Don’t Fail, Learn! The Right Way to Talk About Your Healthy Habits

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Don’t Fail, Learn! The Right Way to Talk About Your Healthy Habits

I bring up language a lot to my clients because the way that we talk and think about things greatly impacts the likelihood that we will—or will not—do them. The words we choose can act like a barrier to entry. I’d much rather “take my dogs for a walk” than “go outside and stand around while my dogs decide where to poop, then pick it up in a small plastic bag and carry it around with me.”

The same is true for how we talk about training. The words we use establish expectations about the experience we are about to have. One of my jobs as a coach is to subvert client expectations that are not useful to meeting their goals. So “deadlifts” becomes “picking up heavy things.” We don’t “work out,” we “play with kettlebells.” My clients don’t “go on diets,” they “change their eating habits.” They don’t “lift,” they “practice.” And most importantly, they don’t “screw up,” “suck,” “or “fail”; they “learn.”

The Jerk in Your Head

One of the most important lessons from the science of Exercise Psychology is the connection between thoughts and emotions, and emotions and behavior. Cousins and Gillis (2005) showed that how people talk to themselves about exercise not only impacted their exercise adherence, but interventions that positively changed the language that people use to talk about exercise actually improved their adherence to an exercise plan.

If you had a coworker who came over to your work buddy’s desk every time your friend forgot to run spell-check on an email and loudly called him a screw up, you’d probably think the guy was a jerk and your buddy would probably start looking for another job that didn’t involve as much emailing. And how long would it be before you confronted the jerk, reported him to HR, or spit in his coffee? Now how do you think berating yourself for not making it to the gym 6 times a week is going to impact your progress?

The Two Questions

One of the ways that I seek to improve my clients’ attitudes about food choices and exercise is by making it a habit. I ask my clients to ask themselves two questions every day:

  1. What did I do well today?
  2. What did I learn today?

By actively reflecting on your progress towards your health and fitness goals, you can stay focused, stay motivated, and keep moving forward when you might have otherwise been frustrated or gotten thwarted by a tiny slip up like a birthday party or not making it to the gym on a Saturday.

Change is hard because people want the familiar. Familiar words, familiar habits, familiar experiences. But 100% of people who want to change their bodies need to  change something about their habits. Familiar words means familiar habits which means familiar outcomes.

So if you experiment with asking yourself The Two Questions and think, “Oh, that’s not what I’m used to?” just ask yourself what I ask my own clients: “And how’s what you’ve been doing been workin’ out for ya?”

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  • gnatss

    I enjoyed the message on Jerk in my head. It was a good outlook after Halloween with all the extra chocolate treats around. I also like how fitness pal records sugars, it is an eyeopener how high fruit is.

  • Coach Stevo

    Two of the biggest limitations I see with my clients is awareness and forgiveness. Awareness of actions they take and forgiving themselves a little slip up every now and then. They see all the great data from a food journal or MyFitnessPal and think, “Look how much I screwed up!” instead of seeing how well they are doing and all the easy opportunities they have to make progress. It sounds like you’ve got some great awareness now, @66ee28a102d4ac68bfdae9472454cb43:disqus! What are you going to learn from it and how are you going to put it into action?!

  • lynnrnasaurous

    I’ve been really good at being a jerk to my self and pointing out everywhere I messed up for the day, week, whatever when it comes to food and exercise. My husband will even ask me if I’m done beating myself up about something. I’m working on looking at the day and saying “well, messed up here, I can’t go back and undo it. Tomorrow is a new day to do it better.” It’s a work in progress, but I’m making progress.

    • Frazier

      It just take time to become consistent. Everyone is going slip but like you said you just have to learn from your mistakes and keep it moving. Hang in there.

  • Carmen M

    Thx for this super helpful article, Steve! I love your suggestion to use the 2 questions to refrain the way we think about our daily health accomplishments. Better to focus on the glass being half full than half empty! I’ve added them to my daily fitness journal as a tool to keep me positive. Many thx and love your articles!