Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Jan

5 Ways to Achieve Your Health Goals in 2016

Run in 2016Making positive changes is simple. You know exactly what to do—and what you should do. You’ve got a list of changes you’d like to make. It’s all there on paper in plain language. You know how to eat better—eat healthy animals, tons of plants, cut unnecessary carbohydrates, ditch grains and seed oils, eat enough fat and protein for hormonal health and satiety. You know how to train effectively—sprint once in awhile, lift heavy things, stay physically active throughout the day, don’t sit so much. You want to “eat less fast food,” so you stop going through the drive-thru. You want to sleep more, so you sleep more. Right?

Except it doesn’t work like that.

Real change is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes planning. It means facing fears and overcoming stress. To really succeed, you have to know what you’re changing and have the willpower to see it through.

Here are five tips for ensuring your success—in anything—this year. I tried to make them as general as possible, so they should apply to most changes you folks are trying to make. In a way, you can seem them as the necessary conditions to check off your list before tackling whatever goals you have your sights set on. So let’s go.

1. Get specific.

Setting general goals doesn’t amount to much. It’s easy to say “get more sleep” because it’s open-ended. There’s no line in the sand. And hey, technically going to bed at 12:15 rather than 12:30 does give you more sleep. It’s slightly better. But is it good? Is it enough to make you bound out of bed, excited to take on the day? Probably not.

Most people fail to make real changes because they don’t define their terms with any degree of specificity. What is success? What is failure? When you don’t have hard numbers or specific definitions, you’re more likely to fail. The words we use indicate how we think. If we can’t articulate the specific parameters of our desired change, we don’t actually know what we’re seeking (and we’ll never reach it). So no meandering around your goals in a vague, haphazard way. You should be able to describe what you want to achieve in short, concrete terms, specific terms.

If you haven’t gotten specific, do so now. Take a look at your goals and make the necessary adjustments.

2. Edit your memories.

Fear memories—bad memories about unpleasant situations—hold us back. They teach us to avoid truly dangerous situations, but they can also keep us from facing and defeating uncomfortable ones. Since we’re often seeking change to overcome unpleasant, damaging habits, the ability to face discomfort is necessary. If we can only remember our bad experiences in the gym, we’ll never want to exercise. For decades, Tony Robbins has been helping clients get over negative experiences through “memory scrambling.” To scramble a bad memory, he has you recall and edit the past experience like you’re a film director in the cutting room.

First, you watch it uncut. Just let it play to the end.

Run it back again, only as a ridiculous cartoon. Say it’s a bad public speaking experience. You’ve got big floppy clown feet. Everyone else does, too. The audience is full of Looney Tunes characters throwing around a beach ball. Marvin the Martian is keeping time. Gandalf’s fireworks from Fellowship of the Rings are exploding around you.

Do this twelve more times, changing things as you go. Run the memory backward, then forward. Chop up the chronology Tarantino-style. Add music.

Now go through the memory again and note how you feel. Better?

By the time you’re done, the “real” memory is scrambled and the fear associated with the experience should be mitigated or eliminated. This may sound silly or “New Agey,” but emerging neuroscience is confirming that fear memories can be edited like this.

3. Optimize willpower.

Willpower is the currency of change. You need a lot to make it happen. You’re fighting the tide; you’re reversing course and going the other way. Opposing inertia takes a lot of willpower. Optimizing and maximizing willpower could take an entire post, but I’ll give you the juicy bits.

Avoid decision fatigue. Willpower is willpower. The willpower we summon to eat eggs and bacon instead of a blueberry muffin is the willpower we need to make it to the gym after work. And it’s finite, so don’t expend it by agonizing over pointless decisions, which deplete willpower.

Precommit. Precommitment beats willpower every time. Even better, precommitment circumvents willpower. There’s no need to muster up the willpower to decide to do something when you decided long ago (and prepared the logistics). This reserves the willpower for the actual doing. It’s like going low-carb during training and carbing up before a big race: you’ll be so good at burning fat that you have plenty of glycogen left over for the big push at the end.

Do things earlier in the day. Willpower is highest in the morning and lowest at night. Enacting the hard changes (working out, walking, cooking) closer to peak willpower makes them more successful and likely to stick.

Recognize that willpower is about self-control. Willpower isn’t something “you do.” It’s about what you don’t do. Willpower determines your capacity to resist temptation.

4. De-stress and prioritize sleep.

For many of you, the express goal of 2016 is to “reduce stress” (or maybe “rethink stress“). For slightly fewer, it’s “sleep more.” That’s awesome, and this section will certainly help both groups. But getting a handle on stress and sleep matters to anyone making a positive change in their life. The negative effects of stress and poor sleep are that pernicious and far-reaching.

