This piece was first published on Six Pack Abs on April 18, 2013.

Suffering is not an effective strategy.

Many people wake up on New Year’s day with a mouth that tastes like they’ve gargling motor oil with a hangover that feels like an infected brain tumor, then they drag their sorry ass to the gym and perhaps go on some fad diet endorsed by a Kardashian because this year is the one they’re finally going to lose weight.

That’s a bad plan. Actually, it’s no plan. It’s white-knuckle weight loss where you see getting in shape as enduring torture to achieve a specific end, and it’s got a higher failure rate than a Taylor Swift relationship.

Don’t Plan to Fail

I think it was Day 1 of MBA school that taught me, “If you fail to plan, plan to fail.” Of course, they were talking about the business world, but the foundations of strategic planning can be applied to getting in shape as well. Assessing your strengths and weaknesses, setting short-term and long-term goals, integrating financial factors, mastering time management, and determining how to tactically implement a concrete yet flexible strategy are all valuable assets for improving your likelihood of following through and actually making this year the year.

Of course, motivation is a key factor, and it’s interesting how strategic planning and determination to stick to a fitness regimen intertwine. Beyond the development of daily, weekly and monthly lists of tasks it’s critical to integrate a mindfulness of learning to love being a fit and healthy person.

You can’t stick to something you hate long term. Exercise and eating healthy are not just a means to achieve an end, but must instead be viewed as an awesomely righteous lifestyle that is embraced with vigor until the day you dirt nap. Can I get a “Hoo-rah?”

Perhaps not yet, but eventually. It takes patience, planning and persistence to embody ass-kickery.

Enough preamble; let’s do this.

Strategic Planning for Success

Of course an MBA will tell you to optimize your core competencies towards an optimized fitness paradigm, or something, but there is brain science supporting these methods.

“Advance planning is essential to getting in shape,” says Jim Taylor, PhD. “It creates a mindset of commitment and it creates the process. Without those, it’s not going to happen.” Taylor, a San Francisco-based expert in sport psychology who has consulted elite professional and Olympic athletes, states that most people approach getting in shape without a proper plan, and are doomed to failure.

“After 6 months, half of New Years resolutions have gone by the wayside,” Taylor told me. “And after a year only about 10% have stuck with it because there is not a lot of planning behind it.”

And according to a 2012 study by researchers at the School of Public Health from the University of Minnesota and published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, higher use of strategizing for weight control led to better outcomes for improving diet, exercising regularly, and losing weight. As an example, those who rarely planned exercise burned half as many calories per week via physical activity as those who were frequent planners.

Like I said: Fail to plan, plan to fail.

The Confidence Boost

“Planning creates familiarity, predictability and control,” Taylor told me. “All are essential for self-confidence.” And self-confidence is critical to sticking with a fitness regimen.

Imagine this scenario: You stroll past a gym and the Nike tagline of “Just do it!” pops into your head. So you walk in wearing inappropriate clothing, wandering from machine to machine with no clue as to what you’re doing, surrounded by hyper-muscled, multi-pierced, heavily-tattooed Neanderthals, and you attempt to work out. You also hurt yourself.

Your confidence is shot. You hate it and never go back.

Alternatively, you see the same gym, stop, and think. And then you begin to plan. You gather information on what gym would be the best fit for you – the best location and with better smelling clientele. You figure out what time of day to work out and hire a trainer to teach you how to do the exercises properly to get results and avoid injury. You buy some proper clothes for working out in so you look and feel good.

What you did is create self-efficacy; a critical foundation of behavior change developed by Stanford University Professor Albert Bandura, PhD, and published in Psychological Review in 1977. Basically, when you’re better prepared for a new behavior this enhances self-confidence so you’re more likely to stick with it.

Determining Outcomes

A 1985 review article in the Journal of Sport Psychology found that goals that are more specific and difficult can lead to better performance than ones that are vague or easy. I’m a fan of aiming high so that if you only make it 80% of the way, you’re still thrilled with the outcome.

“The evidence is very strong that people who set SMART goals are more likely to pursue those goals,” says Jim Taylor. These are goals that are

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

Putting a picture of a fitness model on the fridge and saying, “I want to look like that” is not a SMART goal, but saying “I intend to lose 20 pounds of fat and gain ten pounds of muscle in the next six months” is.

