How To Become Perfect In The New Year

Image: Ms. Phoenix

I started strength training about a year ago after exclusively running as my main form of exercise and I love feeling strong for the first time ever and I LOVE showing off my baby biceps and making people arm wrestle me at bars, so I’m really enjoying how strength- and muscle-positive you are!

My question for you is kind of a broad lifestyle question: how do you balance being a person in the world who has a job and friends (both of the swole-curious and swole-apathetic varieties) and a social life with trying to stay on top of your fitness goals? Sometimes I feel like it’s all an either/or situation for me — like I will go through a week where I am super dedicated and go to bed every night at 10 and wake up early to get to the gym and I make all my protein-y lunches ahead of time and I am just locked and loaded ready to go, and then I will go through a week where maybe I go to happy hour or have dinner with a friend or go meet some promising young man from a dating app and stay out too late ONE NIGHT and the whole thing falls apart — waking up early to get to the gym seems impossible for the rest of the week so whoops, might as well eat dollar pizza for lunch every day until we die. And while in the first kind of week, I feel great physically, I also feel kind of bummed about how everything is just oriented around exercise. And then in the second week I feel less than great physically but more relaxed about like, having a life and enjoying myself.

I suspect the answer to this is something like, “balance!” but do you have any real talk advice for how? — Anne

We are right now just under two weeks out from the New Year and everyone is about to launch themselves into their Perfect Lifestyles — they’re giving up drinking for Drynuary, going to the gym every day at 5am, eating salads for every lunch and chicken and steamed vegetables for dinner. Most importantly they are starting all of these things, all at the same time, in two weeks. They are not starting one habit today — they are starting a dozen of them in the future.

Some people will actually do one of all these things, for a little bit, but none of them will do all of them forever. We all know this, but it doesn’t stop us.

People do this thing where they unrealistically borrow against their future selves — they don’t feel like going to the gym and eating reasonably well today but they will definitely feel like going on Monday, so they will start, definitely, on Monday. Definitely. And then Monday rolls around, and everything is busy, and they’re so tired! Maybe they’ll go tomorrow. And then Tuesday is no better, and neither is Wednesday, and the week is pretty much over by now so they might as well plan on starting next Monday. Monday, for sure, they will start, they self-talk aloud to their friends at brunch for the hundredth week in a row. And then even if, on some Monday, they do finally go to the gym and eat perfectly and do it every day, by Friday they are exhausted, and they never do it again.

But on the other hand, there are other people who have these pretty perfect-seeming habits! They eat right and go to the gym and they go to bed but they’re also at all the parties and they have a side hustle. A little bit of this is perception — no one is perfect all the time. But the reality is those habits are, mostly likely, years of work and practice and experimenting with what works for them. They didn’t just wake up like that.

Perfectionism can be a real problem with fitness, especially for women, because we have constant pressure from all sides to do it all and be everything and make it look effortless. We have to have perfect, toned bodies and be in optimal health but we are allowed to neither sweat nor eat. Like, reread that, out loud — laying it out like that, you know you can’t have all those things. But we keep beating ourselves against all those ideas at the same time as if we only have to try hard enough, and then when it doesn’t work out perfectly we beat ourselves up even harder.

I have a couple pieces of advice.

Start something right now, but don’t start everything right now. Don’t try to start all of the good habits at once. Pick one thing and do it today — not tomorrow, not Monday, today, and do it once. If it doesn’t work out, find a way to start even slower. I have one swolefriend who wanted to eat better but is very bad at grocery shopping and meal planning; he never has any food in his house and orders out often. Many mornings he did not eat breakfast. I noticed he likes granola, so one day at the grocery store, I just started pitching bags of granola into his cart like, “Here, you like granola, it never goes bad, just have a million of them around at all times, you will always have breakfast.” Is granola the healthiest food to eat? No, it’s jumped-up breakfast cereal. But put it on some Greek yogurt, it’s not bad. It’s sure as hell better than eating no breakfast. Maybe someday he’ll have set up all his fitness habits and come back around to breakfast, and decide it needs more optimizing and he’ll find something healthier to eat. Who knows if he’ll ever really have his life together and make overnight swoalts every Sunday before he goes to bed at 10! He found a way over the breakfast hurdle, and that will hold him for a while.

So if you pick going to the gym three days a week, don’t also force yourself to try to eat perfectly, for now. Once you feel like the gym is second nature, cook one meal one night a week you can also eat for two lunches, and find two days that week you can bring that lunch (so it’s not every single day). Don’t stress about the nutrition content too much, just make something you know you will eat. If the lunch is too impractical to bring, eat it for dinner; if you don’t like it, cook something else. If cooking doesn’t work, there are prepared meals, frozen meals, sandwiches, salads, and so forth.