Like willpower, stress is fungible. Stress is stress is stress. Stress and inadequate sleep both impair our ability to perform (and recover) in the gym, lose body fat, making good decisions, and achieve pretty much every positive change people set out to do.

I’m not here to recommend a certain number of hours in bed. You know what you need, and you know if you’re not getting it. Most people aren’t. I’m simply recommending that you prioritize sleep because it will impact your ability to achieve your goals—whatever they are. That means tearing yourself away from your Twitter feed at 11 PM. That means reading a book or meditating before bed, rather than playing Candy Crush.

Nor am I suggesting you go hang out at the ashram or live in a yurt, strap biofeedback sensors to your temples 24/7, or otherwise target stress as your ultimate goal. But don’t assume you’ve got chronic stress under control, or that relaxing won’t help you lose more weight or work out more regularly or make better food choices.

When you’re dealing with stress and sleeping well, everything gets easier. Trust me on this.

5. Shoot for the moon.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, likes to ask people “How can you achieve your 10-year plan in the next 6 months?” He thinks most people simply aren’t thinking big enough. I agree. You (yes, you) are capable of way more than you probably think. Think and do big.

I’m not downplaying the small steps. On the contrary, their importance is implicit in the recommendation. The thing about reaching the moon is it took decades of hard work in the trenches to create space-faring technology, after all. Just because a person aims high doesn’t mean they ignore the details and skip the small steps. They can’t. The small steps are everything, but only if they take you closer to the goal.

And even if you don’t quite reach the goal, taking the steps toward it will improve your situation. So you didn’t lose the 50 pounds you wanted. You lost 45, which is 5 pounds more than the 40 you originally aimed for. That’s a win!

Now let’s hear from you:

Do these tips resonate? Think back on past changes you’ve attempted—would following these suggestions have improved your outcomes? How are you implementing them this year?

Thanks for reading, everyone, and Grok on!

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. The moon shot back. What do I do?

    Groktimus Primal wrote on January 12th, 2016
  2. awesome post thanks

    josh wrote on January 12th, 2016
  3. I like the “Edit your memories” concept. I remember hearing about that with people who suffered from PTSD. I’m gonna give that a try. Thanks, Mark!

    Trent wrote on January 12th, 2016
    • It’s the first time I heard about that, and it sounds cool! Now I only have to pinpoint any specific memories that feed my fear, because I’m afraid my entire child- and teenhood are a sort of soup of bad experiences and it’s difficult to come up with just one occurence.

      trillie wrote on January 13th, 2016
      • Never heard of it either, but it makes me wonder if it might diminish learning opportunities from past experiences. I guess that can be accomplished while ridding irrational fears regarding the encounter.

        Zach Rusk wrote on January 21st, 2016
  4. It’s really helpful to see these broad strokes, Mark, and I agree with the need for specificity. But . . . it’s also somewhat frustrating. I’m someone for whom Paleo has not been “the magic answer.” Despite sticking just about perfectly for two years to Paleo eating, I still have significant gut and energy problems. Which is maddening and very discouraging sometimes!

    Too much stress and too little sleep remain significant issues for me, and the “fix” is not evident. I do a ton of things right, but I just can’t seem to hack these two things. So the most useful line in your post, for me, is this one:

    “Even if you don’t quite reach the goal, taking the steps toward it will improve your situation.”

    I get into trouble when I lose sight of what HAS improved. I forget to notice ways that my gut and energy ARE better. Comparing myself to perfection doesn’t ever work. Thanks for the reminder.

    Sylvie wrote on January 12th, 2016
    • Have you gone to see a sleep specialist? Trying to lose weight is difficult if you’re not getting proper sleep. You also don’t have to freak out that a sleep doctor is going to immediately put you on sleeping pills and send you on your way, which was one of my major concerns. A good sleep doctor is going to want to help you find the cause of your poor sleep and treat that. If you’re not ready to commit to seeing a somnologist, mine recommended that I read No More Sleepless Nights between my first appointment and my second. It’s out of date in some respects, but there’s still a ton of useful information in it, along with all of the suggestions I was given to try to treat my insomnia so we could determine if I needed a sleep study to test for sleep apnea, etc. It might be a good starting point if seeing a sleep specialist isn’t in the budget for you right now. While my sleeping problems aren’t cured, I’m sleeping considerably better already (less than 6 weeks on my prescribed program) and I haven’t been even close to 100% compliant. I’m sure if I could have managed to comply better with the instructions, I’d be doing even better. You will be amazed how much better you’ll feel if you get a handle on the sleep issue.

