One of the most common questions I get asked is: I know what to do, so why am I still not in shape?
Folks asking me this question usually share unsolicited descriptions of workouts, meal plans and even photos of their underwear-clad bodies. (A little awkward, I know.) They’re hoping I’ll be able to take a look at them and identify some sort of missing ingredient: a supplement, a food or an exercise that’s missing from their program.
I understand their frustration. After all, these people are not complete beginners. Many times they’re knowledgeable about fitness; they might have an athletic background or even work in the fitness industry. But even with all their knowledge and experience, they’re still facing one or two uncomfortable things:
They’re not being as consistent with exercise and eating as they’d like and are having a hard time sticking to things.
They’re not getting the results they should based on how much they know about working out and healthy eating.
Any of this sound familiar? You might be in the same boat. If so, here’s what you need to know: The missing piece of this puzzle is not a lack of information. It’s not something you need to buy or acquire. (And it’s not even something to stress over.) It’s actually just a couple of simple tweaks built on this acknowledgement: No matter how experienced you are, no matter how much you know, you are human, just like the rest of us. And it’s hard for humans to be consistent.
No one feels motivated all of the time. Everyone has slipups. That’s why you can know exactly what to do and do it — maybe supremely well — for short bursts. But in the long run you still end up struggling. Simply put: If you can’t be consistent, you can’t make progress. And that’s why accountability, not the perfect exercise or eating program, is the thing that turns everything around.
Here are two accountability strategies that I’ve found important:
1. Improve your accountability to yourself.
Our natural tendency is to overpromise and underdeliver, especially to ourselves. But one of the easiest (and most counterintuitive) ways to stay consistent is to do the opposite. Underpromise and overdeliver. Consider every promise you’re about to make to yourself a rough first draft.
Here’s how this works: Before truly committing, ask yourself, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident am I that I could do this every day for the next 30 days?” If your gut reaction is anything other than 9 or 10, find a way to make that promise smaller or easier.
For example: Turn “I’ll stop eating all junk food” into: “I’ll eat one (more) home-made meal a day” or “I’ll eat one big salad a day.” Turn “I’ll go to the gym every morning at 6 a.m.” into “I’ll schedule two solid workouts per week in my calendar and go from there” or “I’ll do 40 air squats first thing in the morning.”
Those are just examples, of course. You’ll find the things that work for you. Here’s the trick: Keep reducing the commitment until it feels too easy for you. Until you can answer 9 or 10 without even thinking about it. Those are the things that you can actually do consistently.
Your daily accomplishments can be big, but keep your commitments relatively small. This way you turn predictable disappointment into daily pleasant surprise.
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Most people ask, “Will that actually work?” Will such small changes actually do anything? The answer is “yes,” when done in sequence. Once the first one is done, the second one is even easier, and so on. It’s amazing how powerful “making things easier” actually is. So start small, then build.
2. Be accountable to somebody else.
If you’re struggling to get in shape, the best thing you can do is enlist someone else to keep you accountable. A coach or personal trainer can be a great asset in this regard.
Even if you know the gym like the back of your hand — heck, even if you’re a personal trainer yourself — having someone train you can be incredibly effective, if for no other reason than that they make sure you show up.
Another option is to work out with a friend: You’ll be amazed how much more unlikely you are to skip a workout when you know your friend will be there waiting for you. Small group classes or boutique gyms with a tight community of people can have a similar effect: The trick is to have other people who are counting on you to be there consistently.
Working with others to create accountability can actually be fun. Try setting up a contest with friends. Who can go the longest without skipping an exercise day? Who can cook the most meals at home instead of eating out?
Notice that it’s not about achievement (who lost the most weight, etc.), it’s about doing. Focus on and reward yourself for what you do (going to the gym, cooking a meal), not what you achieve, at least at first. Because that’s what you have immediate control over.
The freedom of accountability
Accountability frees you up because it’s no longer all about you: what you’re missing, lacking, doing or not doing. It’s the simple reality of being human. Realizing this is both humbling and liberating.
Humbling, because we often kid ourselves into thinking we can do much more than we actually can. And that’s both normal and entirely OK. Liberating, because when we realize that the only way to make a big change is to make a series of small ones, “consistency” finally becomes possible. And consistency brings all the benefits you’re striving for.
Imagine: What can you accomplish with just one month of consistent workouts and healthy eating? What about one year? You can achieve incredible change. All you have to do is commit a little differently and make yourself accountable.
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John Berardi, Ph.D., is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world’s largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist and Equinox. In the past five years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped more than 30,000 people improve their eating, lose weight and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program. Learn more at the Precision Nutrition website and on Facebook and Twitter.