The Messy Middle

healthy lifestyle Jul 02, 2020

A Common Pattern

You start a new health program, full of enthusiasm and excited for the change it will bring. The first days and weeks go well, you are making all the right steps, and you see early signs of progress. You've been exercising for a week and feel a bit stronger or more energetic. You've stuck to your nutrition plan and have lost 7 pounds. So far so good.

But then something shifts. It starts to get harder. Maybe you don't feel like getting up early to exercise. Maybe you really want to order the cheesecake for dessert. Maybe you don't want to go to bed early, you'd rather finish binge-watching the latest Netflix show you are plowing through. Before you know it, you find your progress has stopped or maybe you've even lost ground. You start asking yourself, "Is this even worth it? Why am I even trying?"

Welcome to the messy middle.

The Messy Middle

The messy middle is that part of the journey where excitement and enthusiasm have worn off but the "new way" has not become routine. This is where self-doubt and negative self-talk start to rule the day, and the voice in your head tells you it would be better to give up, that you are no good at this, and it's not worth the effort.

Here's something you should know - everyone hits the messy middle. Some get stuck, others persist and move past. In order to get the results you want, you'll need to learn how to navigate past the messy middle.

Moving Past the Middle

I'm not saying that getting past the messy middle is easy. For most people it takes some work and persistence. But it's doable.

So, if you're getting stuck in the mess, what can you do? Here are a few ideas to help:

  • Plan for it. The messy middle is coming. When you start a new program or project, know that it is coming, and make plans for how you will deal with it. There are likely patterns to failures you've had in the past. Identify those and put strategies in place to help reduce the risk they derail you next time. Are you frequently derailed by negative self-talk? Maybe you can recruit a friend now to be your encourager when times get rough, or write a letter to yourself about why your plan is important to you and how you should persevere even when you don't feel like continuing. Do you get bored with doing the same things? Plan for new exercise routines you might want to try, or where you might find new recipes that follow your healthy eating plan. You might practice saying, "My mind is telling me I should give up, but I know my health is important and I want to be at my best for my work and family, so I am going to ignore what my mind it telling me right now."
  • Look for what is working. It is easy to look for what is not working, and this may lead you to abandon a perfectly good program. If you lost 7 pounds, but then had an off week and gained 2 pounds back, this is not a sign you should abandon your program. Reflect on what was working for you initially, what knocked you off course, and how you can get back on track. If you have a program that is 80% effective for you right now, you will be much better off keeping that 80% going and looking to tweak the remaining 20% than you will giving up and having to start from scratch again.
  • Access your resourceful states. When are you at your best? When are you able to plow through problems and overcome obstacles? There is probably a type of situation in your life where problems arise and you are confident you can overcome whatever problems or roadblocks arise. You want to be able to identify the characteristics you have that allow you to solve problems, then access those to help you stay on track for your health program. Are you "Mr. Super Smooth" with difficult clients and your boss comes to you to help save these accounts? Are you "Mama Grizzly Bear" when your children are being impacted? When you hit the messy middle, ask yourself what Mr. Super Smooth or Mama Grizzly Bear would do right now.
  • Find an Ally. Find a friend or colleague who is attempting to make the same changes as you and team up. Agree to help each other through difficult times.
  • Celebrate Milestones. Plan celebrations, big or little, when you hit certain targets along the way to your goal.
  • Take a Break. As long as you don't "fall off the wagon" too hard, you might find taking a break from your program can help replenish your enthusiasm. Instead of trying to lose weight this week, allow a little more leniency and aim to just maintain your weight. Allow yourself to skip a workout or two. What has become a burden, and could you lighten the load for a few days? Obviously be careful with this one, as you don't want this to lead to abandoning your plan, but if you schedule a "cheat day" or "slacker week" knowing you will get back to your plan again soon, you might find your energy and enthusiasm replenished.

Anticipating the arrival of the messy middle will help you move past obstacles that stop most people. Rather than getting knocked off course, you can say, "Hello, Messy Middle! I've been expecting you! Please go sit quietly in the corner, because I've got work to do."


Dr. Topher Fox


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