Iterate, Iterate, Iterate (5 of 5 Rules of Change)

by abclarke


(5 of 5 Rules)

As a reminder, my goal is to get to 10-12% body fat by November 2007 (starting from around 20-23% in August of 2006). This series of articles talks about the approach I’m taking by turning some business management techniques onto myself.

Congratulations! Now Fail.

You’ve decided to change something big about yourself. You’ve been careful to measure what you want to change (Know What You’re Changing). You’ve started with a small step (Less Is More). You’ve changed an existing way of doing things to maximize the chance of success (Evolution Not Revolution). And you’ve tried to steer the change towards something that works for most people (Round Wheels Work).

And shock, you’ve been successful! You can see change! (In my case for the first time in 10 years, I can see my belt buckle while looking down).

Congratulations. That’s hard, and you should take a minute or two to look back and feel proud.

But let me give you a warning: This is usually where I fall down. I’ve succeeded in all those steps before in my personal life, but I’ve failed to make them a lasting change. And that’s because I’ve always failed to apply Rule #5: Iterate, iterate, iterate.

There Is No Third Way

But first, let’s talk about what happens if you didn’t get that first success? What if you did all the right things, but the change failed? It happens all the time: the diet that didn’t stick despite it being healthy (I’ve done that); the team where you didn’t fit in despite your best efforts (I’ve done that); the time you promised yourself you’d be nice to your brother at a family wedding but instead you ended up telling him you’d never talk to him again because of some insensitive thing you think he did (yup, did that too)?

How do you move forward? There are three ways:

  • THE FIRST WAY: Truly accept that you can’t change this part of your life.
  • THE SECOND WAY: Try a different way of changing.
  • THE THIRD WAY: Wander around in a state of self-pity and self-loathing where you lie to yourself claiming you really want to change. But don’t actually do anything, as a result making yourself miserable, your friends bored, and your pets vaguely annoyed. Convince yourself it was the actions of others that caused you to fail. Rail against the machine that got in your way. Corner complete strangers at parties and let them know the evil that befell you. Go on the Dr. Phil show.

When I was younger, I often chose the third way (although Dr. Phil would not accept me as a guest). I steadily gained 30 pounds all the while telling myself I wanted to get into great shape, but <insert excuse here>. I wanted some people at Tellme Networks (a former employer) who saw me as fatally limited in some ways to view me in a different way, but <insert excuse here>. I spent 3 years not talking to my brother after that family wedding, telling myself I really wanted to, but <insert excuse here>. I can give a lot of examples where I walked down the third way.

But over the last few years, I’ve realized something: the third way is a dead-end (despite what Tony Blair might think).

In every failure we face, we must force ourselves to choose the first, or the second way. If you frame your failures like that and act accordingly, simplistic as it is, all your failures will turn into successes. (I won’t claim I’m the first person to realize this.)

Failure Breeds Success

What do I mean?

What happens if you choose the first way after a failure? You accept you cannot change something. (I mean really accept, not tell yourself you accept but actually pack an RV of sorrow, bitterness and regret for a lifetime journey down the third way.)
Guess what? That is success! You’ve actually changed yourself – not in the way you originally thought, but in a way that is closer to happiness. Some people may say this is a cop-out, but it’s not. If you’re truly come to accept the world as it is, you’ve achieved a change that few ever succeed at.

For example, I realized at Tellme that I couldn’t change the opinions some people held about me, and I truly accepted that. I had gotten off on the wrong foot with them, and no amount of asking them for their respect would change that. Hell, I came to realize that some of their opinions about me had a grain of truth in them, and I should concentrate on either accepting those truths about myself or changing myself rather than changing their opinion of me. Strangely my happiness and effectiveness at work went up drastically after that. Once I stopped looking for others to change and to give me respect, and instead focused on changing myself, I got way more done and got a lot more respect. Odd that.

And what happens if you choose the second way after a failure? You change something and try again. Or in other words, you follow rule #5: You iterate, iterate, iterate until you succeed in changing.

