You start a weight loss program, and lo and behold - it actually works. You're tracking calories, balancing macros, logging workouts, lifting weights, hitting steps, and watching the numbers on the scale (and the calipers!) happily go down.
Weeks go by, and you're revelling in the compliments and admiration. "Wow, you're so good about sticking to your diet!" says one friend as you pass on the fried appetisers at dinner, "You've lost so much weight!" says another, after not having seen you for a while.
Weeks turn into months. You've seen all the friends. Collected all the compliments.
The number on the scale, dropping dramatically at first, has slowed to a crawl - or maybe even a dead halt.
The weights you're now capable of lifting are actually getting quite heavy now. You've walked every scenic route in your town trying to get your 10K steps per day. You're staring down another piece of chicken breast on salad like it's a challenger in the ring.
And what was so easy, even fun, in the beginning - the tracking, the logging, the learning of new ways to move your body, the clocking weekly steps competitions against yourself - is feeling like drudgery. You are so "over it" that you forget why you even started this stuff in the first place.
So you quit. Or do you?
This, my friends, is the dilemma of "discipline fatigue," the term I've coined for that feeling of utter ennui that comes from the realisation that, in order to keep the results you get from healthy habit changes, you must also keep the healthy habits themselves. For a long time.
It is human nature that, when the sheen of a new thing (whether it's a job, relationship, or yes, wellness program) wears off, our magpie brains start searching for the next novelty to make it feel "exciting" again. The problem with this, especially when it comes to diet and exercise, is that "excitement" is often conflated with "hyper-intensity" (like crazy HIIT workouts) or "hyper-restriction" (like liquid diets or extreme calorie deficits). Add to this the tendency for diet culture to create and market unrealistic timelines - "lean in 15" or "30 day detoxes" - and the idea of a goal taking weeks, months, or years to achieve seems almost out of fashion.
But when it comes to "treating" discipline fatigue, one of the first things I recommend to clients is a reexamination of their daily wellness habits, simply to see if each and every one is still a necessary/valuable tool (I recently wrote a blog about when it's time to drop the data collection) versus an increasingly bigger barrier to lifetime maintenance. I also ask them to consider whether the more severe things they perceive that they "need" to do (eliminate carbs, do hours of cardio, cut out entire food groups) are in fact sustainable - or even desirable, long-term.
For clients that do need a little break, I recommend finding a "tether" (scaled-down version of ideal healthy habits) that at least keeps them in the general vicinity of their goals - for example, if you can't drag yourself to the gym for a week, at least get out for a few long walks; if you can't face the macro calculator right now, at least commit to cooking more protein-focused meals; if you can't maintain your usual meditation practice during a stressful work trip, at least find 1-3 minutes per day to sit alone, eyes closed, and breathe.
However - and here comes the real talk - there is an element of weight loss success that requires you to fall in love with the process, to find some level of joy/satisfaction in those small daily habits and routines - and it is my hope for all of my clients that throughout our program, they'll genuinely find that feeling.
When clients sign up with me, one of the first resources I share is an article I was given on my very first day of graduate school, called The Mundanity of Excellence. In it is this absolute gem of a conclusion, about the nature of excellence:
"Excellence is mundane. Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of these actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence."
This simple idea, my friends, explains the fact that the most "superlative" of weight loss success stories - the ones who lose a serious amount, lose it the "right" way, and are able to keep it off long-term - are the ones able to mentally deal with the mundanity, repetition, and relative boredom of keeping the correct habits, day after day...forever.
Now before you bail on this blog, let's talk about that conditional "forever."
When I tell a client she has to maintain healthy habits "forever," I mean it in the sense that she can't return to a sugar-riddled, booze-fuelled, caloric-surplus, sedentary, sleep-deprived, stress bonanza of a lifestyle and expect the results she achieved with the opposite of that to stand true. Any logical person can understand that to hold on to a reasonable level of weight loss/fitness gains, a reasonable level of healthy habits must be present and maintained.
But a reasonable level of healthy habits does not - and will never! - mean unrelenting perfection and restriction. A "reasonable" level of healthy habits still allows for cake at your daughter's birthday party, champagne on your wedding anniversary, or an unapologetic day of bingeing Netflix. A "reasonable" level of healthy habits does not mean breaking your back at F45 six days per week, running through overuse injuries, putting more plates on the bar despite nagging pain in your knees, dragging yourself to Pilates even though you hate every second of it, or beating yourself up for taking an honest day off movement altogether.
What is extraordinary - and separates the successful from the "on and off" diet and workout cyclers - is the ability to drop the discipline, whether by choice or by force, and pick it right back up where they left it. They don't downward spiral; they don't catastrophise; they don't self-loathe; and, importantly, they don't try to rationalise away the choice, either.
Truly healthy people accept the facts; they move forward; they practice resilience; they return to the regularly scheduled programming without guilt and with renewed determination to make a better choice, now.
In the very next meal. With the very next workout. For life.