I teach at a small college, and so I occasionally get review copies of textbooks the publisher is hoping I will decide to have all of my students buy. Generally, I give them a perfunctory once-over and then set them on my shelf. I don't like to make my students buy brand-new books if the one I'm already using is still working for us. This week, though, I got a copy of a book for a class I taught once but don't normally teach. When I flipped through the pages, I saw a chapter on "Resonance, Leadership, and the Purpose of Life" (Clawson, 2008). I was intrigued. I had plans to go out to lunch by myself that day, so I took the book with me.
The chapter (a version of which is available at the Social Science Research Network site) described a theory of performance by Dr. Doug Newberg, a sports psychology professor who works with high-performing athletes. He found that the world-class performers he worked with consistently thought not just in terms of external goals ("win a gold medal in the Olympics"), but on an "experiential dream," a way that they felt ("easy speed") when they were at the top of their game, "performing at their best and enjoying it most" (pp. 2-3).
This didn't mean that they just focused on how success would feel and let the Universe make it happen for them (as in "The Secret"). They worked very hard. This focus on the way they wanted to feel helped them to maintain the energy they needed to keep working hard even when they encountered setbacks. They also carefully managed their energy levels by doing things that energized rather than drained them. In one example, a surgeon realized that when he took a slightly longer but more scenic and light-filled walk to work instead of taking a shortcut through a dark hallway, he arrived at work with more energy. This energy management allowed high performers to keep doing the intense work that was required for them to be world-class performers.
What's the alternative? When most of us encounter a setback, we try to work through it by pushing ourselves harder, getting caught up in a draining "duty cycle" of "work harder, setback, work harder, setback." This drains our energy and motivation, and often we end up giving up (p. 13). Or we can even achieve the external goal but find that it doesn't make us feel the way we had hoped. The way back to achievement is to "revisit the dream" and to figure out what kind of preparation will bring back the feeling that we are seeking.
What does this all have to do with weight loss? I hope the professors will forgive me for borrowing their theory for this purpose, but I felt like understanding this motivation cycle was a huge breakthrough. Where was I feeling stuck? In the "duty cycle" above: "work harder, setback, work harder, setback." And, of course, periodically giving up and then having to start the whole thing again. One thing the author did not mention about the duty cycle, but that I imagine is a big part of why it doesn't work, are the punishing thoughts that accompany it. "Who am I kidding? I'm never going to reach my goal. I don't have what it takes." I imagine that everyone, from world-class athletes to star surgeons, can feel this way in the face of a setback, but people trying to lose weight are already usually coming from a place of feeling bad about themselves and feeling that they are lazy and undisciplined.
I think it's very easy to get caught up in an external goal ("lose 50 pounds," "be a size 6,") rather than focus on the way you want to feel ("energized and healthy," "light and free around food," "strong and powerful in the gym"). When you inevitably have a setback on the way to that goal, you feel like a failure and start up the self-punishment machine.
What's the alternative? Think in terms of internal motivation, how you want to feel. Try different activities (spinning class, kickboxing) and notice whether they make you feel the way you want to feel or whether they drain you. When eating, notice when foods you eat seem to make you feel calm and satisfied or whether they just leave you craving more. What kinds of self-care activities, even and maybe especially ones completely unrelated to weight loss, can you do for yourself to keep you energized and happy?
What's the point of getting to an external goal and still feeling worthless when you get there? Or doing a hardcore sprint to that goal (juice fast) that doesn't look anything like a sustainable lifestyle?
I think this theory can be applied in a whole lot of everyday, commonsense ways to help us live more purposefully. I have started to apply it to my work and have been feeling much more productive. I see why I felt so good when I was working on my dissertation when I finally found a way to get my work done each day instead of worrying about how I was ever going to finish in time to graduate.
It's not easy to keep this mindset, though. I think it's a practice, like meditation where you have to continue to gently bring yourself back to the center in order to keep reaping the benefits.