I've seen thousands of people attempt a weight loss regimen, and there is one common trait shared by people who fail fast. It's not bad genetics, lack of time, or a penchant for fine wines. It's stubbornness.
If you're trying to lose weight, the reality is that you'll have many factors working against you: a full schedule, willpower, even family members. Almost all of these factors can be overcome, and we've written about them on Lifehacker. Stubbornness, however, cannot be; it's a trait that corrupts every single fitness effort, even before you make any progress.
Think about a time someone made a statement that every part of your being disagreed with, be it about religion, politics, or sports. How did you react?
Well, you probably felt the immediate need to interject. It probably even elicited physical changes: you tensed up, your heart started beating faster, and you may have even clenched your fists.
Now, maybe you're solidly confident in the logic behind your choices, but more often than not, this reaction is a method of ego protection — you don't want to entertain even the possibility that you might be wrong. This is stubbornness: thoughtlessly adhering to your default beliefs without question. And reasonably so. It's embarrassing to admit that actions you endorsed — and may have even credited your success with — could be wrong. So you choose not to challenge them. In all likelihood, when your views are threatened, you shut down way before listening to the other person's point of view.
But what does stubbornness — not challenging your default state — have to do with fitness?
It Prevents You From Learning What Works For You
First of all, consider that much of what we know about fitness and health is incorrect. For example, some people make better progress when they eat breakfast. Others do better if they skip breakfast. But if you don't open the mind to the latter possibility, you might never find out it may be the thing that boosts your progress in a positive direction.
Instead, you stick to what you know and take the easy route of blaming "genetics" or "laziness." Sure, both play a role, but an overwhelming amount of people who blame those two factors actually fail because of stubbornness. They were so certain that their genes are at fault, or that they are too lazy, that they never considered that other, more significant factors could be at play. They thought of fitness as a talent they could never possess, rather than a skill they can develop, and created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It Makes You Dwell
Let's say you plan to go to the gym in the morning, because you love the feeling of starting your day right. You wake up an hour earlier than normal so that you can get in a quick training session before work. On the way to the gym, there is a severe traffic jam. After thirty minutes of being at a standstill, you realise you can't possibly go to the gym and make it to work in time.
You're frustrated, pissed off. You think to yourself that some jackass was probably driving recklessly trying to get to work in time, and you wallow in that anger.
If you're like most of us, this is your default state, and sticking to it yields a predictable set of actions. You feel like your healthy plans for the day are ruined, and your bad mood feeds taints and exacerbates anything else that goes wrong. Anger feeds into more anger, and before you know it, you've eaten a bunch of crap because there's always another Monday.
The act of dwelling is absolutely toxic to making fitness progress. You focus on mistakes — things you can't change — rather than looking at what you can change in the future. With this frame of mind, fitness is a fixed mindset.
The opposite of this toxic default is compassion. Perhaps the driver wasn't a jackass, but a new mother who was trying to comfort her baby for a brief moment and took her eyes off the road. Or perhaps you shouldn't mentally beat yourself and others up for missing your morning workout, because the events were outside of your control. Shit happens. Shrug it off and try to continue your day like nothing happened.
It Reduces Your Ability to Be Flexible
"Look at me," she said. "I take care of myself. I've put myself out there. Why is this so hard?"
"How about that guy at the end of the bar," I said. "He keeps looking at you."
"Not my type."
"Really? How do you know?"
"I just know."
"Have you tried a dating site?" I asked.
"Are you kidding? I would never date someone I met online!"
"Alright. How about a change of scene? Your company has offices all over — maybe try living in another city?"
"What? Leave San Francisco? Never!"
Claire doesn't really want a man. She wants the "right" man. She wants a soul-mate. Specifically, a soul-mate from her zip code. She assembled this guy in her mind years ago, and now, dammit, she's tired of waiting!! I didn't tell her this, because Claire has the capacity for sudden violence. But it's true. She complains about being alone, even though her rules have more or less guaranteed she'll stay that way. She has built a wall between herself and her goal. A wall made of conditions and expectations. Is it possible that you've built a similar wall?
I've had many interactions with people of this similar mindset who want to change. They have an image of the healthy lifestyle that they should be living: no alcohol, running every day, and other unrealistic things you'll see on any fitspiration blog. To them, anything outside of the default picture-perfect healthy lifestyle is a failure.
In this case, stubbornness reduces one's ability to be flexible. It may seem backwards, but flexibility is the key to adherence, and adherence is the number one factor when it comes to being successful on any sort of eating regimen. Sticking to your diet and making the right choices 80% of the time will be better for you in the long run than going gung ho for a few weeks.
Quit Being Stubborn About Your Health
So how do you stop being so stubborn? Well, remember that stubbornness is the knee-jerk reaction to protect your existing way of life and self-perception. The thing with changing habits is that somewhere, subconsciously, the fear is that anything that threatens this may lead to lower levels of comfort, pride and ego in the future.
You have to accept that you are, from time to time, stubborn, and be mindful of it. Catch yourself the next time you irrationally choose your default thought patterns. You'll feel a flurry of emotions that fuel your certainty of being correct. Remember this feeling, and be aware the next time it happens.
The next time you notice, ask yourself "why do I hold these beliefs and why do I care so much about them?" For example, many people recoil when I tell them that "breakfast is not the most important meal of the day." Yet, when drilling down into why they hold those beliefs, the answer usually boils down to "because I've heard it repeatedly," or "it's something I've always done." Is it really worth getting upset about if you are wrong? Probably not.
During one of the times that you are wrong, admit it. Realise that you should feel a sense of accomplishment, not shame; by challenging your default thoughts. It's a sign you've grown as a person, and are better than resigning yourself to the publicly-accepted edicts of activated almonds and gluten-free toast because it's what everybody else does. Instead, you'll find what works for you — what pushes you forward in a way that aligns with your habits and lifestyle the most.
This might seem incredibly hard at first, but like anything else, it takes practice. It gets easier. You'll start to reap the benefits of being less stubborn. Fitness will become less of an obstacle-course full of arbitrary restrictions imposed by the mysterious, all-knowing overlords from health and fitness magazines. Most importantly, you'll realise that fitness success doesn't stem from a perfect lifestyle where your actions are never wrong — but embracing what's wrong and using it to grow.