“Not doing it becomes a conflict with who you think you are,” Stronger by Science podcast, Goal Setting and Behavior Change (Episode 71)

CW: Talk of calorie counting

This week’s Stronger by Science is focused on a single topic, what is the evidence we have for successful habit formation, and I’m so excited about it! It is, of course, timely and appropriate for New Year’s, but it’s also something that I find myself wondering about and working on throughout the year. My library hold for James Clear’s bestseller, Atomic Habits, finally came up last week, and I’ve been working my way through it, and one of the questions I’ve had as I’ve read is “What is the evidence that these are best practices?” Well, after listening to Greg and Eric, I’m happy to say it seems to be very evidence-based, and I will be sure to share more detailed thoughts whenever I work my way to the end of it.

As Eric works his way through the research on habit formation, he gives practical specifics for a more evidence-based, and therefore hopefully more successful approach. He begins by pointing out that the common belief that New Year’s resolutions are always doomed to fail is not evidence-based. He explains that this is using a “temporal landmark” to indicate the beginning of a new endeavor, and that folks often can benefit from having these clear delineations of a concrete starting point.

He goes into some of the potential pitfalls of temporal landmarks as well, including a tendency for folks to delay working on things or to have a rosier outlook on what they can do in the future instead of focusing on the current moment. I know that for myself, this an area for potential self-sabotage. I will often delay working on habit changes, telling myself that I will begin working on it later, or that it will be easier for me to work on it when something else is in place first, but never actually doing the uncomfortable work of doing something new and disrupting my routine.

In addition to using temporal landmarks, other successful strategies he discusses include:

  • Making goals process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented (I’m going to deadlift 300 pounds becomes, I’m going to work on my deadlift twice a week.)
  • Establish a goal hierarchy–a superordinate goal, which is the vague, values and identity-based goal; intermediate goals, which are less vague and point towards the routes needed to accomplish the overarching, superordinate goal; and the subordinate goals, which are the specific practices and processes we are going to use to reach these larger, intermediate goals
  • Equifinality (defined by Trex as “a goal can be supported by multiple, distinct goals,”) and multifinality (many smaller goals can feed multiple goals higher in the hierarchy)
  • Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented ones (what are you going to do more of rather than what are you going to stop doing?)
  • Flexible vs. rigid restraint, which I wrote more about here in the context of diet, but also can be applied to fitness and other healthy lifestyle goals (For example, I have intentions to lift 4 days a week for at least 30 minutes each session, but what I do during those sessions is more autoregulated)
  • The importance of a “mastery” focus rather than a “performance” one–making it more about learning and growth rather than achieving a particular landmark. Back to my deadlift example above, improving my deadlift over time becomes the goal, not hitting the benchmark of 300 pounds. As Trex points out, this makes the process of reaching the goal more satisfying rather than a single, discrete moment of achievement.
  • Finding the right level of difficulty–in particular, he mentions creating goals that have “slack with a cost.” This was new research for me, which is always fun to discover, and I’m interested in doing some thinking about how I can apply this to my own training and other goals. The gist of it is that we seem to enjoy the process most when there are high expectations, but when there is still some flexibility built into the success metrics. They discuss this in regard to calories, but I suspect a better application is likely around a process goal like aiming to eat 1-2 cups of vegetables and fruits at each meal.

This is a lot, and I’ve actually left out a few things mentioned in their conversation, but I like that it is so thorough. This is the strength of the SBS universe–thoughtful, nuanced, thorough examinations of the evidence around a particular area of nutrition or fitness-related research. While I would be hesitant to recommend this podcast to someone brand new at lifestyle change, I think a thoughtful coach or nerdy fitness enthusiast already inclined towards habit change could take what systems they already have in place and use this list to evaluate their current plans to tweak and adjust them to be more likely to succeed. In fact, I’m inclined to do a part 2 of this conversation doing precisely that with my own current goals and intentions.

Before I leave this discussion, however, I do want to address the last 20 minutes or so of the podcast, in what I would affectionately refer to as their MacroFactor infomercial. Trex makes the argument that many of the above evidence-based strategies are built into the app, and as such, it may help folks meet their goals more successful while also being perhaps a gentler, kinder tool for nutrition tracking.

However, I would love to hear an acknowledgment that a daily calorie goal is not a process goal, it’s an outcome goal. No app that I’ve seen helps people find the healthy, sustainable ways to reduce how much they eat.(1) Honestly, it’s such an individualized set of problems, I’m not even sure how you would go about doing that. For example, let’s say you’re not meeting your goal of 2000 calories a day because you’re hungry all the time, what do you do? Is it because you’re simply not eating enough and 2000 calories is an unreasonable goal for you? Do you need to learn to prepare and plan to eat more foods that are more satiating? Are you someone who benefits from a higher percentage of their diet as fat or protein or starchy carbs to feel properly full? Or maybe there’s an environmental element to how you’re eating. If so, how do you go about cleaning up your environment while coexisting with the rest of your family? Finding the answers to these questions is a process that takes time, and it’s a skill to even know which questions to ask and seek answers to, a skill that traditional diet culture does not typically teach.

So, while I think there’s a lot of good built into MacroFactor, and I love that Greg and Eric are focused on creating an ethical tool, I’m going to disagree with the basic premise that a tool focused on calorie counting fully meets the criteria for an evidence-based approach to behavior change. I’m not saying it can’t be a useful tool, but I don’t think it’s enough on its own and most folks probably would benefit from support in creating and sustaining those process-based goals to reach particular calorie targets. I do want to acknowledge, however, that I’m not a member of the MF Facebook or Subreddit, because I think I’d find it diet culture triggering to see regular discussions of other people’s weight loss goals/macros etc.; therefore, it’s entirely possible I’m missing out on this element of the community and those resources.

(1) I know that Noom bills itself as a behavior-based app, but nothing I’ve seen suggests that it actually trains folks to change their eating behaviors (or their related thoughts and beliefs) in a sustainable way. I would love to be wrong about this, but the folks close to me who are using Noom seem to be doing the same calorie counting as everybody else on other nutrition apps. The lessons don’t seem to be enough to actually create new habits, and they don’t seem to be personalized enough to get at the heart of certain potentially problematic eating behaviors. I acknowledge that getting to that point would be a huge ask, and honestly, I’m skeptical any app could take the place of a talented nutrition coach for that reason. Maybe they get there eventually? I’d be rooting for them, if they could. In the meantime, I think it’s disingenuous to sell themselves as a behavior-based program.

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