Saturday, November 21, 2015

Setting fixed goals vs. going with the flow

Imagine you signed up for a gym membership. First time you get there, full of motivation, the resident trainer fixes you up with some generic training program that's loosely based on your current physical state. It says something like "push ups: 10 reps, 3 sets" for every exercise - so that you have simple instructions and clear goals - and can start "checking off items" immediately. After a few weeks/months, assuming the trainer is decent, they'll update your training program to better fit your new physical state. And of course - they always say you should "do what feels right" - meaning the numbers aren't set in stone. But let's be honest, the average Joe just does what his program tells him to - or at least tries.

This method of setting specific goals that are fixed in advance is by far the most widespread method of working out. One of its alternatives is embracing the "do what feels right" remark and "going with the flow": exercising as much as you feel is right for you at the moment - instead of counting reps you keep going until you or your muscles are exhausted enough. Remember - that's how you get better, in sports and in most other areas of life - you push yourself to the limit of your ability but don't step over the line and break.
Though it sounds great on paper, the "flow" method has a serious drawback: exercising "as much as you want" often means not exercising at all... or at least stopping way before you're actually at the exhaustion point.

Let's try to compare the 2 methods:

Fixed goals:
- Simple. Requires 0 decision making or attention to yourself.
- Pushes you forward if your comfort zone is slightly below the set goal. On the other hand, makes you feel like a failure if your abilities (or perhaps your condition on a specific day) are far below the goal - promoting burnout (giving up on the gym altogether).
- Might create an artificial ceiling of effort - you won't work more than prescribed even if the challenge level is too low.
- Gradually fosters antagonism to the whole workout idea - makes it feel like "homework" that you have to check-off and move on. Promotes "minimal required effort" attitude once the first-month-enthusiasm wears off.

- Requires attention to your body - and, more importantly, force of will so you don't quit at the slightest sign of discomfort.
- Flexible. Takes into consideration your state specifically today. Perhaps you didn't sleep enough or getting sick - you'll feel it and won't exert yourself.
- Facilitates a stronger connection with the actual reason you're working out: you're not there to complete 3 sets of 10 reps - you're there to challenge your body, hence forcing it to improve.

So we see there are advantages to both fixed goals (mostly in the short term) and flow (mostly in the long run) methods. A smart meme once said "why not both?". Maybe we can combine the strengths of both approaches and create our own workout method?
I use a hybrid: repeat an exercise until you feel tired/need a break/can't do it anymore, no reason even to keep track of the rep number, and then do an additional number of reps that was decided upon in advance. Let's say you do chin-ups, and you usually manage to complete 10-15 until the "have to stop point" - depending on your state that day, and then you do 3 more - even though you "can't". The specific numbers are up to you of course, and depend on how quickly you get the urge to give up, but I would recommend an additional ~20% - and remember not to push yourself too hard.
The trick is simple - when you feel you "can't do it anymore" you're actually lying to yourself - it just means you're about to reach the end of your comfort zone. The additional effort stretches the boundaries of this zone - forcing your body to adapt - which means grow muscle. You don't have to be super accurate when deciding on the "can't" point since it's wrong anyway - and the additional fixed goal is there to cover for your "mistake". On the other hand, the method does take into account the fact that your physical state is not the same everyday and that you improve with time - no program adjustments required - thus by definition pushes you forward. Perhaps the most crucial difference is the psychological matter: the hybrid method gives the "overcoming a challenge" feeling but at the same time focuses on the real goal - not "doing homework".

This idea can be applied to other areas of life as well. Let's say you're trying to work/study/be otherwise productive. Remember the goal - your purpose is not to sit X hours in front of the computer but to accomplish something, learn something, create something, complete something - so you have to be focused in order to be productive. Instead of saying "I'm going to work for 8 hours straight" or "I'm gonna finish all of my tasks today" - thus setting yourself up to fail - be more realistic: work as much as you can and when you feel like you need a break - work a little bit more. "A little bit" can be 15 more minutes of focus, might be another small/easy task (that you might have set aside for that purpose) or just completing the current one - give the different versions a try and see what works best for you. After the additional push of productivity - take a break and then repeat the same cycle.
This will gradually train your mind for longer stretches of work. As a side effect, you might feel like you can keep going - you've entered back into the flow and don't need a break anymore.

Until next time, remember - you can always do one more.


{Thanks to Nataly Eliyahu for reading and commenting on an earlier version}

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1 comment:

  1. I think a better version of the hybrid would be to start from what you "have" to do, then try to put some more effort to that, as long as you feel like it. That would result in updating your bar more frequently, so it would better fit your capabilities.
    Another reason I feel it's more effective is because this way you push yourself to the end based on your current motivation, rather than on predetermined number (which is good to begin with, but won't make you get the most out of your training). This is connected with the fact motivation is a finite resource (which is totally non-trivial fact!), and better use it for the "bit more" and not for most of time.
    The feeling of "doing homework" is bad, and the only way to deal with it is just abolish it altogether, the sooner the better, as coping with "homework" is a critical skill in modern world.