Not long ago, a colleague at work turned to me and said, “I’m going to lose 20 pounds by July.”
I had a pretty good idea what was going on.
Most of us employees had signed up for free, company-provided health screenings. These consisted of a finger-prick blood test for cholesterol and glucose levels, a blood pressure check, and a weighing.
His weighing showed that a sedentary desk job and a fondness for pistachios had caught up with him. (Note: If you want to gain weight, just eat in front of your computer while working. You’ll enjoy the food less and eat more. I guarantee it.)
Losing a few pounds is certainly a laudable goal, especially when you find yourself on the wrong side of your ideal weight. But in his case, he had given himself two months to achieve something that most people would find extremely difficult to accomplish in six.
I remember expressing skepticism that he could lose so much weight so fast. Inside though, I was thinking something more like, “If you do lose 20 pounds in two months, I’ll eat my keyboard.”
About a week later, it was clear my keyboad would remain intact. I spied him gobbling pistachios again, the weight-loss resolution apparently a dim memory already.
When you set an unrealistic goal, I think you’re basically setting yourself up for failure. Further, failing at something is no fun, and just erodes your self-confidence.
With overcoming knee pain, this issue is particularly acute. That’s because the key bit of traditional advice for beating knee pain -- “strengthen your quads” -- mentally conditions you to expect a recovery on the wrong time scale.
Muscles strengthen relatively quickly. Knee joints don’t.
So, not knowing any better, you think: “I have chronic knee pain. If I strengthen my quad muscles, I can escape it. I’ll devote myself to a two- to three-month quad-strengthening routine. Then I’ll feel fine again!”
My bet is you won’t though. My bet is (if you really have chronic knee pain that’s been troublesome for a while), you’ll need six months. 9 months. 12 months. A year and a half. Two years.
But suppose you proceed with this unrealistic goal of healing in two or three months. After a month, when you realize you’re nowhere near being halfway healed, you may despair and think, “That’s it. There’s no way my bad knees can be fixed.”
So you give up, having decided you can’t reach a goal that was never realistic to begin with.
Of course your problems are really twofold. Your larger problem is arguably that you’re following the wrong path (focusing on strengthening muscles instead of the joint). Still, even if you get on the right path, chances are good you’ll flub your recovery if you begin with the promise of unrealistic expectations.