Science & Strategies for Using Coach.me

Coach Tony
Feb 8, 2016 · 9 min read

I’m the founder of Coach.me. That means I have to use our services or nobody will respect me.

But my usage of Coach.me goes way beyond that. I’m like the hair club for men founder, I’m not just the president, I’m also a client.

I was a mess before Coach.me. That’s why I started the company. Now, several years later, I just achieved my best month ever.

At Coach.me, we call it bingo if you got all of your goals done in a day. It’s a big deal to do it for a single day. I bingo’d the entire month of January.

But bingo for the month wasn’t easy and I had to apply all the behavior modification, psychology hacks and motivational tricks that I know. (Am I bragging? Maybe. But… HEY! I FEEL GREAT. YOU COULD TOO.)

Abstainers vs. Moderators

I set all my weekly targets to 7

The author Gretchen Rubin gave me this abstainers vs. moderators assessment for determining which strategies I should use to be successful. Essentially, her framework boils down to the question: “Are you someone that has to go all in?”

I’m an abstainer in Gretchen’s model. I can give up ice cream relatively easily, but I can’t have it in the house and moderate my intake to just one scoop a day. I’m 100% guaranteed to finish a pint of ice cream within 24 hours of it entering my house.

Because I’m categorized as an abstainer, I rearranged all of my Coach.me goals to be daily. Coach.me lets you set weekly targets. If you’re good at self-moderation, you can do things like set a target to exercise three times per week. I’m definitely not that person. So all of my targets are set to 7 days.

I’ll get to how I designed each goal so that they could be done daily below.

Targeting seven meditations this week. Got two done.

SMART Goals

I lost ten pounds by abstaining from sugar.

This might be the headline for a lot of people — apparently most of the world is trying to lose weight.

I’m less trying to lose weight and more just trying to kill an addiction.

I’m a sugar fiend. People with drug addictions sometimes email me to say that sugar addiction isn’t real, i.e. only they have a real addiction. I can’t speak to that competition, but my sugar addiction feels pretty real to me. (Also: this paper)

Not all of my Coach.me goals have strict definitions. But this one does.

You’ve probably heard of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time- bound.

I track No Sugar every day and define the goal as no sweets, candy, soda or pastry. BBQ sauce is explicitly ok. Thai ice tea is explicitly not. Tonic water is ok with alcohol but is cheating without. That’s the Specific part of SMART.

I also paid special attention to the Time-bound part. My initial goal was to make it to 21 days. Then to 28. Now I’m just trying to get to 40 days. These are arbitrary milestones but they give me a specific time box to shoot for. That’s what makes the goal achievable (as opposed to Give Up Sugar forever).

No Sugar In January

Replacement Habit

Drink More Water instead of Eating Sugar

Replacement habits are one of the standard strategies for breaking habits. Instead of willing yourself not to do something, you train yourself to do an alternative innocuous task.

In the brain science of habit cessation (that’s the phrase for breaking habits), the neural pathways for your bad habit don’t ever truly disappear. They weaken over time, but they’ll always be there.

That’s what makes replacement habits so important. Since you can’t truly break the neural pathways for your bad habit, your best bet is to create new pathways that are stronger than the old ones.

I always imagine the new behavior as this strong-man in my brain who’s crowding out the old bad behavior.

For me, that’s drinking water.

New Habits vs. Old Habits

Habit Anchoring

How Tiny Habits gets me water drunk first thing in the morning

I have a traditional, Tiny Habits definition for my Drink More Water goal.

Tiny Habits, a habit building formula from BJ Fogg at Stanford, anchors new habits to old existing habits. You write your Tiny Habit like this: After I [existing habit], I will [new habit].

My drink water habit is: “After I put my bag down at my desk, I will fill my thermos with water in the kitchen.

That gets the ball rolling for me and I end up drinking lots of water in the morning and then again in the afternoon when I start to feel low energy. I’m training my body to think low energy means dehydration (often true for me), rather than low blood sugar.

You are N of 1

31 days of tracking my weight

In the Quantified Self movement, we often talk about N of 1. You can run experiments on yourself where you’re the only data point.

For my weight, I just track a daily +/- number.

This is what it looked like over the month of January. Ten pounds is the most I’ve ever lost in a month, let alone any stretch of sustained healthy living.

Some people don’t like to track weight loss every day because it tends to fluctuate randomly.

But I didn’t find that my weight fluctuations were random at all. The day after my heaviest workouts, I’d often be down two pounds. This was obviously dehydration and would be a reminder to keep re-hydrating. My favorite evening workout is 30 minutes each of swim, run, bike. This may be TMI, but I sweat a lot during that workout and have trouble getting fully rehydrated before I go to bed.

