Target setting is a large part of the human experience, and almost all of us will have assigned ourselves a health-related goal at some point.
Whether it’s a case of losing weight based upon medical advice, aiming to drop a size to fit into our favorite dress or suit for an impending special occasion, or simply changing our diet for the better in order to obtain more nutrients and feel better about ourselves, setting a target is common practice.
Setting targets is the easy part, though.
Actually achieving them tends to be a little trickier, unfortunately.
There is always an excuse (or a reason – don’t be harsh on yourself) to fall off the diet wagon or skip a gym session; the modern world is a busy place, and between social, work and family commitments, we all find ourselves looking for the easier way out on occasion.
How we deal with this largely depends upon our mindset.
A common belief is that the human brain can be split neatly into two hemispheres, with the left and right sides of our consciousness responsible for different beliefs and understandings1 – those of us that tend of gravitate toward logic and factual, analytical processing of data are believed to be left-brain dominant, while artistic, and emotion-led individuals tend to lean heavier to the right side of the mind.
2 Core Mentalities: Fixed & Growth
This division can also apply to a theory popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, author of the psychology textbook Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Dweck claims that there are two core mentalities that we adopt as human beings; a fixed mindset and a growth mindset2.
The differences between these paths of thinking are rarely more pronounced than when attempting to achieve a health-related goal.
The Difference Between A Fixed Mindset & A Growth Mindset
A fixed mindset applies to a pre-determined view of the world and the self, and a quiet resignation that things are the way they are and will not change.
A growth mindset, however, applies a strong belief in free will, and a ‘can-do’ attitude.
In terms of attempting to reach a health goal, somebody that adopts a fixed mindset may find themselves caving into cravings and frustration early, blaming their genes on any inability or delay in achieving what they set out to do.
Adopting a growth mindset, however, will see an individual looking at any kind of roadblock on their path to success as a mere setback, and will re-double their efforts to overcome this obstacle – and treat it as a learning opportunity.
Ultimately it’s all about belief, and comes down to whether you think like an optimist or a pessimist.
Let’s imagine that you have set a target of losing 15lbs,
and aim to do this by eliminating sugar and saturated fats from your diet.
Now we’ll break down these alternative approaches as they pertain to achieving this health goal, and it will become increasingly clear as to just why a growth mindset is essential to reaching your target.
Many people that are looking to make changes to their health, particularly through their diet, will seek the support of peers in a similar position by joining a slimming club or society.
This interaction can be invaluable, as newfound friends support and 'spot' each other through the process, but the differences between fixed and growth mindsets are rarely more pronounced than in such a setting.
Somebody with a fixed mindset will place themselves in regular competition with others, especially in situations such as weekly weigh-ins and consumption comparisons.
If an individual working from a fixed mindset follows a meal and exercise plan to the letter and finds that they shed 2lbs over the course of seven days, and somebody else in the same group has managed to drop closer to 5lbs, the former will take this as some kind of personal affront and wonder why they are bothering.
An adopter of a growth mindset, however, will be delighted for their peer, and take their success as inspiration that hard work does indeed pay off if they stick with their target.
Conversation and comparisons will also wield different results, depending on which mindset you adopt.
If both of our test subjects were to compare their efforts over the course of a week to another and find that, in reality, they could have done a little more – whether that be consume fewer calories, or exercise more intensely – to reach their goal, the reactions could not be more different.
Somebody with a fixed mindset will mostly likely throw their arms in the air, huffing and puffing in disgust at being questioned in such a fashion, and declare that they don't have time to do anything else and that they can't help succumbing to cravings.
An adopter of a growth mindset, however, will learn from what they have been told, assess their activities over the period in question, and muse on how perhaps yes, they could have eaten smaller portions, enjoyed fewer treats on their cheat day or walked a handful more kilometers, and promise themselves that they will redouble their efforts next time.
It's this application that primarily separates a fixed and growth mindset.
Somebody trapped within the negative spiral of a fixed mindset will see effort and sacrifice as ultimately pointless, as the results are not simply not appearing at the rate they would like.
This could come down to impatience, insecurity, or an old-fashioned pessimistic view of the world – the upshot is always the same, and culminates in our fixed mindset test subject deciding that all the hard work is pointless.
Somebody with a growth mindset, however, will acknowledge that anything difficult is worth attempting to master (don't forget the theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything), and will push themselves that little bit harder in order to climb the ladder of success.
