Goals: A case study

by Jack on February 2010

A personal anecdote: post college weight gain

Throughout college, my weight never rose above 150 pounds. Through a combination of stress, distance running, a fast metabolism and reasonably healthy eating, it was often lower than that, sometimes even dipping down to 140 during times I was training a lot.

Over the next few years after college, my weight gradually crept upwards. I could afford to eat at restaurants more often, and I did. My activity level declined. I stopped weighing myself. My drivers’ license continued to mark my weight as an optimistic and increasingly fictional 170, which I deemed to be a reasonably healthy post-college weight. Crossing the 200 pound line was a big, negative psychological milestone. I grew increasingly frustrated at my apparent inability to stop the numbers on the scale from creeping inexorably upward.

Late in 2007, I changed jobs to a company that provided a catered lunch four days a week, Peapod grocery deliveries, and a big kitchen with plenty of sugar and fresh cream to finish off the complimentary coffee. After several months of work, I had added about ten more pounds. I was pushing 220, despite an aggressive new exercise program. I calculated my body mass index (BMI) and got a serious shock. This former 150 pound distance runner – who had casually banged out a half marathon in 1:34 after three hours of sleep [1], who had easily completed training runs over twenty miles – registered a 30.3. Or, translated into words, “obese”.

The final straw came when I was visiting my family over the holidays at the end of 2007, and my dad made an offhanded comment about how I had ‘filled out’ since the last time the family had last seen me. True, I thought, I had gained about ten or fifteen pounds in the past few months, but what difference did that make at a weight of over 200 anyway? Still, the comment stung, and stayed with me.

My own apathetic resignation had never spurred me to action. However, I was pissed off enough at someone else noticing a change in me – and actually commenting on it – that I decided to take some aggressive steps. At the end of 2007, in a state of sadness and frustration, I scribbled a few notes in a notebook about letting go of this unwanted, excess fat, promptly shelved the notebook someplace, and decided to do something about pursuing my goal.

I was quite well-read in nutrition at a layman’s level, having been a vegetarian for a couple of separate blocks of 12-18 months, once in high school and once in college. So I knew quite well that permanently changing what I ate could have a strong influence on my weight. After a bit of online research, I acquired the book Eat to Live, by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and set about reading it. He promoted a very low fat vegan diet with a focus on leafy greens and other vegetables, beans and legumes, and a small amount of high-fat plant products such as nuts, seeds, coconut and avocado. I decided to give it a try.

I knew that I would have to end my weekend binges on baked goods at the bakery at the base of the hill near my apartment. Also off-limits were the multi-course dinners at the steakhouse, the local bistro, and the sushi bar. For three months, from January to March of 2008, I ate a relatively low fat vegan diet, and actually shed 30 pounds. I had done what I wanted to do – I was ecstatic!

A few months later, I slipped off the low-fat vegan diet, gained a few pounds, got back on track near the end of that year, and renewed my commitment to follow a vegan diet with less emphasis on the ‘low-fat’ aspect. Since the end of 2008, I haven’t eaten anything that emerged from an animal or used to be part of an animal.

A couple of months ago, I came across that very same notebook while cleaning out my living space along with the assistance of an organizing expert. I opened to the same page that I had written down years before. I had completely forgotten that I had written all this down. Upon reading the notes, I remembered that when I was at my peak weight of 217 pounds, I believed that losing 30 pounds would be amazing. I had written down that exact number, and reached it in three months. I had also written down what seemed to me to be an impossible, ‘stretch goal’, a fantasy weight of 175 pounds. I also remember that at the time, I honestly didn’t think I would actually get there – I just figured that writing it down would be motivating as a distant target. (“Oh well, I’ll probably get myself below 200 again – that’ll be better than nothing…”)

At the time of reopening the notebook, my weight was around 171 pounds and completely stable – not only had I lost 30 pounds, but I had crushed my stretch goal without even knowing it. I hadn’t even opened the notebook for a couple of years! I was overwhelmed, and tears came to my eyes as I realized the power of this process.

So what?

Some of the lessons that I learned from this experience were the following:

Write your goals down. Brian Tracy reported a famous survey of a Harvard Business School graduating class, which revealed that only 3% of the class had clear, written goals for their future careers. A decade later, that 3% was earning ten times the average income of the class. Maybe increasing your income isn’t your main priority, but the point is that the 3% were ten times as effective as their less focused classmates. What could you do with ten times the effectiveness in pursuing your personal and professional goals?

Write your goals down. Really. Do it. It will help you gain clarity about your life in ways that you can hardly imagine before you experience the power of this process in reaching a goal that really matters to you.

Take action. Get started first. Don’t worry about specifying every last detail of how you’re going to get where you’re going. Suppose you want to drive from New York to Los Angeles but you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. Starting to head west is a good idea – at that point, you’re on the road, making progress and can course correct as needed.

Recognize what you will gain. For an important goal, this will probably be obvious to you, but not necessarily. It can be helpful to visualize exactly how your life will be different when you have reached the goal. What personal qualities will you have that you don’t have now? What habits would you have developed in order to reach the goal? What habits would you have let go?

Recognize what you will lose. Everything comes at a price. In many cases – especially for goals close to our hearts – this price is one we gladly pay, but it is important to recognize the reality of the tradeoffs that we make in order to reach our goals.

Having learned a great deal by following this simple process for my goal to reduce my weight and body fat, I wrote up a slightly more structured, but still simple goal worksheet to organize and track my future goals. I’ll outline how to use this worksheet in an upcoming post – I’ve used it to install goals such as a regular yoga practice, a habit of meditation twice daily, and a weekly workout schedule.

[1] Don’t try this.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Thea February 9, 2010 at 13:40

Please tell me that list of food on the notebook page says, “tofu!?” If so: hilarious. Did you hate it at the time? I used to, but now I almost think of it as junk food because I’ve seen it prepared in so many delicious, high-salt/high fat ways.

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Jack February 9, 2010 at 15:24

Yeah, I was looking for a non-dairy protein ingredient to put into smoothies that wasn’t overly sweetened like soy milk. This was before I started using raw nuts as the main protein / fat source in my green smoothies. Nowadays the only time I eat tofu is when I go out to an Asian restaurant, or make tofu chocolate mousse – a real health food, for sure :).

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