Mind Over Matter: Are You Failing Before You’ve Even Started?

It’s the New Year, which means gyms will be flooded by new gym-goers looking to make a change. Unfortunately, a majority of them are not on a path to reach their goals. Statistically, only 8 of individuals who make a resolution will see it successfully completed.1 The biggest problem new gym-goers make is trying to jump right to changing their behaviors—exercising more and eating better—but fail to address the underlying prerequisites that determine what behaviors they will actually carry out.

Before we ever engage in a behavior, we first have to believe that we are capable of doing it. As an example, if I have a goal to exercise more, then I have to believe I am physically capable of exercising before I have any hope of trying. If I don’t genuinely believe I can be successful, then why even try? Our beliefs are the first step in successfully changing our behavior and creating new habits. There are two distinct mindsets that determine how we frame our beliefs and reactions to events happening around us: fixed (mindsets) and growth mindsets.2 

Fixed Mindset

Individuals who hold a fixed mindset view their traits, skills, and abilities as fixed and stable.3 In other words these abilities, or lack thereof, don’t change very much. Fixed mindset individuals tend to stick to the things they are good at, and avoid things that challenge them.  Why do they avoid challenges? In their minds they are not good at this task, and it would be a waste of time and a detriment to their character to keep doing it.4 It also, in their minds, makes them look bad to others because they are constantly failing at the task. Fixed theorists tend to focus on their performance—they just want to perform well and look good in the eyes of others.5

How can this particular mindset be detrimental to attempting a new fitness program? Take, for example, an individual starting a new weight-loss program for the first time. They walk into the gym for their first workout, get on a treadmill and begin to walk at a brisk pace. They notice how tired they are getting after only a few short minutes. In an attempt to take their mind of the discomfort they look around the room and notice the person next to
them is running almost effortlessly. Someone with a fixed mindset may look at this more advanced gym patron and compare themselves, saying things like, “They are in such better shape than me” or “I must not be very good at exercise because I’m already tired, and they aren’t even breathing hard.” Since, in a fixed mindset framework, our skills and abilities can’t really be changed, if we decide we are bad at an activity we are likely to quit doing it altogether.

Growth Mindset

On the other hand, an individual with a growth mindset will view their traits, skills, and abilities as something that can be cultivated through learning and practice.3 Although they may not be good at something the first time they do it, individuals with a growth mindset know that they can get better by persevering at the given task. While fixed mindsets tend to be more performance-goal oriented (being better than others), growth mindsets tend to be more mastery-goal oriented—meaning they care less about their overall performance, especially in the eyes of others, and more about mastering the task (improving their performance compared to their previous performance).5

Let’s take the same example as above, the individual just starting a new fitness program. This individual again walks into the gym for a workout, hops on the treadmill, and begins to walk briskly. This time, however, they notice they aren’t breathing hard as quickly as the last time. An individual with a growth mindset will focus less on comparing themselves to the sprinter next to them, and more on how much they’ve improved compared to their previous self (them from the last time they went to the gym). By noticing the improvements they’ve made over time, they will be much more likely to continue with their program compared to the fixed mindset individual who is comparing themselves to the more advanced runner.

Differences in Failure Reactions

When we are successful at things, there is virtually no difference between the actions of fixed and growth mindset individuals. The difference occurs when faced with a failure or setback.6,7 If someone with a fixed mindset fails at a given task (didn’t lose as much weight as expected, cheated on their diet, etc.) they are much more likely to quit altogether. This occurs because they attribute that failure to something internal and permanent: “I didn’t lose weight because I have no self-control.” On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset who faces a failure can attribute that failure to something external and temporary: “I didn’t lose weight because I skipped too many workouts last week.” In the first scenario, they failed because of a lack in willpower and will likely always fail for that reason (because it is a fixed trait), so why continue to try? In the second scenario they failed because they skipped too many workouts, so in order to succeed they need to simply stop skipping their workouts (i.e. learn from the experience and do better next time).

Additionally, individuals with growth mindsets have been shown to put in more effort, and persist longer, at challenging tasks.

How To Manage Mindsets

If holding a growth mindset is more conducive to successfully sticking to a program, how can we adopt this way of thinking? The first challenge is identifying which mindset we currently subscribe to. The trick here is that these mindsets are implicit, meaning we aren’t necessarily aware that we hold one or the other. While there are surveys available that you can take that will measure which mindset you most likely follow, the easiest way is to note what reactions you have next time you face a setback. Do you feel like you get discouraged and want to quit, or do you identify what went wrong and try to fix it for next time? The answers to these questions will help you identify which mindset you currently hold.

What if you want to change your current mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? The key here is to realign your thoughts consciously with that of a growth mindset.9 Say you don’t lose as much weight as you’d like initially, and you notice you are being really hard on yourself. Consciously identify what factors could’ve gone wrong that you can correct in the future to improve your chances of success. Maybe even write them down. If you can focus on the factors that are under your control, over time you will realign your mindset to one more conducive to success. Adopting a growth mindset will increase your chances of adhering to your fitness program long-term, and it is this adherence that has been shown to be necessary for successful weight-loss and maintenance.10 By noting your reactions to failure, identifying controllable factors that you can change, and taking the necessary steps to improve your performance you can change your beliefs and be successful.

 

About Alex McBrairty

Alex McBrairty is a personal trainer based in Ann Arbor, MI. He educates his clients in exercise, nutrition, and behavior change to help them develop new habits and reach their goals. Alex also teaches, writes, and speaks about fitness motivation and behavior change.