Think of a weight loss target like an NFL game; in order to achieve the satisfaction of scoring a touchdown, you need to push past eleven players on the opposition defense.
Sure, you can kick the occasional field goal for a quick fix of success, but you're unlikely to make it all the way to the Super Bowl using that tactic alone.
Adopting a growth mindset can be hard though, and rarely more so that when it comes to a health target.
The example that we are using, cutting out sugars and sat fats, could send your body into something resembling shock, and the physical and mental cravings that come with such a practice are no fun for anybody.
Your brain will be pleading with you to feed it the instant endorphin rush that comes along with a treat such as chocolate, and it will take every fiber of your being to resist this siren song.
Our NFL analogy also applies to the management of these setbacks.
The fullback of any gridiron team may have grand ambitions to collecting the football and running toward the other end of the field to score, or to await a pass from the quarterback.
In theory, this is plain sailing – just like, in theory, changing your diet is as easy as saying, "I'll eat this, and not that."
In practice, our football player will have to negotiate plenty of burly members of the opposition team with nothing else in mind but blocking their path to glory by fair means or foul,
While you are attempting to reach your health target it’s your own mind that will play the role of linebacker, doing everything it can to halt you in your tracks.
"Just one lapse won't hurt,"
will potentially become a mantra, along with,
"it's OK – I'll just be extra vigilant next week. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
Somebody living with a fixed mindset will be particularly susceptible to these thought processes, failing to see the point in persisting against the obstacles in their way.
What's the point anyway?
It'll all be worthless in the long run – the target is ultimately unrealistic, so why put yourself through such discomfort for no good reason?
Blame it on genetics, the pressures of modern life, negative past experiences, or even the boogie if you have to.
Those that adopt a growth mindset, however, will grit their teeth (literally if necessary) and persist in the face of temptation, remembering that the ends will more than justify the means.
No pain, no gain, as the saying goes, and those with a growth mentality will be able to acknowledge that a sacrifice in the short-term often leads to rewards at the end of the journey.
The core concept of the growth mindset is the understanding that an obstacle is not insurmountable.
Just because this barrier does not contain an open door to walk through does not mean that it cannot be climbed over or scenically strolled around; it just takes a little more time and effort.
A growth mindset involves thinking positively toward a result that you hope to achieve, and being kind to yourself throughout the journey.
Many people that adopt a growth mindset find it useful to have a role model that they seek to emulate, thus proving that it can be done (perhaps our successful slimmer from the social group, who shed those additional few pounds), but it's important to recognize the difference between short- and long-term successes.
Somebody with a fixed mindset may find himself or herself trapped by thinking in extremes.
If they manage to stay on target in the early running they could find themselves feeling euphoric, but any future setback risks leaving them desolate and harshly labeling themselves as a failure.
It is essential to understand that, much like life itself, any health target will consist of a sequence of peaks and troughs.
The latter could be declared a holdup, and that's where a fixed mindset falls down.
A growth mindset, however, will acknowledge this obstacle and do what needs to be done to move past it and continue their forward momentum.
Steps To Changing Your Mindset
With this in mind, how do we go about changing our mindset from fixed to growth? The short answer is patiently and methodically.
Let’s take a look at a step-by-step guide as to how you can feel better about yourself and the curveballs that life throw in your way.
- Acknowledge that you are a three-dimensional human being.
It’s OK to have layers, it’s OK to have emotion, and it’s OK to have fluctuating moods.
In fact, that is positively encouraged – taking a growth mindset beyond its logical conclusion and being all-singing, all-dancing and adamant that everything will turn out for the best no matter what is just another form of mixed mindset, and will imprison your brain in the same thought patterns.
Your moods, much like your body, are trying to tell you something – listen to them, and learn what you can from what they may have to say.
- Feel the fear, and do it anyway.
Seek out new challenges and face them head-on, treating them as learning opportunities.
The teaching could be about how you handle an issue, how you react to it, and how you will react to a similar stumble further along the line.
The next time an obstacle lands in your path, don’t cave into the temptation to turn your back and walk the other way – take a deep breath and stare that problem in the eye, then handle in a way that you feel comfortable doing.
It doesn’t matter how long that takes, just as long as you do it.
- You didn’t fail, you learned and practiced.
