When effort put in does not result in the outcomes you are after


No change, no degradation, no perversion… in any grade…

has monsters half so horrible… as Ignorance and Want

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Have you ever drawn up a target or a goal, using the SMART formula, and pursued it with all your effort only to have the target elude you? Perhaps this gave you pause. Perhaps it was the last straw and now you doubt the efficacy of goal setting? I know I have. I could use any number of examples from career and finance, to relationship and emotions, but I still think about the way Christmas and New Year’s goals drew me toward diets and weight loss.

In September I had set myself a target to lose 6 kilograms. My aim was clear.

  • I was Specific: get to 78kg by March 1.
  • I was Measurable: weekly, on the scales.
  • I was Aspirational (achievable, articulate, attainable, acceptable and action-oriented)!
  • It was Relevant to my life and
  • It was Timely. I gave myself six months to lose 6 kilograms which by all measures is reasonable.

In my last article, I wrote about the range of weight loss programs, from the point of view of choosing something that would work for you. Well, I was looking for something that worked for me. I wasn’t just counting calories and exercising (though by most measures increasing exercise and reducing Kj should be able to achieve my modest target).

I had set my challenge to restrict calories on 5 of the 7 days a week (7680kj or 1835cal)… I was doing carb reduction… I was drinking alcohol only on weekends… and I was to exercise 4-5 times a week.

So how did it all go? Well it was a mixed bag (as journeys usually are). My average Kj intake hovered below 8,000 on my five restricted days (soaring to 10-12,000 on the days off). I had dropped bread, corn products, rice and sugar. I was cycling 9-12 kms regularly, walking, and doing intensive circus training at least once a week.

After these many months… I have landed exactly where I started.

Why wasn’t it working? Ignorance isn’t bliss!

Louis V. Gerstner once said: “It isn’t what’s expected that gets done, it’s what is inspected”. I reckon that pretty much sums up my situation. I wasn’t inspecting the right things. We go along believing we have a rough appreciation for a topic. How gravity works for example. All that changes when we take a ride in a jet plane.  Our approximate mental models are often woefully inaccurate.

Thankfully by nature I am a data gatherer. The whole time I was counting everything I did for exercise, and everything I ate and drank in an app called “LifeSum”. I mean down to the brand and quantity. Scanning barcodes and all.

So where to drill down? I started with water consumption. Excellent. Calorie burning properties of each exercise type (cycling and swimming are remarkably good). Calorie intake was right… the GI balance of my meals was great as well. So how about the daily break down of protein, fat and carbohydrates?

The daily allowance of carbs is normally 320g. On my restricted diet that was dropped to 230g. I was hitting an average of 150g. That means I was cruising along at 30-65% – surely what one might call “reduced” right? At this point it is human nature (it is my nature) to start looking for something else… perhaps it was my age, metabolism, thyroid function or the side effect of some vitamin supplement I was taking?

Such reaching for logic has produced some of the most spectacular phantoms in science. Phlogiston, and luminiferous aether to name just two. It is more difficult to examine things even more closely. 

In case you didn’t know (and I didn’t know), the definition of a reduced carb diet allows you to have 100g per day. A ‘low carb’ diet is less than 43 g per day. The most hard-core ‘Ketosis diet’ is less than 20g per day. So in actual fact I had not yet even started to reach my goal. As a result, I had not even started to reach my weight goal either!

So, should I be praised for running at half my reduced intake or scalded for eating three times as much as I should?! As Charles Dickens intimated, ignorance of the facts and want or desire lies at the heart of our trouble! Want, in my case being appetite and desire in the realm of food and drink. Ignorance in this case being supposed education, information but a paucity of understanding. Gormless, feckless wretch that I was.

To be honest, although I had grasped GI and GL I had no mental picture of what carbs really were, and lack of data on hidden carbs (sugar in fruit, starch in corn). So, I reviewed the meals I was eating, the brands I had chosen and took a very close look at the carbs (by the gram) in everything.

I felt betrayed by my best friends! Even the good-looking ones (especially the good-looking ones!). My favourite Vietnamese dressing, apple cider, even the humble brown rice cracker are now off the program. It turns out that when it comes to the ‘M’ of measurement, you really should be measuring the thing you want to reduce. Not weight, not calories, not exercise but carbs in my case!

Onward and downward!