A Zen monk approached his new teacher.
“I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”
The Zen Master asked, “Have you eaten?”
The monk replied, “I have eaten.”
“Then you had better wash your bowl.”
At that moment the monk was enlightened.
As a nutrition coach and strength coach, the most common question I field from my clients is, “What’s next?” What’s the next exercise I should try, what’s the next change to my diet I should try, what’s the next step I should take on my journey to health and fitness?
My operating strategy as a coach (finishing a graduate degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology) is to help people find an answer to “what’s next?” by helping them figure out where they are and where they want to be—what renowned coach Dan John calls “Point A” and “Point B” in his book, Intervention. MyFitnessPal has helped more than 40 million users keep track of their daily food and activity levels, giving users invaluable data about their own Point A. So how do you use that information to find out what’s next on the journey to your own Point B?
In the story above, the Zen master enlightens the student by getting him to focus on the obvious next step instead of all the things he must learn to be a Master. While I can’t claim to have helped anyone attain enlightenment, one of the key changes that I encourage my clients to make is a mental shift from thinking about abstracts like “health,” “fitness,” or “looking good naked,” and focusing their attention on daily action. In essence, to focus less on big goals and focus more on small habits.
According to Dr. Phillipa Lally, “habits are automatic behavioral responses to environmental cues, thought to develop through repetition of behavior in consistent contexts.” That means despite our struggles initially, habits become more automatic over time and more likely to stick given deliberate practice. Think back to when you first started using MyFitnessPal. Did you miss recording a few meals and workouts? How about after a few weeks? When did logging your food and exercise go from a “task” to a “habit?” When did you stop seeing it as an obstacle and realized it was helping you get to where you wanted to go?
The Obstacles are the Path
There is another Zen Proverb: “The obstacles are the path.” No matter who you are or what your goals, there is a next step. There is a bowl to wash. And you can use the great information you’ve accumulated in MyFitnessPal to discover what that step is.
If your goal is fat loss, are there extra calories in your diet that you can sneak out? Sugary drinks? Alcohol? That bowl of M&Ms that Edna insists on bringing to the office even though everyone secretly moans when she refills it? Look where you are at, then look at where you want to be, and focus all your energy on the next obstacle instead of all of them at once.
Aim Low, But Often
The problem that I see most people make on their next step is that they try to make it a doozy. Instead of washing their bowl, they get it into their head that they need to wash all the bowls in the temple. They say, “journaling went well, so now I’ll eliminate sodas. And cake. Also, all sugar, dairy, fat, carbs, and any plants that bloom under the cover of darkness.” Low and behold, seven days later they are at lunch, washing down a rum cake with Dr. Pepper.
Remember that willpower is limited (Baumeister, et. al, 1998), motivation is fickle (Deci & Ryan, 2002), and you’re only human. So use these simple tools to make sure the next step is right for you:
- Start ridiculously small. Have the courage to pick a habit you are 90%-100% certain you can do every day for 2-4 weeks. If you’re less than 90% confident, make the habit smaller. No habit is too small if it keeps you moving forward.
- Do it every day. Piggyback on habits you already do easily. The monk washes the bowl after he uses it, not “at some point” or “later.”
- Be accountable every day. Keep track of your habit every day in MyFitnessPal and share it with your friends, if you’re comfortable doing so.
- Reflect on it every day. Take the time to reflect on your progress every day for 2-4 weeks. What did you do well today and what did you learn today that helped make the habit require less effort?
Remember, you’ve done the hard work of eating. Now just go wash your bowl.