Recently I was having a conversation about exercise with a friend who is trying to lose weight. He had just hired a super hardcore trainer who wanted him to workout 2 hours a day, four days a week, for the next several months. This was paired with a strict diet of chicken breasts, broccoli and brown rice.
“Are you sure that’s realistic?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
I’m pretty fit, but such a training schedule would be difficult for me if for no other reason than it is a huge time commitment and I would have to sacrifice other things I care about in my life to make it work. My friend has been sedentary for most of his adult life, and is constantly complaining about being too tired and too busy to take care of himself. There was no way this would last.
My friend went on to explain that he knew it would be challenging, but it was something he needed to do. His doctor recently told him that he had to lose 40 lbs to clear up his sleep apnea and control his cholesterol and blood pressure. And drastic situations call for drastic measures.
I could see my friend’s logic on the surface, and he took an impressive step by deciding to take more control of his health. But I could also see that he had fallen into what I call the Not Enough Fallacy.
The Not Enough Fallacy is when you believe that small steps “don’t count” toward a larger goal, because they feel futile or insignificant. When you believe that small actions aren’t substantial enough to result in real change, you’re required to commit to something much more demanding in order for it to “count” toward your goal.
Some examples of the Not Enough Fallacy include:
- Going on a restrictive diet instead of gently reducing portion sizes
- Signing up for a half marathon instead of being more active by taking walks after dinner
- Doing a juice cleanse instead of simply eating more vegetables and limiting processed foods
Of course much more demanding goals also mean a much higher failure rate. For one thing, harder activities are less fun and you’re more likely to view them as a punishment, rather than a reward. This mentality almost never leads to long-term habit formation.
Another problem with setting more difficult goals is that they take more time and energy, which means they will likely be taking essential resources from other things in your life that you care about like family, work or leisure.
If you were already struggling to commit to your health goal, pitting it against time with your family is not an effective way to make it more appealing.
A third problem with difficult goals is that once you do realize it isn’t realistic for you, you are more likely to give up completely and decide that getting healthy is impossibly difficult, or only possible for people stronger and more determined than you.
Psychologically this spurs behaviors like the what-the-hell-effect and binge eating, taking you back to square one or worse. Setbacks like this can become debilitating, crushing your confidence and self-worth.
Odds are that if you’re setting overly ambitious health goals, a large part of your motivation is that you don’t have confidence that you’ll succeed unless there’s some strong external force pushing you forward. Ironically, in this situation it is even more important that you choose achievable goals.
To build confidence you need to start by building momentum. You can always ramp up when you have some wins under your belt and are feeling capable of taking on more. When you’re just getting started you’re better off focusing on your first step, not the finish line.
Don’t compare yourself to others when trying to change behaviors. Instead take a look at your own habits and choose achievable and enjoyable upgrades that don’t feel too overwhelming.
It’s true that results don’t appear as quickly when your changes are slower and more moderate, but unlike the one-two punch of huge efforts and epic failures, small changes don’t backfire and leave you worse off than when you started. And if you stick with them they do eventually result in dramatic change.
With your health you want to be the tortoise, not the hare.
Have you ever fallen prey to the Not Enough Fallacy?