(In case people are wondering, I did spend 3 years not talking to my brother because of something he said at my other brother’s wedding. What did he say? Actually I couldn’t remember the next day – I could only remember that I was angry. Every time I thought about reconciling with him, I convinced myself that I was truly wronged and that he should apologize first – even though I had no idea what the fight was about!!! After 3 years of excuses for not speaking to my brother, I decided to follow the Second Way and flew out to Atlanta to have dinner with him and apologize. He was as eager to talk to me as I was to him. We actually talk regularly now. Yeah, that third way is pretty stupid…)

Success Breeds Failure

So if you’re serious about change, but fail the first time, you either try again or accept the world and reach a state of higher contentment. That doesn’t seem bad.

But what happens if you succeed at your first change? Well, if you’re happy with the change and can accept that no more is required, congratulations you’re done. But if not, and it’s just the first step in a larger transformation, then the reality is most people stop here anyway.

Why? Because if you succeed the first time you have way more appealing options than if you fail. You could:

  1. Sit back and bask in the glory of what you just did (you deserve it you know. The hard work paid off. You can pick it up again later.)
  2. Repeat exactly (or do an easier version of) what you just did (you know it generates success.)
  3. Change something about what you just did to make it a little harder and riskier and try again.

Looking at those options, the first (basking in the glory) is mighty appealing. No doubt about it, it’s fun to sit back and admire your handiwork. Some acknowledgement is good, but too often we stop there. We keep intending to get back to our efforts, to finish the job, and well… This is what leads to someone losing 15 pounds quickly out of a target of fifty, but then bouncing back as they slack off. It’s not one moment of failure; it’s a slow unnoticed decline into failure.

The 2nd option (repeat what you just did) seems appealing, but a truism of change is the law of diminishing returns applies: repetition generates less change each time. Slowly you get disappointed with progress, and start putting progressively less into your efforts: You get bored doing the same thing over and over; you make excuses why you don’t need to go to the gym today; why you don’t need to organize that team-building event; why you don’t need to… and soon you’re standing still again.

Think of the many big changes in politics, business, or even your life that petered out quickly because the first two options were chosen. Option 1 and option 2 are insidious traps because they’re so easy, so pleasant, and you never feel the harsh reality of direct failure, and so you don’t get the benefits that costme from failing.

Personally, I’ve fallen into the 2nd trap more often than the first trap. For example, in many prior attempts to get in shape, I’d see great results in the first 6 weeks, keep doing the same thing, and then I’d drop off slowly after 6 months.

So to keep change going, you must risk failure and iterate, iterate, iterate. Change something about what you just did, risk something, and then go back and try just as hard again. If you fail, you get to apply the benefits of failure (see above). If you succeed, well, iterate, iterate, iterate again until either you fail, or you feel you can change no more but accept where you are.

So now, I’m trying to be religious about applying Rule #5.

(Note: While I argue failure at hard change is often better that success repeating the same easy change, please don’t take this as a recommendation to “change” a tire by holding up the car with your bare hands rather than using a jack just because it’s a “harder change.” In that case, stick with the easy change. Heck, call AAA).

Iterate Away the Fat

Where was I? Oh yeah, this series of posts is about losing body fat.

Last week I’d mentioned several changes I slowly added to my regimen: Eating 6 times a day; counting calories; drinking more water; etc. Each change was (and is) done as an iteration on the prior week. The key thing I do is watch where my body-fat is each week (measured daily, but I look at the weekly average) and where my energy level is. I change something each week to keep both moving in the right direction (down and up respectively). Watch the Nude Numbers posts for examples of that.

It has been (mostly) working, but some weeks I fail. Last week happens to be a good example: I got injured, but also didn’t change my calorie consumption to match my decreased activity. It followed on the heels of a rest/relaxed week in my schedule where weight had gone up a little (per plan). As a result my body fat has gone up too much and today I weighed in at 162.2 lbs and 15.7% body fat.

So, I’ve been changing some things, iterating, and I keep trying. I’ve reduced my calorie target back down to 2,000 to 2,250 a day, and am resting my leg. I’ve increased the amount of veggies I’m eating (sugar snap peas are in season and are very filling). If my leg doesn’t heal, I’ll switch to some other non-leg based cardio exercise.

What I’ve found over the past year as I’ve been doing this is lessons of the “failure weeks” are the ones that help me the most, so I’m optimistic about the latest one. I’ll continue each week posting my Nude Numbers so you can see how I do on this, and whether I’m actually applying these philosophies.

– Art

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