Reaching the “I Can Do This” Moment

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Like millions of other people out there, I decided to start trying to lose weight and get in better shape on January 1st. I cut out virutally all meat and was eating tons of fresh vegetables and whole grains. I went to the gym, ran outside, or played sports with friends nearly every day. I rarely ate out at restaurants, and when I did I ordered things like steamed vegetables and brown rice. I lost 15 lbs. within the first month.

Then I hit the wall. I was still exercising almost every day, but I started to dread the workouts. Even worse, I stopped losing weight. I started eating meat again, and adding some snacking back in. I could feel myself losing willpower. I was horrified to discover I had gained weight back.

I knew I had to make some changes. I allowed myself one “cheat day” per week so that I could eat out or drink a beer. I made an exercise routine for the whole week in to be more efficient and starting doing some workouts first thing in the morning before work. I try to only have one big meal a day and the rest much smaller. I acknowledge that I have my weaknesses (like snacking while watching ESPN, and getting hungry after watching Food Network) and avoid doing those activities. I started losing weight again, at a more regular pace of 1-2 pounds per week. More importantly, it didn’t feel like deprivation.

I’ve read that it takes 30 days to break a habit. Well, it took me 30 days to perhaps break my habit, but it took another 30 days to create a new habit that I feel that I can live with for the long run. The best part is the feeling of control that I have now. I know the things I need to do to lose weight. I know the things that I could do that will make me gain weight. It’s up to me. I call this the “I Can Do This” moment.

Applications to Saving Money

Like many other folks, I draw parallels between the actions of saving money and losing weight. In dealing with food, I often tell myself I have 1,500 calories a day to “spend” and so I should get the most value from my calories in terms of flavor, texture, and hunger satisfaction.

When I thought about this, I remember the same thing happened when I graduated college and started earning money on my own. Could I pay down my $20,000+ in student loans? How long would it take? Could I still afford the things I wanted? But the paychecks started coming in, and you started having to balance what was coming in and what was going out. Some things like electricity cost about the same each month, but then you learn to deal with things like car repairs and new computers. Eventually, I reached the “I Can Do This” moment where I felt a connection between my actions and the resulting surplus I had each month.

Here are some observations about reaching this point, which you may or may not agree with:

  • When starting a difficult task, it’s good to go all out for a while even if you run out of willpower eventually. I needed that first 15 lb. loss. The same could be said about going on a “no-spending month” and saving up $500 or $1,000. I had built up something that I didn’t want to lose.
  • It’s important to see a direct connection between your actions and the results. (At least initially.) This is why I no longer like articles with “52 ways to start investing with $100”. If you’ve managed to save $100 a month, it should go in the bank. If you invest it and one day your $1,000 balance turns to $500, then it affects your emotions and motivation. You’ve just lost 5 months of hard work. With a interest-bearing savings account, the amount will always be higher than yesterday. These days it’s not much, but it’s still higher.
  • Routine makes everything easier. Make less decisions. Don’t make every single thing another mental decision. “Should I work out today?” “What about tonight or tomorrow instead?” That’s exhausting. Go to your Yoga class every Tuesday and Thursday. Every. Week. Tell everyone you’ll be there and not at happy hour. Remove the decision. Along the same lines, having money taken out of your paycheck or bank account automatically just keeps your mind from decision fatigue.
  • Keep supportive friends. Changing your lifestyle often alienates you from some of your existing friends, and they may see it as a negative judgment upon themselves. They can sabotage your best intentions with their own selfishness, so be sure to find and keep people who support your decisions.

Do you remember your own “I Can Do This” moment?

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  1. This may be your best post ever. Perhaps I think so because health is my livelihood.

    Human nature being what it is we all look for quick fixes. Get rich quick schemes. Magic pills that make you lose weight without diet and exercise. It goes on and on.

    Then there is a segement of people who seem to believe that if we enact the right laws, we can all be healthy and prosperous with less effort. I share their desire to make life better for others, but there is simply no free lunch.

    I too give myself a free day a week, and stick to a strict diet six days a week. Regular exercise is a habit I have kept up for more than 10 years now. I find it easier than sticking to a diet.

    After being exposed to every diet philosophy known to man, I find this diet the most compelling ( I believe a hunter gatherer diet to be what humans have evolved to be best suited to for best health. Grains are a relatively new phenomenon. Again thanks for a great post.

  2. Good for you! I went through this process about 13 years ago and have stuck with it. I added lots of weight training about 10 years ago, that has been the biggest game changer. It makes everything better, chronic back pains dissappeared, you burn more calories when you’re at rest with more muscle and you can accomplish many more household carrying and lifting tasks with ease. So many benefits. I don’t call them cheat days, but reward days. I can have a pizza and drink beer on Friday, I earned it. I also fortunately, didn’t get sucked into the low-fat crap. We eat a modified Mediterranean diet, plenty of good fat, vegatables, whole grain, fish, pork, chicken, wine, occaisional cheese, beef and fatty meats in small quantities for flavor.

    I found in the beginning it was easier to implement the exercise first and then the permanent diet changes, almost too much to do it all together. I never spent much time restricting intake though. Eventually the weight came off anyway, then back on as muscle. Now it takes about 3000 calories just to keep my weight on. That didn’t happen until serious weight training though. Good luck, the majority of people can’t sustain it, but it is possible. Also, hate to tell you that I still dread workouts, but they don’t “hurt” anymore.