      Shauna wrote on January 12th, 2016
  5. Love this post!

    perennialpam wrote on January 12th, 2016
  6. For me, treating willpower as actual currency is the key to everything else. I already started managing it that way by automating simple decisions like, what clothes am I going to wear in the morning, what am I having for lunch, etc to free up that energy for the important stuff (mainly, being creative and regular in my workouts and primal cooking). But it’s still cool to see it explained in actual words.

    The other big point is stress and sleep management. It’s at the top of the list. Once again, automating basic decision-making helps a lot with stress. Putting simple tasks on paper or in some kind of inbox/organizer to get it out of your head helps a lot wit the stress part. And a regular “going to bed” ritual helps with the other part. Going to bed needs to be fun. Pyjamas, herbal tea and a good book are great incentives to go to bed early and stay there, especially after a light workout and a long hot shower :)

    Dan L wrote on January 12th, 2016
  7. Wow, really love this post! I completely agree with doing things early in the morning. I don’t know if it’s a willpower thing or not, I just know if I start my day off right (prayer/meditation, affirmations, quick workout, positive reading and gratitude journal), a lot of the other stuff falls into place.
    I love the idea of memory scrambling. It’s completely new to me, but might help me push past some things that are holding me back. And love the idea of shooting for the moon! I’m thinking big in 2016!

    Elizabeth wrote on January 12th, 2016
  8. I think one of the key things you can do, if you’re using the SMART acronym (specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time- bound) to create those goals, is to do the following:

    1. Write down the goals, and how they will fulfill the SMART criteria. Be detailed and specific.
    2. Plan out the steps you will take to achieve those goals. Put them into a schedule or however you best plan them.
    3. Set up benchmarks that will indicate your progress for each goal.
    4. Make the goal to follow the plan you’ve set up for each goal.

    It sounds like a lot of work, but isn’t achieving your goals worth it?

    Jamie Fellrath wrote on January 12th, 2016
  9. Mind over matter doesn’t always work, in which case I’d suggest #6: Don’t set unrealistic, all-or-nothing goals for yourself. Failure to recognize your own limitations can create a boatload of stress. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try, but if baby steps are necessary, then proceed with baby steps. Congratulate yourself for every small accomplishment instead of being self-critical because you didn’t achieve the whole enchilada on the first effort. Then take a break, think about what you could have done better, and try again, building on what you did achieve.

    I'Shary wrote on January 12th, 2016
  10. How do you handle the things currently impossible – like sunlight in England at the present time. We have had almost consistent cloud since the the middle of October – and it is is getting everybody down – and tired! I personally take lots of D3 but even that isn’t really enough. Any other ideas anybody?

    Jenny wrote on January 12th, 2016
    • Have you tried a full spectrum light? A friend starts sitting under his lamp around the middle of September to prepare for the dark days of winter.

      PawPrint wrote on January 12th, 2016
    • You could try a light box that’s designed for people with SAD. Not all light boxes are created for this, so you’ll need to find one that’s specific. I was able to pick up one with a dawn simulator (added feature) on Amazon for less than $80, so they’re reasonably affordable, well… for health care equipment, that is.

      Shauna wrote on January 12th, 2016
  11. “Willpower is the currency of change.” Love it.

    Austin wrote on January 12th, 2016
  12. I really needed this today. I would only add that it seems to do me more harm than good to set too many goals that involve changing habits. It’s true that willpower is a muscle and you can only work it so much each day before it wears out. Any time I’ve tried to change five habits at once (ie; Starting this week, i will declutter the house! Be more patient with the kids! Get up earlier! Go to the gym! Get strict with my eating!…) I end up failing at all of them. I have to exercise patience and strive to work on one goal at a time and be okay with the rest until I’ve mastered the change.

    This being said, my current goal is regular exercise. And I HATE it!! Sweat, showers, ugh. If anyone here has advice (especially anyone who was once an exercise hater and now has a longstanding daily habit of it) for how to somehow look forward to the gym, I’d love it!! (I’ll have to try scrambling my memories of hauling kids there or failed attempts to work out at home…)

    MrsP wrote on January 12th, 2016
    • I stopped forcing myself into formal exercise routines years ago because I found it to be such a drudge. Instead I just move my body a lot. I do housework, cook, climb several flights of stairs in my house numerous times every day, walk, garden, occasionally shovel snow–all those things many of us do daily without a second thought ARE exercise. Incorporate a bit of heavy lifting whenever possible (such as cooking with cast iron, which weighs a ton), and you’ve got yourself an adequate exercise program without a gym. You could also add some fun things, such as hiking, cross-country skiing, bicycling, bowling, etc. The trick is to find something you like doing.