These goals need to be realistic, and unfortunately there are so much male bovine droppings in popular media promising you to lose [insert ridiculously high number here] pounds of fat in only [insert stupidly short period of time here].

The fact is that getting in shape is hard. And slow. And hard. If it was as easy as those Internet pop-up ads promised then everyone would look like Brangelina from the neck down. If you need a dose of reality, shop at Wal-Mart.

Aim high, sure, but stay within the realm of the possible. Questing for six-pack abs is an admirable goal, and if you’ve got what it takes, then go for it. It’s still important to figure out not only what is physiologically feasible for your age, gender, genetics and health status, but psychologically achievable. If you have lofty goals understand that it’s going to take some serious mental toughness and consistent effort to achieve them. And then you’ll have to sustain that effort to keep your new shape. You can go back to old habits and keep the new you.

Focus on the Process

Once you’ve got your long-term goals set, understand that it’s the process that creates that outcome. Sure, you can determine how many pounds of fat you want to lose, or muscle you desire to gain, or inches you wish to shed. You can assert your desired outcome for cholesterol and blood pressure levels, or even how fast you want to run a race or how much weight you can lift on bench press. But just having those concrete outcomes in mind doesn’t make them happen, adherence to the process does.

Another name for these process goals are short-term goals. These are the things you do day after day, week after week, month after month, that lead to those outcomes that may be a year or more in achieving. Keep your eye on the prize, sure, but it’s the day-to-day activities that you live, eat and breathe that slowly alter the core of who you are. This is about habit formation, and a critical component of that is…

Planning for the “If-Then” Scenario

Life is going to throw you curveballs, and it will seem like more than your share will be thrown with the aim of derailing your new lifestyle. You need to plan for how you will improvise, adapt, and overcome.

“You need strategies that will allow you to create willpower on the spot,” says Peter Gollwitzer, PhD, a professor of psychology at New York University. “There is a need to focus on ‘if-then’ planning. IF situation x is encountered, THEN I will perform behavior y. It can be a temptation to avoid, or how to deal with a crisis.”

For me, I have one when it comes to running. I always have deadlines looming. There is more writing to be done. Sometimes it is hard to pull away from my damn computer. I hate my computer. My nickname for it is, “You stupid @#^$%%*&@%$%!!!”

But “if” I find myself making those “I have so much work to do” excuses about not running, “then” I implement this strategy: Just get dressed.

I pick out the best running clothes I have, admire them for their quality for a moment, and get my gear on, including those $15 socks that are only comfortable for running, and even put on my expensive running shoes.

It takes only minutes of motivation to get suited up. Then I go back to my computer and do more work. It doesn’t take long before I’m out the door.

If-then planning applies to both exercise and food situations. You can imagine dietary sabotage like donuts brought to the office, childcare issues with working out, a friend who bails on driving you to Pilates class, an alarm clock that didn’t wake you for your morning run, your favorite elliptical not being available, the indoor cycling class being full, Christmas parties or dinner at an Italian grandmother’s house…

These are life’s “ifs” that you need to strategize a “then” for. Some of them you will learn as you go and develop coping mechanisms for over years of practice. Gollwitzer says it’s important to link the outcome goals to these situations. This is where you do want to keep your eye on that prized body. “The stronger the link, the stronger the effect,” he told me.

It can be something concrete on how to deal with certain “Ifs,” or it can simply be engaging in positive self-talk to get yourself through it so eventually it becomes automatic. These are how healthy habits are developed.

Let’s Get Tactical

This is the “when, where and how” part of the plan. These are the tactics (short-term process) that lead to your desired long-term outcomes.

“When you have a strong commitment to a specific outcome it has some effect on motivation,” Gollwitzer told me. “But when you add the ‘when, where and how’ you get a much stronger effect. It’s about twice as much.”

And it’s not the quantity of detail, Gollwitzer says, but the quality of it. It needs to be appropriate to achieving your goals. But this doesn’t mean you jump right into fitness like a suicidal lemming. Slow and steady wins this race.

“The biggest mistake people make when starting a fitness program is doing too much and too hard,” Jim Taylor told me. “There are few rewards early in an exercise program and many disincentives: a sense of incompetence, negative social comparison, pain, fatigue, sweat…”

Going from couch potato to hardcore is too much for the physiology and the psyche, so tactical plans need to be about baby steps.