  3. I grew up not exercising much. I could never run a whole mile and told myself that I never would.

    A few years ago I decided to try to lose weight and get in better shape but just dieting wasn’t doing it for me. I tried the “Couch Potato to 5K” running plan, and eventually not only ran a mile but ran an entire 5K. I still run three times a week on average and try to walk on the off days to not damage my knees.

    When I finished the first 5K, it was a very big “I can do this” moment. A totally powerful and euphoric moment. I would say it changed my entire outlook on what I can achieve physically.

  4. Yes, but having a reward at the end of the goal is great. A good retirement life or a trip to celebrate a skinnier body.

  5. That was a great post and should motivate a lot of people (either to lose weight or save their money).

  6. Great parallele! I had to get ride of 20 000 thousand dollars of credit debt, I am now 4000 away from the end. I made it like “the first 30 days” for a year, then I have been less hard on myself the second year using consolidation loan with automatic payment this way i could easily see the road and the income I could count on every month. I am almost done and I learned a lot about managing my budget. I can’t wait to apply this same discipline for saving money!

  7. simplesimon says

    Thank you for this timely post. I just recently had to take about a couple months off from work because of an ankle injury and because of it I had stopped going to the gym. I noticed myself eating more but I did nothing to stop it and I’ve gained weight. It was just earlier this week (actually, it was the “Indoor Exercises” thread on the BH forums) that made me want to get back into working out. I’m currently trying to do the hundred pushups work out since it doesn’t involve running and risk reinjuring my ankle and hope to work on other things after I’ve healed up.

  8. Jonathan,

    After having read this blog for years, I can say if you are trying to lose weight, you would find this site fascinating:

    It’s called “The Hacker’s Diet”, but don’t let the name fool you. Read just the preface and you’ll see what I mean. It was written by one of the creators of Autocad who took his software engineering approach and applied it to losing weight. It’s an online html book and it is free.

  9. Newlyfrugal says

    I keep a digital scale and step on it everyday. If I go up one pound, I immediately adjust my food intake and exercise to lose that one extra pound that day or the next. For over 20 years, I have maintained my ideal weight.

    I do not exercise strenously. I walk on my treadmill for 30 min. every day or every other day. Sometimes I even miss two or three days in a row. I eat whatever I want in moderation. I don’t buy lot of snacks and junk food. If I don’t have it, I can’t eat it. I eat steaks once in a while and love lobster, crab legs, shrimp and fish. Some of these foods have high cholesterol, but is OK in moderation. I drink soda once or twice a month and eat gourmet cookies and ice cream occasionally.

    I have no special diets or special exercise regimen. But the digital scale has kept me at ideal weight since high school. Why wait until you are 5 lbs, 10 lbs, or 100 lbs overweight to adjust diet and exercise? Adjust these things when you are one lb over and you will be fine. OF course, this works only for people who are already at ideal weights. If you are 100 lbs or more overweight, you probably need special diets and strenuous exercise. Good luck to you!

  10. For avoiding meat (and weight gain) I would really recommend reading The China Study- a book written solely about the scientific evidence in favor of a plant-based diet and against animal protein. Bill Clinton has cited in when talking about why he’s gone all all vegan (apparently still eats some fish).

    It’s very eye-opening and has impeccable research and academic credentials- although I strongly agree with the environmental reasons and animal welfare arguments, the health reasons made it very easy for me to abstain from animal products.

  11. Congrats!

    I think Greeks had it right when they recommended to take everything in moderation. I think you’ll learn eventually that cutting something out completely is not a good thing long term … that being said, grats!

  12. I call this “Maharaja moment”. Maharaja are the kings in olden india who controlled destiny of everyone in their kingdom. Similarly, whenever I feel I accomplished something or got something in control, I call it that way. For example, I ran my first and only marathon in 2002 at Boston and finished in 3:41 mins. I couldn’t able to do anymore because of my foot problems but now I can manage my running habit whenever I want by training for short runs. I ran 5k and 10k last last year and run 2-3 miles every other day and stop running for a bit. I am in control and I can do it. Samething goes to exercise and maintaining weight. I do have scale in bathroom and note down my weight everyday in small note pad and now iphone app as well. I check the chart and to get an idea every week and manage accordingly. I am not any weight loss regiment but I control my eating habit accordingly by eating subway a week and keeping in track with my expected weight.

    I love what you said about money and healthy habit go hand in hand. I totally feel the same way. If you can control your body and maintain it properly, you will also in control of your money. Being with like minded people really makes a lot of difference and sharing your achievement and improvements, helps to grow.

    Good topic, I can talk all day….

    Congrats you found your Maharaja moment!!

  13. I like the “remove the decisions” part. There’s a related concept called “choiceless freedom”. If you look at people who have led great lives, they stopped being distracted by “little choices” to focus on the Big One — namely, by removing the kind of choices that distract mental energy. For example, Feynman always defaulted to chocolate pudding for dessert so he could be free to focus on physics.

    I feel like most of consumerist/materialistic society depends on the perpetual distraction of Little Choices.

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