Got Goals? Try a 20% Rule.
Can you feel it? That annual, post holiday itch to tackle some goals? Every January, it’s pretty much ubiquitous. In fact, the prodding usually starts with those Christmas week gym commercials, culminating with one major chain sponsoring an entire network’s New Year countdown! We get bit by that fitness bug. And that’s great—provided we’re not snookered into some unrealistic, overly ambitious (yes, there is such a thing) approach to improving health & fitness. Each year by February or March, crowds of folks are left feeling frustrated, physically wiped out, and miles away from their hopes of great health. How CAN we actually make progress?
Well, the strategy for doing so turns out to be way less dramatic than our TV and tablet screens suggest: Focus on INCREMENTAL PROGRESS. An increment is defined as “an increase or addition, especially one of a series on a fixed scale.” In other proverbial words, eat the elephant one bite at a time.
How big a bite? Consider a “20% rule.” For example, when you’re strength training, would you jump from a 20-pound chest press to a 50-pound effort and expect to succeed—or to stay injury free? (You big guys can ramp up the numbers accordingly in that example.) No, but if the weight machine allows you to add five pounds, making it 25, you might do less reps, but you COULD do them. (And yes, I realize that technically you’d be lifting 24 pounds if you’re advancing by 20 percent, but as you know, weight machines are less exact.) Within a month, this might even seem easy, and you could advance by that next increment.
This same premise can apply to any of your New Year goals. In fact, the theory of SMART goal setting, which is renowned for helping people succeed, includes “attainable” in its acronym. (In total, SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.) Using a strategy of incremental change increases the odds of your goals becoming achievable. And if 20 percent still seems too steep, opt for 5, 10, or 15 percent. Just be wary of pushing too far in the opposite direction beyond 20 percent.
How might this apply to a few of the more prevalent health & wellness goals out there? Let’s take a look.
“I’d like to lose weight.”
Yes, let’s just get this one out of the way. By far, weight loss stands as the most popular goal, at ANY time of the year. It also frustrates most of us more than any other. Most of the time, expectations that are too high drag us down into stagnation. We’re often told we can “lose weight fast,” but weight loss is a very complex and individualized process. If you have a lot of weight to drop, consider taking your desired loss and dropping it by 20 percent. Immediately, this makes the task seem more doable—because it is. Say, this coming year, you hope to lose 50 pounds. Drop it to 40. That’s less than a pound a week, well within the CDC's recommended max weight loss of 1-2 pounds a week. Even better, take the CDC's advice to simply lose 5 to 10 percent of your total body weight, which is “likely to produce health benefits, such as improvements in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugars.” In the end, what might happen? You might just exceed that goal by having put it within easier reach.
“I’d like to cut back on portions.”
This is an excellent weight loss strategy because it allows you to make a significant change without totally upending lifestyle. And again, a 20 percent rule works really well. You might just eyeball servings as you scoop them onto your plate, swiping just a fifth, a dollop, back into the pot. If you’re really ambitious and/or really bad at estimating, you could even use a food scale. Do you grab five cookies for dessert? Make it four. (See how I set myself up with easy math there??) But remember, this is an incremental, meaning step-by-step, strategy. So, either give yourself a time frame (the preferred route) or literally trust your gut to know when you can start cutting out another cookie.
“I’d like to walk 500 extra steps a day.”
Easy peasy, right? Do a hundred. You could walk them by simply adding a lap around the house between loads of laundry or strolling the corridors of your workplace at lunch. If you make this increase once or twice a week, you’ll reach your larger goal by Valentine’s Day or so! And don’t think this is small potatoes. So many folks live such a sedentary lifestyle that the Department of Health & Human Services has advised us in the "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans," that ANY activity benefits health. Consider those few extra steps that increase week by week to be an investment in future wellness!
“I’d like to get to bed an hour earlier.”
We all know what happens when we try to go to bed a full hour earlier—bugged eyes, tossing, and sheep counting. In fact, we’re actually fighting our bodies as if we’re trying to sleep one time zone over. Instead of one huge reversal, sleep experts suggest an incremental approach to adjusting sleep patterns. If you use a 20 percent scale, you’d simply start by snuggling into bed 12 minutes earlier than usual. Okay, let’s say 10-15. And you would back this up 10-15 more minutes every week or two until you reach that hour you were aiming for.
“I’d like more quiet time in life.”
Quiet is truly a missing element in present day society. Watching a football game on TV, my hubby recently observed, “There’s even noisy, background music in EVERY commercial!” We’re conditioned to expect constant visual and audio stimulation nowadays, but instinctively, we all know that some peace and quiet serves us well. In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic, adding just a bit of silence to your day benefits not only mental health (reflection, focus, reassessing life priorities) but physical health, too (lowering blood pressure, steadying breathing, relaxing muscle tension). If you’d like to meditate, journal, or walk in the woods for half an hour a day, try a simple six minute stint. We all know that once we jump in, we’ll double or triple that in no time. After all, silence truly is a balm to the soul.
This winter, create ACHIEVABLE goals by employing increments, maybe just a 20 percent bump to your desired outcome every week or month. You may just find yourself celebrating rather than fuming.