Nobody that has ever achieved anything in their life – be they an entertainer, entrepreneur, sporting personality or artist – found success immediately; most overnight successes take a decade to come to fruition.
If something isn’t working out for you, it is not down to a personal failing on your part, or an inability of somebody else to understand your needs.
Remember, you haven’t failed to reach your target – you just are not quite there yet.
- Enjoy the journey, don’t focus on the destination.
This is particularly important when working toward a health goal, as bloody-mindedly depriving yourself of anything that brings you any pleasure to reach your target faster will only increase the temptation to fall spectacularly off the wagon when you get there.
Enjoy the slow and steady progress that your sustainable lifestyle changes are making, such as increased vitality, as you ease toward the endgame.
- Don't let results define you
By enjoying the journey you can stop yourself being defined by the destination. Yes, the destination maybe important to you but it's how you go about making that happen that you want to define you.
Otherwise your self esteem can get wrapped up in whether you've achieved something or not; when in reality you should and WANT to be proud of the process you've gone through in attempting to achieve your goals.
Let's face it - those who look at someone's success and think "HOW did that person lose the weight/beat cravings and HOW can I do it" are more likely to work out a process for themselves and get on it (i.e. a growth mindset).
Those who focus on the results that person got and not the how, will likely not get any further with their own progress. They will be fixated on the results and ignore the fact that person went through a process in order to get there - they didn't just wake up 40lbs lighter.
It is the same in the business world when you hear about "overnight success" stories. What those stories leave out are the hours, days, weeks, months and YEARS of hard work and PROCESS that went into making that "overnight success" happen.
If someone has reached a goal I am seeking, I don't look at them in jealousy - I look at them as a inspiration and then I find out how they did it, and add some useful tools from their experience into my own process.
If I achieve the outcome I want, GREAT! If not, I reassess my process, see where I can improve and keep going. I don't wallow in the fact I am not like that person, or haven't achieved that goal because I am useless and its just me - I just rejiggle what is in my process, or keep going if I am getting results that are going in the right direction.
If your focus is on the destination, you will be trapped in a fixed mindset, particularly as results take time and dedication, so your focus should be on making it happen.
- Stay consistent & dedicated
Dedicate yourself to the process, the journey. If you want to lose weight and have a goal in mind - focus on how you are going to make that happen and be consistent.
There are lots of ways to go about reaching a goal - work out your journey and stick to it. Keep doing the things you need to do daily to make it happen.
Being consistent and dedicated will help you develop and master a growth mindset.
Fake it until you make it
It's very easy to focus on the process if you have complete faith in it. Don't second guess it, don't let negative thoughts creep in your mind - just focus on doing the things daily, even when you don't feel up to it.
This is what will help you develop a growth mindset - by doing what needs to be done.
- Never scold yourself – but don’t praise yourself excessively, either.
That’s what can lead to the extreme thinking that we described earlier. So you lost 3lbs in one week?
That’s great – think about how you did that and keep it up!
It will become tempting to start thinking that you have an innate ability to shed pounds while sitting on the couch and caving into cravings.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that your achievement was a result of your actions, not an accident of serendipity.
- Listen to your moods again.
By this point, you should have started to take powerful strides toward a growth mindset.
Next time you encounter a setback, stop and take a look at how you reacted – which mentality was the response most aligned with?
If it was a growth mindset, congratulate yourself but remember the previous point – you’ll have to keep it up, as this realignment of thinking did not happen by accident.
The Power of "Yet"
This is a simple trick to help you reframe some of the things you may say to yourself. Add the word yet to the end of your fixed mindset statements.
Instead of saying "I can't do this", "This doesn't work" - just add the word YET to the end of them.
"I can't do this yet" and "This doesn't work yet"
This is very easy to do and powerful. If you find yourself caught up in a fixed thought, by adding this small little word, you give your mind the thought that you can grow and that what you want isn't here YET but it will be!
A growth mindset is called this for a reason - it can be developed
Whichever mindset you feel you currently adopt, it’s important to remember that we are not born with one of these mentalities or the other and are unable to change – a growth mindset is called this for a reason, and it can be developed.
As human beings we are all capable of wonderful things, including take strides toward improving our own health. Ultimately, our lives are like a meal; it’s all about the healthy choices that we make in the preparation.
Growth mindset can be gradual, or accelerated, if you haven’t made it ‘yet’, progress and you will get there in the end.