      Shary wrote on January 12th, 2016
      • Agreed! I think it’s crucial to experiment and take the time to find something you love doing. I discovered zumba and just love it – I would do it even if it was super bad for me :) because it’s so fun. Another idea is to think back to what you liked to do as a kid, i.e. frisbee, horseshoes, etc. and do that! Or turn some music on and dance alone in your house, or even just shake your body and be silly and dorky because it’s fun.

        starmice wrote on January 13th, 2016
  13. Sleep remains my problem. I can only sleep in short blocks of time. Most nights I’m awake every 2 hours or so. 4 hours is good, 5 hours feels like a gift, and 6 hours in bits and pieces is about all I can get. Cat napping. Serves me well in overnight flights to Europe but at home I’d kill for a solid 7-8 hours.

    Ellen wrote on January 12th, 2016
    • The Daily Lipid has just posted an article about lack of vitamin A and poor sleep. Try reading that post to see if it gives you any cues.

      Jenny wrote on January 14th, 2016
  14. Great post! You had me at get specific. I’m thinking pick one primal principle that is most difficult and focus on just that. For example. Avoid poisonous things.
    1. Get specific: Cut back on Alcohol. Make a rule and stick to it like only red wine and never more than two glasses at a time.
    2. Edit memories: It seems everyone I know who has a memory of a regretful act. Nine times out of ten it was influenced by alcohol.
    3. Optimize willpower: I know myself and can avoid the brownies cooling on the stove top. However, brownies go great with a glass of pint noir. As much as one glass and I’m toast. Better to skip the glass alltogether.
    4. DE Stress: Alcohol is a depressant. For every happy hour there is an unhappy hour. Alcohol does not relive stress, it delays it temporarily and stores it up. Find a nontoxic outlet. If I have more than two drinks, my sleep suffers. It’s a direct correlation. Dean Martin said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning that’s the best they are going to feel all day.”
    5. Shoot for the moon: You are never going to get to the moon unless you are sober. Anyone who has ever overindulged may have had trouble shooting for getting out of bed. How can you shoot for the moon if you can barely get out of bed?

    In summary, pick one perpetual vice and set up a realistic plan to regulate it and the easier tasks will fall into place.

    Jack Lea Mason wrote on January 13th, 2016
    • Shower Thought: Someday a “Jeff Bezos” person will allow me to fly to the moon drunk.

      Paleo Bon Rurgundy wrote on January 13th, 2016
  15. A hypnotherapist treated me when I was in my twenties for a bad experience I had watching a horror film as a child (unsupervised at a friend’s house).

    She used the exact technique you mentioned (not the bit about the clown though, there was one in the film!).

    I had 3 sessions and have never had a problem since.

    Alice Sowerby wrote on January 13th, 2016
  16. I suggest being cautious about buying into the notion that “willpower” is a limited resource that can be easily depleted (known at the ‘strength model’ or ‘ego-depletion model’ of self-control). The research purporting to demonstrate that effect is increasingly being questioned, with the effect often being dependent on whether people believe that willpower is limited (e.g., http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/108/4/637/). A better model is probably William James’ old notion that we usually have plenty of “energy” available but fail to access it. It’s as though our brains have a default tendency to conserve energy whenever possible, and the trick is to find ways (such as precommitment) to get around these inhibitory tendencies. That’s why just getting started on a task, or setting a mini-goal, can be surprisingly effective in overcoming a tendency to procrastinate; the inhibitory tendencies are often much greater for starting a task than for carrying on with it.

    Russ wrote on January 14th, 2016
  17. The famous “marshmallow” experiment (which is adorable, look it up if you haven’t heard of it) tests willpower in kids then track how the do later in life. What they didn’t publish as heavily though, is that the most effective method of the kids resisting the marshmallow was re-framing. The kids pictured the marshmallow as just a picture, a cloud, or a cotton ball, relying on imagination rather than willpower, and were much more successful.
    We can use this tool of reframing as well. However is most effective for you.
    To me, it often means reframing a cake as a poison to my body rather than a special treat. That makes it much easier to turn down.

    Becky wrote on January 14th, 2016
  18. Just good advice all the way around. Make goals SMART!!!

    Adelaide Hypnosis wrote on January 17th, 2016
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