You say you feel like your life is all or nothing; what that means is you know somewhere in your heart your “all” is too much “all.” Long-term fitness is a stack of habits you cultivate over a long period of time. There will be setbacks and it can’t always be a focus of your life. No one wakes up and suddenly starts doing everything the opposite of what they were doing before and sticks with it. Much as I hate to make anyone think about running, fitness is a marathon. You need to start, but you’re not going to keep going if you try to do too much too fast. Actually, scratch that, fitness is like lifting weights. You don’t start simply deadlifting 400 pounds. You deadlift 20 pounds, and then 30 pounds, and in a year you are deadlifting 1.5x your bodyweight and everyone is like how do you do it?? And the answer is not that you just suddenly started doing it, it’s that you started with what you could manage and built from there. I could go on forever about how we love the magical narrative of success so much that we just ignore the plain evidence of sustained effort, but we have to move on.

Take it easy, but take it. The attitude that it’s all over if you have a slice of dollar pizza is, I hope you recognize, a bit extreme. Sometimes the day is busy, or you’re hungover, or whatever, and you’re going to have that dollar slice of pizza. Your week or month is not ruined because you had a slice of pizza. There is room for pizza in a human diet! If having a slice of pizza gives me back a little time to plan the rest of my life, or actually go to the gym that day, I know what I’d choose. We are all very aware right now of how much garbage is all around us — convenience food, “dirty” carbs and fats — to the point that we never stop tiptoeing around it. It’s like if we don’t personally prepare a meticulous grain bowl for every meal, we fail.

Ultimately, your life needs to be sustainable, which includes having some flexibility, and that includes social activity. As long as you’re not working out every day (which you probably shouldn’t be), you should have days you can let a little loose. But sometimes you do have to say no, or at least, “I can’t tonight, but what about [other night next week when you don’t have to work out the next day]?” That said, to get tough on you for a sec, consider how lucky you are to be making this choice, and not other choices. You are (I’m guessing) able of body and and mind and if you only have to choose going to bed early about half the days of the week in lieu of hobnobbing, I’m guessing no one’s livelihood depends on you. Not to belittle your problems, but your life is comparatively uncomplicated, health-issue free, economic-issue-free. People ask me how to do fitness when they have kids and multiple jobs and they have this lumbar issue that crops up any time they’re upright, and that question is much harder to answer. You are well positioned, right now, to develop habits that will let you take care of yourself for the rest of your life, and you should treat it like the gift it is; don’t put it off until you have a million more things encroaching on your time and it’s too late.

Four-hour catch-ups with friends or long dates with new people can be fun, but do you always need them? I’m envy my friends who breeze in and out of events and hangouts within 45 minutes to an hour. These are the same people that make us wonder how they get so much done. The answer is, they are always primed for impact. They know they only want to stay for 45 minutes, so they have one drink, flit from conversation to conversation, room to room, and then they’re out to write that book or run that business or make that website or plan that panel or whatever amazing and cool thing they are onto now. They always show up and have fun and people are happy to see them — balance! — but they also are rarely anywhere on anyone’s terms but their own. They are less “hanging out” and more “making an appearance,” and I don’t think they get away with it because they’re anything special; they are just getting after their life. It’s part of what makes them so compelling that you try to catch them when you see them at a party, in addition to knowing that in a minute they’ll be gone.

Sometimes you do want to be Cool Girl Who Is Down To Go Hard Till 5 a.m. because you feel like having that kind of night. But what do you get out of four or five or seven hours you can’t get out of one or two, most of the time? What do you get out of four drinks you can’t get out of three, or even one or two? What good things happen at 4am that haven’t already happened by 2am? You’re not a double agent trying to tease out the nuclear launch codes from a drunk fellow operative; you are just having a chill time. Be cognizant of times when you might be hanging around waiting for something to happen. Go in with a plan! I’m also a big fan of the Irish goodbye at big events — like, just leave, no one cares about you that much. If anyone catches you on the way out be like “I have another thing, sorry, but let’s plan something, I’ll email you!” No one has to know that thing is “working out the next day.” Don’t do it at your best friend’s birthday or the first time you have one-on-one time with your boss in a year. But during the next happy hour, try being a little more deliberate about the time you spend.

I suppose the difference between these people and other people is their priority is not socializing; their priority is whatever they’re making room for by constraining the socializing. They also condition everyone to respect their time by respecting it themselves. If you want to make fitness a priority, the food and workout bits are not necessarily the only things to optimize. Learning to constrain other variables and extricate yourself and manage your time are skills you can develop, too.

You do have to treat yourself like a priority, which is not easy for many women because everyone expects us to accommodate them. But that’s also why you need that time more than most. Part of the reward of exercise it is gives you time to put yourself and your wants first in a world that’s constantly demanding your attention. But it can also give you an incentive to develop the skills that go into getting it — demanding respect for your priorities from yourself and from others, being forgiving of your failures and learning from them, but also starting things and doing them. Be the friend who miraculously gets so much done, and not the friend who is definitely going to start going to the gym on Monday for sure.

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