feedback personally because they don't differentiate between their performance and themselves. They avoid challenge and see failures as being outside of their control.
On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe skills and talents are acquired through education and hard work. They embrace challenge and use criticism to improve.
Those who see themselves as being unable to improve have fixed mindsets around fitness. They see themselves as a victim of circumstance, helpless to get fit. In reality, they need to hear some harsh truths and realise that fitness is as much of a skill as riding a bike.
Sadly, no one can get you to realise this but yourself. Sure, others can help coax you along, and there are even whole fields of study devoted to this, but ultimately, you have to want to change. That's the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies...no matter what, you're right in the end.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.