Your new, overweight, sedentary client wants to run a marathon. “I’ve already signed up! It’s 6 months away so I’m really motivated!” Some time in the next 6 months your client is going to fail, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prevent a massacre that might turn her away from a healthy lifestyle forever. The key is to keep the client focused on the process instead of the outcome. Here are my steps for planning a graceful failure.
1. Praise the parts of the decision that you like; ignore the parts you don't like. Your client was inspired into this decision by a lot of different motivations. You can pick and choose the ones that you believe are beneficial to her in the long run and simply ignore the ones that aren’t. By getting your client to practice focusing on those higher-quality motivations, you are setting them up for success in the long run, even if this plan backfires. For example, most people sign up for marathons because they think it makes them look dedicated and focused on their long term health. So say, “wow! You’re really serious about getting fit!” That way, even if the marathon doesn’t work out, your client will keep the confidence that comes from having signed up at all.
2. Manage their expectations. At this moment, your client probably has no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into. Before my first marathon, no one told me I was going to gain 10lbs or spend 42 days learning where all the public toilets were on my training route. Over the next few months, you should introduce your client to the downsides of their course of action, but very gently and always present a few possible solutions. Try to keep them focused on the process. Dedicating one’s self to external goals (like competitions) has unexpected downsides, but learning a process to deal with them is a key to lifelong fitness.
However, there is a huge exception here for times when our clients might be setting themselves up for grievous bodily harm. If what they have decided to do goes against your own personal ethics, then by all means tell them that!
3. Ride this wave of motivation to introduce healthier habits that you want to stick. When my clients start on a big external goal adventure, I ask them to keep a thought journal in which they answer two questions nightly:
What did I do well today? What did I learn today?
Believe it or not, these are incredibly powerful questions. They force us to look at our behaviors and see how they are aligning with our goals and they also force us to frame things in a positive light. They focus us on the process and according to the Randomized Control Trails of Martin Seligman PhD., the founder of positive psychology, are inherently addictive questions that improve our base levels of happiness. Just from thinking about two simple questions!
Your clients are likely going to make a few odd turns on their journey to lifelong health and fitness, but by keeping them focused on the process (especially when the outcome is unlikely), we can keep them moving forward. And maybe even snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.