Friday, December 23, 2011

Like Water


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 consequencesHere'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.

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.


Anonymous said...

How about a situation where you have had a case of fuckarounditis wrt sticking with a program longer than 2 weeks before jumping to something new?

For instance, I would, just once, like to see something through to completion wrt exercise. I am doing a 10 week body weight program which is doing me good and I am making good gains and progress, but I want to do a 5x5 type compound barbell program. If I switch to that, it will be another case of bailing before meeting a goal.
So, at what point is learning first how to stick with something not a better idea than moving on?

Well, to answer my own question, I will finish the 8 weeks bodyweight program, take a week break, then move to the barbell program. I can afford to take this time without regrets.

Fellow Swede said...

Wise words Martin! I really enjoy reading your writing! I've read so much truth on this site that I don't even put my glasses of suspiciousness on anymore.

Don't be surprised if a tall guy appears on your doorstep and gives you a hug one day!

Traindom said...

I know who you are and what you do, but it's always nice and refreshing whenever you let us peer inside your personal life's ups and downs. It reminds us that you're not some mythical jacked guru who's above it all. You've been where we have been or currently are. It makes you seem more human. Cheers to this.

paul d said...


I am guessing risk aversion must come into play here as well. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote about this in prospect theory. Another factor in there may be explained by Ash's conformity experiments, and the role they have demonstrated in relation to social influence. Human inertia is intriguing, and something I live with every day.

Merry xmas - Paul D
Merry xmas.

Paul d

Anonymous said...

I really needed this today. Thank you.

Gerry said...

Awesome article, really needed to confirm what I have felt for quite some time. I have been accused of having a lack stick-to-it-ness by many people close to me. I think my pragmatic views on life have moved me forward quicker than a fundamental view. Thanks for the great article.

Andy said...

Incredibly well said Martin.

Andy said...

A thing that has struck my mind lately. I know lifting like Martin is badass, but how likely is it you can train that way your whole life without injury?

Matt said...

Possibly the most motivating, and relevant post I've seen on this blog, so far.

dafno said...

great post martin.

what is your take about milk? is milk (dairy) something you changed your opinion on as well? this quote from jack lalanne struck me today as i read it:

"Look, are you a suckling calf? Name one creature on earth that uses milk after it's weaned. Man's the only one. And man's the only one who lives out only half his life span. A cow has four stomachs. You don't. You can't handle whole milk."

merry christmas

Matthew said...

Gerry, I'm in the same boat with my friends. Since I'm quick to adapt new ideas, it appears as if I'm moving from program to program aimlessly.

Great read so close to Christmas. Keep up the spectacular writing Martin.

Johari Baharuddin said...

I wont share my embarrasing past lifting mistakes to reinforce your point. But we've all had our own to contemplate on.

This is a really important point for lifters though. Too many people commit to their own lifestyle, and on the internet, where different opinions on the matter exist, the problem is likely compounded by arrogance.

Anyway, merry christmas. Being staunchly anti consumerist and raised without religious influences, i've never bought a christmas present for anybody (or a birthday present since i was 14). Congratulations for taking my virginity Martin.

Andrej said...

I have to say this post really resonated with me. I, too, seem to be too much of a fundamentalist, and have clung to the same training routine for about a year now, without only slight progress in strength. I keep telling myself I just need to push myself harder, and I always try, but after reading this, it made me realize that it's not lack of pushing myself that's the problem. So I guess I can just say thanks for the needed wake-up call. said...

It's always a revelation to scroll through your site and take part of all knowledge you've gathered over the years. When I get the notion to fuck around with my nutrition and workout routine I just type in your url and get a nice reality check.

I've been IF'ing for almost 7 months and I still get big clusters of excitement from time to time because of the absolute freedom i feel about my nutrition.

Just started reading Mindless Eating to and that is more knowledge that i've gained from this site.

Im wishing you a merry christmas from the northern parts of Sweden!

Anonymous said...

Martin please do some training articles. Love your site.

Aussie Christmas is HOT said...


I really enjoy your articles, and many of the words you have written have genuinely effected and improved my life. Thank you.

I found your protocol this year, therefor this has been my first LG 'festive season'. Usually, by about the 3rd of 4th day of eating like I'm never going to eat again and drinking like I've just discovered beer - the body gets upset and starts turning on me.

Not. This. Time.

I remember last Christmas... The lead up, trying to diet as hard as possible, smashing in extra cardio sessions just desperately trying to carve out a big enough deficit so that all my good work wouldn't be ruined by family get togethers and a few sessions on the sauce. Oh, then that horrible feeling one week into the holidays, when your abs start to hide themselves and getting out of bed feels more difficult, because you realise the road ahead once your 'holiday' comes to and end... Even tougher dieting, train every day, twice if possible, eat better, more often, prepare meals... Months of effort, destroyed by a few days of enjoyment? What a bullshit yo-yo way to live.

Thanks for opening my eyes Martin.


Yannis said...

Yes, Martin thank you and very well done.
I'd like to hear more on your opinions on Jack Kruse as well as more on training.
Thanks and a happy new year!

Anonymous said...

I've always referred to this as slot machine economics. "I've got too much invested to stop now, it will pay off any time"....

Matt Stone said...

Fantastic as always. You are definitely putting out some of the highest quality stuff on the internet right now. This is about the only blog I carefully read these days.

Excited to hear the review of Richard Wrangham, as I have just written quite a bit about Wrangham this past week.

Armi Legge said...

This is one of your best posts yet Martin. Thank you for providing such excellent information.


Anonymous said...

The sunken cost fallacy can be quite useful at times. It helps me overcome the little moments of weakness that I guess everyone experiences, such as when I have to force myself out of bed at half past six after four or five hours of sleep to get to the gym knowing that after the gym I will have to stay focused and alert for the next sixteen hours that I will be sitting behind my office desk :-).

Martin Bernardino said...

Great post, & great insight that I know has allowed you to help your clients more.

There should be a distinction between perseverance & stubbornness, between a strong will & a "strong won't". But the young guys are taken with the "never quit" mentality; maybe it'll take reaching the same level of desperation that you felt at the end of your modeling days before they change their game plan too.

calves exercises said...

Amazing topic you've just brought up, especially with new year's so close...I always have the problem to find balance between persistence and adaptability. I think, adaptability must be PART of your persistence in any given thing/goal. But like I said, it's so hard to juggle because very often I feel like I'm giving up when I'm in reality adapting myself to new "results"... Anyways, I really like your thoughts on this topic. Awesome post.

Mike said...

Another home run.
Your work consistently stacks up with the highest-quality insights and guidance available anywhere for fitness and for life. Thanks for the great stuff, happy new year.

Ash said...

Cool article Martin, as usual

This is very interesting coming from someone with a website (with a large following, I guess) based on a single theme. What would it take for you to give up Intermittent Fasting, given that it fit so well for you immediately? Is there any disadvantage you can identify? Mood maybe?

Bryan Rankin said...

Also known as "Throwing good stones after bad".

Anonymous said...

An article to meditate and think. Thank you very much for Sharing it!!

My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

Welcome to the Internet's leading resource on intermittent fasting and all things related.

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