A fake appointment with Lauren

Is a health coaching session still useful, even if it’s not real?

This meeting is totally fake, right?

That’s my fake appointment with Lauren, my health coach.  Lauren and I don’t talk anymore, but I’m willing to act like we still do.  I’ll tell you why.

I mentioned in a prior post that I won a weight loss contest last year.  You’ll get some of that success story in this post, but today I want to talk about my coaching sessions with Lauren.

Lauren was my over-the-phone health coach assigned by my health insurance company.  My job was offering a small incentive ($50) to get on a health coaching program to either reduce stress, lose weight, or quit smoking.  Figuring I would feel less stressed if I lost some weight (and since I don’t smoke) I signed up.

Lauren is a registered nurse who provided me with some basic health coaching.  Things that, as an adult, I already believed I knew.

Examples:

  • 5-7 servings of vegetables and fruit per day
  • keeping my sodium intake below a certain level
  • getting enough rest
  • doing enough exercise each week
  • drinking enough water.

Since I was overweight, I felt I needed the program, even if I thought I knew what the coaching session was going to be.

I signed up.  I found out what millions of people who have gone through Weight Watchers know:

It’s the accountability, stupid.

When you are trying to overcome obesity, stop smoking, get out of debt, or reverse other bad behaviors, accountability can be a big factor in whether you succeed or fail.  We all know the answers, probably.  Or we think we know.  The accountability requires us to do the work via peer pressure or suffer the social consequences.

I started a monthly 15 minute coaching session in January last year.

The first coaching session was used to set a baseline on my knowledge of healthy and non-healthy behaviors in relation to eating and exercising.  I had the head knowledge but wasn’t applying it, and being forced to verbalize that to Lauren hurt my pride.  It hurt because I knew better, and had been making poor decisions anyway.

Even though I had the head knowledge, my habits showed that I had taken the path of least resistance for several years.  I was working out 1-2 times per week, half-heartedly, which means with half intensity.

If I paid attention to the food I ate I certainly did not pay attention to the portion sizes.  As Louis C.K. jokingly surmises, I didn’t stop eating when I was full (warning: language):

For the first few months, Lauren would have me set one small goal only.  She was looking for the small win, the quick victory for me to make progress.  We started with making sure I had at least five servings of fruits and vegetables the first month.

I’m a grown adult, this shouldn’t be hard, I thought.  But it was.  It was hard to change what I did everyday for food.  My wife was very helpful, but it turns out it can be difficult to get in that many F&Vs.  You have to change what you eat all day every day to get them in.

The second month, when I had to get my results ready for discussion, I had bad news for Lauren.  I have done 5-6 servings on less than three days a week.  I had to admit I fell way short of the goal, and it was a pretty simple goal.

Lauren was ecstatic.  She praised my improvement, and it was an improvement, and encouraged me to keep the same goal until I was doing 5-6 servings at least 6 days a week.  It took months to get it straight.  Positive reinforcement and a laser focus on changing only one thing helped me create a new habit.

Here’s roughly what a day looks like for me now on this front:

Blueberries with greek yogurt in the morning; carrots with ranch dressing (judge all you want!); celery with peanut butter; an apple or orange with lunch; veggies with dinner as a side, if not part of the entrée.  That, or something close to it, is what I now eat everyday to make sure I am getting in my servings, almost 18 months later.  New habit.

Each month, Lauren would ask me to add something new only if I had mastered the last thing.

Habit-stacking is the new normal

We next worked on tracking my calories using an app.  Then checking sodium.  Six months in, Lauren wanted me to get more serious about working out.  I bought an entry-level home fitness DVD program that I could do 5-6 days a week.  Then, I found I had a hard time having enough energy to perform the exercises, so we spent a month just tracking whether I went to bed on time each night.

By now, when I had my monthly coaching session with Lauren, I was reporting on all kinds of things:

  • fruits and veggies eaten/days per month
  • bedtime on time/days per month
  • tracked calories/days per month
  • exercises completed/days per month
  • other small things, such as taking my daily vitamins

That seems like a lot.  And looking back, it is a lot, if you think about starting it all at once.  Lauren knew to get me to focus on and master a single thing before moving on.  Once I had made a new habit, it took very little willpower to maintain it.  I could use that limited human resource, willpower, on the one new thing.

So, what’s with the fake appointment?

A year after I first started my increasingly successful coaching sessions with Lauren, she “graduated” me from the program.  I had all these new habits in place, had lost over 40 pounds in one year, and won a weight loss contest as a result.  I felt awesome, and I loved reporting on how well I was doing to Lauren.

Our conversation loop, however, had become very powerful to me.  It was a habit unto itself.

There was seemingly little real coaching left for Lauren to do, but I was addicted to the cyclical nature of the program: (1) set new small goal, (2) work on goal, (3) report progress to Lauren, (4) get positive reinforcement.  I kept seeing good results and didn’t want it to end.  I still had weight to lose!

Turns out, most people “finish” the coaching program in 90 days.  They do the minimum to get the money and then move on.  I was using up resources at the insurance company, and the management was basically telling Lauren to get me to move on.  So, I “graduated”.  No more appointments.  I got a nice letter in the mail from the insurance company that I had completed my coaching program.

While I had many good habits in place, I was suddenly missing my feedback loop, my accountability partner.

What happened next?  Thankfully, most of my habits stuck.

But I didn’t feel like I was preparing for anything anymore.  There was no one who I had to “report” to at the end of the month.  I stopped tracking my calories each day, I went back to working out only 1-2 times per week, and I stopped tracking my portions as closely.  I maintained my weight for four months, but I was not making forward progress.

So, I now have a fake appointment with Lauren, coming up soon.

I plan to get my results ready for the meeting, as if it were real: days under calorie goal, days worked out, and other weight and measurement stats.  I’m going to prep for a coaching call that will not take place, but I will act like it is going to.

I plan to go through the whole exercise on paper, and therefore be accountable in every way except the phone call.  Is my brain dumb enough to have that work?  Would a placebo work, even if you knew it was a placebo?

I’ll let you know how it goes, but so far I’m 17 for 21 days working out , 17 for 21 days under my calorie goal, and I lost three pounds.  I think my fake appointment is going to be a success story.

Anyone else report to imaginary people about their progress to motivate themselves?

 

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