Earlier today, someone asked me about my biggest failures on my road to success, and I answered that they all came from stubbornly clinging to old ideas, and refusing to let go of them in spite of negative consequences. Here’s a part of my response:

This kind of irrational behavior is termed the “sunk cost fallacy”. You keep investing time and resources into something – be it a diet, a training routine, a project, or a relationship – in spite of clear indications that a change of action is needed, and you do it simply because you’ve already committed a good deal of energy into it.

You’re dead set on following through, no matter what. Call it the downside of persistence. Or call it for what it is, namely being a damn fool.

The sunk cost fallacy is a well-known concept in behavioral economics. Briefly summarized, the more you spend on something, the less you’re willing to let it go. The resource invested can be money, time, mental or emotional energy – it’s all the same.

This unwillingness to let go will often lead to continued investments, not rarely in spite of negative effects. Since you’ve already put your money, time, or energy into it, so you simply keep pouring it on – you’re throwing good money after bad, as the saying goes.

Why? You might be thinking that the payoff is just around the corner. If you give up now, all that time and energy will have gone to waste. So you cling on to this sinking ship, as it drags you further into the void.

A downward spiral
Enter the downward spiral.

The Sunk Cost Fitness Fallacy

The way many people approach diet and training is an excellent example of the sunk cost fallacy. I myself am an expert on it.

My long-time readers are probably familiar with my background story and the many years I wasted following old diet dogma in spite of constant failures. Thinking back, the time period starting around in my late teens and many years onwards, seems like one long stretch of a diet.

And just like that, it all ended. Well, relatively speaking, it ended fast, once I found something that clicked. I could finally scratch that itch and be done with it once and for all.

But to get to that point, I first had to exhaust all my motivation and mental fortitude. I had to get to a point were I simply had nothing left to lose. Desperation forced the change and caused me to finally let go; let go of my old patterns, mindset, and make-believe commitment to a dysfunctional idea.

So how come it took so long for me to come around and stumble upon intermittent fasting? My usual answer goes a little something like this:

“Well, everyone was telling me to do this and that, but the studies were actually wrong, I got fooled by all these myths, yadayadayada, bullshit research, etc, etc.”

That’s a truthful answer. After all, everyone was promoting high-meal frequency diets back in the early 2000’s, and they were still going strong once I started talking about meal frequency and intermittent fasting a few years later. Eating every other hour or so, was a must. People simply didn’t know better. (Ironically, some of the most ardent promoters of this approach are now advocating intermittent fasting – or are very supportive of it. But where were they back when I stood alone and argued against all the broscientific nonsense about meal frequency in the mid-2000’s?)

The Wheel

But all that being said, with the fitness community being as it were, with all its ridiculous notions about nutrition and what not, there was a part of me that always resisted the idea of change. On some level, I was very excited to have discovered something that worked for me in intermittent fasting, during that spring and summer of 2006 when I first started practicing it seriously.

But another part of me felt a tremendous sense of loss. I thought that perhaps I should give the old approach yet another try, one last time – because my success would then, in the end, “make it worthwhile”. Yes, if I would have finally succeeded on that which I had kept failing on for so many years, it would – in my mind – justify my bullheaded commitment to it.

This irrational escalation of commitment I felt, after doing the same things over and over again for years, became the hamster wheel that kept me trapped in this cage of rigid ideas. Always running for that payoff that never came, and unwilling to switch course until the very end, when I saw no other alternative.

By the way, do you know why hamsters keep running in those wheels, round and round, never getting anywhere? Because apparently, this behavior is self-reinforcing and perceived as important. And you know, I don’t think humans are much different in this regard.

Some people spend years on diets and training routines that gets them nowhere – how do they persevere? Had I not been there myself, I would’ve gawked at this seemingly irrational and absurd behavior. Perhaps it’s jolts of dopamine that drives it, the king neurotransmitter of anticipation and expectation, providing us with just enough motivation to keep going, in our search of the payoff that never comes.

The Lessons

  1. Never wait until you’re at your wits’ end, before a much needed change in your course of action comes – because if you do, it will come more by force, and not conscious will.
  2. Be a pragmatist – not a fundamentalist. Never commit to an idea, only to progress and results.
  3. Always be prepared to change your ways rapidly and dramatically, if required. Adaptability is the key. Rigidity is the killer.
  4. Forget the past and don’t try to save a sinking ship; the faster you abandon it, the better.
  5. Cultivate a sense of suspiciousness towards yourself, your mind, and your actions. Wipe out irrational behaviors and counterproductive patterns quickly and ruthlessly – show no mercy or leniency.

Shape your circumstances, don’t let them shape you. Shape your ideas, but don’t them shape you.

Like Bruce Lee said, “be formless, shapeless – like water.

In training, diet and life, remember this.

A Few Words

Well, I wanted to give everyone a little Christmas present tonight, and the choice stood between a heavy-handed review and analysis of Wrangham’s Catching Fire, or another Best of Leangains Meals.Both of those are coming, but neither felt quite important tonight. I decided to share a few hard-earned lessons and thoughts instead. I hope the core meaning of this short article comes through, as I feel the issue I’ve tried to convey, is the root of much wasted time and frustration for many of us. Hopefully, someone learned a thing or two.

Merry Christmas, guys.

P.S. By the way, if anyone would like to give me a Christmas present, that’d be awesome.

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