Start with research.

It’s your outcome. You’re the one who needs to live this. It’s your own personal level of “good enough” that you can achieve and sustain. Remember that what is achievable is not necessarily sustainable and determine activities and behavior changes that transform over time to take you to your fitness happy place.

Tactics are about tracking numbers, because…

What Gets Measured Gets Done

Here are good numbers to measure:

  • Number of miles run each week.
  • Number of fitness classes attended.
  • Number of weightlifting sessions and length of session.
  • Distances swum, cycled, kayaked, walked, hiked, climbed, crawled, scrambled, staggered or belly crawled.
  • Amount of time spent surfing, skiing, whacking spherical objects with a racquet, chasing jackrabbits, climbing trees, punching and kicking, blocking and tackling, wrestling and throwing…

It also applies to food:

  • Number of meals made at home vs. eating out.
  • Number of alcoholic and/or sugary beverages consumed.
  • Fruit and vegetable servings eaten each day.
  • Number of treats and high-calorie desserts.
  • Number of meals using fresh ingredients vs. processed crap…you get the idea.

If you need motivation to track things, consider a 1998 study on 38 women and men facing the holiday eating season. Published in Health Psychology, researchers from Francis Medical Center in Illinois found that only those best at self-monitoring lost any weight during holidays, whereas those who didn’t monitor chunked up like a Thanksgiving turkey.

And over time, you work on moving all of these numbers. Distances are further. Miles are traveled faster. More weight is lifted for more sets. Harder and longer classes are taken. And all of this is done with greater frequency, so that overall, the number of hours spent at intense exercise each week becomes significant.

One number I don’t think you should care about is the one on the scale, because it’s a damn liar.

Time Management

I’ll keep this simple.

If everything is a priority, then nothing is. To make exercise and healthy eating happen, you’ve got to move it high on the list of stuff to do, at the expense of moving less important things further down the list. Or off it.

According to A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American spends more than four hours per day watching TV. Do the math.

Where’s the Love?

And giving things a higher priority is easier if you like it. Running burns lots of calories, but if you’d rather shove a premenstrual crocodile down your pants than take some hamster wheel to nowhere or pound suburban pavement then perhaps cycling would be better.

This is basic operant conditioning in action. Developed by renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1953, the primary way to change behavior is via positive reinforcement using stimulus-response. If an exercise (stimulus) makes you feel good (response), then you’re more likely to engage in that behavior again and again.

It doesn’t have to be the greatest fat blaster or muscle maximizer. Exercise needs to become something you endeavor to get good at and can learn to love. In time, it can come to define you as a person. Do some experimenting and find your exercise Zen, and then strive to be your best. Don’t be afraid to keep adding to your fitness repertoire by experimenting with new activities.

Of course, you’ll soon feel a desire to start fuelling this activity with healthy food. Don’t forget that part.

The Return on Investment

Implementing a plan like this costs. It costs money and it cost time. It also takes effort, and sweat, and pain, and smelly laundry.

It will pay you back.

There are the qualitative ways, such as improved health, longevity, physical performance, appearance and self-esteem, but there are some hard numbers to run as well, such as what happens when you compare people who exercise at least three times a week with those who exercise less (or not at all).

“I found that for men the average was a 6% increase on weekly earnings. For women it was more on the order of a 9-10% increase in weekly earnings.” This told to me by Vasilios Kosteas, PhD, an associate professor of economics at Cleveland State University.

Kosteas’ study, which was published in the Journal of Labor Research in 2012, controlled for things such as education, age, gender, health status and body weight to make the exercise probability as close as possible.

“These results support that there is a causal relationship for exercise increasing income,” he said. But why?

“We have a good body of evidence that shows exercise is linked to having greater energy levels, better cognitive function, improved mood – all of these things lead to greater performance at work, and greater confidence as well.”

Remember self-efficacy theory? Bandura calls this a “performance accomplishment.” By learning how to persist and solve difficult problems, such as getting in shape, you develop a powerful skill set. In other words, if you can master your fitness, you can master other areas of your life, including career.

But remember that building a body is like building a company. You won’t strike it rich quickly; it takes tremendous investment and developing your core competencies first.

Keep at it, and you’ll reap your payday.

Follow James on Facebook and Twitter.


James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.