Monday, May 2, 2011

Progression For Life

Small progressive goals allow you to meet your big ones!

Autumn’s husband Ben is writing this guest column.  He holds a teaching certification in Jujutsu and is a longtime student of Baguazhang, a Chinese martial art.  He has been training in, experimenting with, and teaching others physical culture for 18 years.

So you’ve decided to move for a month straight.  Good for you!  When you make a commitment like that, built on a moment of insight, it’s very motivating.  The passion that drives us to keep our commitment feels invulnerable at first, unstoppable, and we don’t want to consider the possibility that we won’t always feel that way.  To do so is to admit vulnerability, and so to invite it.  I dread the way that an invincible conviction can unexpectedly change into the premonition of defeat, seemingly overnight.

Take heart.  Your motivation can be saved.  First, recognize that your desire to persist over the long-term has almost nothing to do with your first surge of energy; they are different beasts, and the feeding and care of persistence requires a different set of skills than does embarking on a new program.

Sticking to any commitment is a matter of meeting three separate requirements: measurable purpose (which we forget), desire (which withers over time), and sacrifice (which prevents both of the previous requirements from being derailed).  Ignore one of the three and persistence becomes a struggle; ignore two and it becomes nigh impossible. 

Measurable Purpose

The goal is the part of motivation that we often focus on, assuming that it should be enough.  Recognize right now that it almost never is enough.  This frees you to clarify your aims in a way that will allow you to measure your upcoming progress.

What, exactly, do you want to attain with your exercise program?  If it’s strength, what do you want to be able to do?  If it’s fat loss, what’s your target weight?  Do you just want to look good naked?  Answer this question using numbers and terms that can be verified.  For instance, I’m working toward the (distant) goal of a one-armed pull-up.  This is easy to measure: either I can do it or I cannot, and there is no room for interpretation or wishful thinking.  Try to craft your own measurable goal right now—write it down in your own words, and save the paper.  We’ll build on it in a moment.


The brain is a fickle, fickle organ.  What it craves one day is trite or boring the next.  To continue stoking your desire to move forward with your commitment, you must develop the habit of showing (not just telling!) your emotional half that you are getting what you want.  This practice is the heart of progression, and it makes all the difference.

Go back to your goal from the Purpose section.  No matter what it is, it’s probably a ways away, and that’s a good thing because your next job is to break it into stages: what easy, gradual goals can you set that lie on the path to your final objective? 

As an example, let’s take an enthusiastic new runner whose goal is running a 10k race (numbered goals make this especially easy).  Let’s make her first goal to run one kilometer.  No more. 

If this sounds too easy, good.  It should be.  When you accomplish an easy goal, your brain is eager for more; it knows you can go farther, and you actually have to restrain yourself.  Think for a moment—when was the last time you were so motivated to go to the next stage of your training that you had to stop yourself from doing more?  We usually work it the other way, setting difficult goals that give us a huge emotional payoff when we reach them, but those goals require us to push and push on the road there.  What I’m suggesting is exactly the opposite—make each stage easy, and your motivation becomes a horse straining at its reins rather than a nag that has to be whipped over the next hill.

Look at your goal and ask: “How can I break it into eight or more easy, gradual stages?”  The easier the better, and that means that you may need ten or twelve stages.  That’s totally fine!  The more milestones you have to track, the simpler it will be to show your fickle, emotional brain that your work is paying off every single time you move.
Ben's Exercise Record.  What does yours look like?
 Write those stages down.  Number them, and put a little check box next to each.  Every time you exercise, pull out this sheet and look at which stages you’ve already completed.  This alone is surprisingly motivating!  If you find yourself stagnating, consider revising your stages to include a more gradual progression.  Keeping a written record of your progression also keeps you accountable, which Autumn wrote about in a previous post.

There’s one rule: each week you may go no farther than one more stage even if you are ready, willing and able.  The big numbers aren’t going anywhere, and if you continue to feed your desire in this way, it will continue to lead you onward and upward.  Before you know it, it will be June, and you’ll be working on stage 5 and still going strong.


It’s time to get the obstacles out of the way.  You can want your goal badly and that will carry you through the first week or two, but if there are circumstances in your life that compete for your energy, they will sap your will to nothing over the long haul.

What events and commitments frequently “pop up” in your life?  What excuse have you often used in the past?  Take a moment to identify these, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself.  Fear no revelation; you will always have a choice about how to handle each one.  Write them down too.

Recognize one simple truth about everything you just wrote down: in order to get what you want from your goal, you will probably have to pay with one or more of those events, commitments or excuses.  Which ones are you willing to sacrifice?  Take a moment.  Count the cost, and decide what you’re willing to give up to get what you want out of your new commitment.  Write it down.

Every time you notice yourself encountering one of these problems, take just a moment and go look at your sheet.  This will now show you three things: your ultimate objective, the huge progress you’ve made, and the obstacles you anticipated when you set out.  Seeing this with your own two eyes is very different from trying to talk yourself out of whatever situation you’re in.  It is proof that you want something, proof that you are getting it, proof that you anticipated these very challenges on the way.  And proof, above all, is what gets you motivated.

I’ve since typed up sheets for each of my strength and conditioning goals, but the hand-written one we’ve just covered works fine too.  Put it in an easy-to-access place, and when you can’t find your old motivation just pull it out, check on your progress, and review the things you decided were worth giving up. 

The Recap

Step 1:  Decide on a long-term goal for your exercise.  Make it measurable, and put it in writing.
Step 2:  Break that long-term goal down into at least eight easy, gradual steps.  Write those down too.
Step 3:  Decide what you're willing to give up that would otherwise get in the way of accomplishing those progressive goals.  Write down your sacrifices.
Step 4:  Review these goals and sacrifices frequently, and check off each of your gradual steps as you complete them.  You may not progress past one stage per week.

We want to know what your goals are!  Leave a comment below or post on the FoodWise Nutrition Facebook Page.

My thanks to Paul Wade, who wrote Convict Conditioning, and to Chip and Dan Heath, who wrote Switch.  Both books have influenced my thinking and this post.


  1. Day 2: Pushups, Leg Raises, and Calf Presses. Total time, 30 min. Hit my progression level for Leg Raises--one more week at this level and I'm moving on to Hanging Knee Raises! Better dust off the rings...

  2. ...aaand Day 3: some light kettlebell work for 20 minutes.