Similarly, big meals, or more accurately three big meals paired with heavy drinking, would show up the next day as a fully weighted stomach. That would be a reminder to eat more moderately.

So for me, daily tracking of my weight helps reinforce the cause-and-effect of behavior. Regardless of the common wisdom, my N of 1 experiment says that daily tracking is useful.

Thinking Slow instead of Fast

My No Sugar Coach

I’m being coached by Coach McDuffee to help me keep on track with No Sugar.

There are a lot of reasons to hire a coach. One is to get smarter. I learned a couple tricks from my coach and went through a couple of exercises that I found really helpful.

But the other, almost automatic part, is that I have someone to report to. The book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, talks about two systems of thought. One is fast and emotional. The other is slow and rational.

Normally, we’re thinking fast and emotionally. That just doesn’t work for me around sweets. I can scoop up a donut and have it in my mouth before my slow-moving rational mind catches up. And you better bet that I’m not going to spit that donut out.

One of the fundamental skills of a good coach is that they’ll help you move more of your decisions out of your emotional system and into your rational system. You can see that in action here as I respond to a question from my coach and start explicitly noting subconscious eating patterns:

Telling my coach how I might fall back into my sweet-toothed ways.

Minimum Consistent Dose

How I managed 31 days of exercise without injury.

Tim Ferriss has the concept of the Minimum Effective Dose to mean the smallest amount of work that will produce the effect you’re looking for.

This MCD concept is like a cousin. Because I need to be consistent, I define several of my goals in a way that makes them easy to stick to every day, no matter what.

Essentially, what’s the minimum exercise that counts? Does getting out of bed count? No. Does walking to work? No.

Most days, I do some combination of swimming, biking and/or running. Obviously these count.

But some days, my legs are shot, I’m stuck at work, and rushing between events. On these days, I have a quick body weight routine. I do pushups and body-weight squats.

This isn’t a heavy workout — but it doesn’t need to be. I have plenty of triathlon-style training going on already (those are very exhausting). The MCD is to keep my momentum up so that I never slip into a period of complete inactivity.

(Side note: I do track Run, Swim, and Bike separately. They’re the only goals that aren’t set with seven-day targets)

Momentum

Finish One Priority Every Day.

A lot of consistency is about building up momentum and avoiding paralysis. Certainly, MCD keeps that going.

On the work front, I sometimes find my vision for what Coach.me could be completely paralyzing. There’s so much undone! Will we ever finish it all?

My prioritization routine is very simple: I pick one priority for every day and then try to complete it.

This will sound obvious, but Done Is Better Than Busy. The great temptation of work is to try to make progress toward ten different goals. But that’s not accomplishment. Only finished things have the hope of moving your work forward.

So, beyond just breaking my “too-much-to-do” paralysis, One Priority helps me focus on being a finisher. Hat tip to one of our first mega-coaches, Paul Robinett, for introducing this prioritization method to me.

Keystone Habit

Meditate or die

My best meditations are hour long sessions with a meditation teacher in the city (Will Kabat-Zinn). But that only happens once per week, at best.

For the other days, I define meditation as something very small. Normally, if I get a seat on the subway I’ll do a meditation during my commute. The key to subway commuting is in how you sit. I’ll tell you the secret: wrap your arms through the straps on your bag.

The benefit of that posture is that it prevents people from stealing your bag while your eyes are closed.

In keeping with short meditations, I’ve even meditated in the shower.

The deep work I do with the meditation instructor deepens my practice, but the consistent work keeps the work I’ve done front-and-center for the rest of my life.

Meditation is my keystone habit. When I meditate I’m better at everything else. I always tell people that meditation is pushups for your mind.

My default, non-meditated mode is anxious and distracted. There’s an alternative universe where I just click around the Internet all day. I actually lived this during my first job. But that’s not how I want to be in the world.

So meditation trains me to be calm, to be aware of my subconscious, to exert some control over where I put my focus.

And that’s why it’s the building block for everything else.


So, that’s how I nailed my January. I rearranged my goals, focused on consistency, made plans for dealing with inevitable challenges, and hired a coach for the goal that was hardest.

The results are that I feel great, I’m ten pounds lighter, I got a ton of work done, and I’m super focused at work.

How are your Resolutions going? Can any of the strategies above help you?

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Coach Tony

Written by

Evangelist for great coaches and excellent personal development advice. CEO/Founder of Coach.me. Publisher of Better Humans & Better Programming.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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