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Progress and Plateau

26 May 2021

When on a journey associated with personal improvement, we tend to imagine a goal that, once we achieve it, we are finished. For example, I am trying to lose weight, and I set a goal of 23 pounds (chosen because it gets me to a round number that felt like a good endpoint). In my imagination, I can lose weight by dieting and exercising for a few months, and then I’ll hit my goal and I’ll be done. This is an excellent way to succeed in the short term and fail in the long run.

The reason of course is that while I may feel like I’m done making progress toward a goal, my mind and body are not done succumbing to entropy. We often talk about plateauing when we are trying to reach a goal but not making progress despite putting in the work. But our goal is also a plateau of its own, in our minds: the mountain top that we can stay on, rarified and perfect. We are hoping to reach an eternal plateau.

But the truth of it is that as soon as we stop making progress, we start to regress. Without vigilance and effort, we start to deteriorate from the pinnacle we’d like to stay perched atop. In systems engineering, these are called “unstable equilibria”. A ball on top of a hill, perfectly placed with no momentum, will stay atop it. But the instant there is a puff of a breeze, it begins to roll back down.

I am almost to my goal weight. I have lost 20.2 of my 23 pounds. Based on how I look and feel, I will probably extend my efforts out and set a new goal for another five or ten pounds of weightloss. But I’m not sure yet. I’m committed to not changing my goal until I achieve it. As always, my fundamental goals are around not developing diabetes, and feeling fit and capable. In that sense, I’m being successful.

So I’m working out now how to reach and stay at the plateau I’m aiming for. It will involve continuing most of the behaviors I’m currently committed to: calorie counting, food weighing, exercise tracking, cheat day management of cravings, etc.. I will just work on adjusting my calorie count until I find a level that maintains an equilibrium rather than continues to result in losses. It will be challenging because weight is a noisy measure, sensitive to hydration, hormone cycle (yes, men have them too!), constipation, etc., etc..

I don’t know yet how I’ll manage that aspect. I don’t want to get trapped in trying to respond to noise, and becoming reactive and oscillatory in my daily eating – that way lies disorder. So I will probably set a time-factor on changes. Something like, “I will add 100 calories daily to my budget, and check after two weeks if I am level, down, or up,” rather than looking at my morning weight and saying, “I need to eat 300 fewer calories today.”

I am, in this, discovering that I can be successful if I am committed, assiduous, and conscientious about my adherence. If I address my anxieties head on and embrace the discomfort of knowing that my body is not going to react precisely how I want it to on my timeline. Like everything else in life, I need to practice acceptance and patience.

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