Struggling in the Red Zone

In American football, if a team isn’t performing to expectations, the commentators sometimes start talking about “struggling in the red zone.” That’s when the team gets close to scoring -- they’re battling in the “red zone,” the yards closest to their end of the field -- but they just can’t get the ball over the line.

Well, I’m struggling. In my head I shouldn’t be. The stress of a job change (after 11 years) is almost over. I’ve even allowed myself a week’s vacation and have already gone through the new company’s health insurance summary plan description, or SPD. The new company is an unknown, but all signs point to a new, exciting opportunity with intelligent colleagues and hands-off management. All good, right?

So why do I continue to stand in my own way?


After a year of not following a meal plan or regular exercise plan, and sometimes not even taking my meds properly, my brain is rewired with new habits. These habits were a lot easier to make than the old ones. No effort is involved in doing nothing, whereas, a lot of effort is needed to exercise every day and stick to a meal plan. At least I am back on a tight medication schedule again.

Another reason might be that when I initially started the push to lose weight and adjust to a healthier lifestyle, I had a catalyst, something external that drove my initial efforts until it was a habit. I am not entirely happy to admit it was a guy I had known years ago. I didn’t want him to see me at the size I had gotten to. He lived out of state and knew I wasn’t crazy about having my picture taken, so I had a little time to start a new routine. After a while we faded again, but even when I didn’t have him as a catalyst, I was able to stick to my plan for years. Now, I have no catalyst to get me over the inertia of a new start. It has to be a slower, more gradual, and sustainable plan.

Last week I listened to a podcast that may help me figure out how to get out of my own way. There was a small section where Daniel Khaneman (Nobel laureate who specializes in how we think about thinking) spoke about a college class 60 years ago, when a man named Kurt Lewin theorized that behavior was a balance of driving factors, which push you toward a decision or goal, and restraining factors, which keep you from getting there. In order to induce behavior change that sticks, you have to diminish the restraining factors as opposed to increasing the driving factors.

Turns out this is pretty counterintuitive. The podcast points out that most times when trying to change your behavior, whether self-motivated or externally motivated -- say a doctor or spouse is concerned and wants you to start walking 30 minutes a day -- the process starts with a combination of arguments, incentives, and threats: it’s only a half hour, the benefits far outweigh the effort, you will live longer, you’ll feel better, you will die if you don’t start moving more, etc.

They tried this on me when I was a non-compliant 16-year-old diabetic, and after logical arguments and incentives failed, they told me I was going to die of a stroke in a few years anyway if I didn’t change. It didn’t work. Perhaps they should have asked why I wasn’t following a regimen already and how I could have alleviated those restraining forces – fear, apathy, self-destruction?

That was 20 years ago. Now it’s on me. I have all the external tools, including a flexible work schedule. Now it’s time to take a good look at the inside of my own skull and figure out what I need from myself to finally get myself past the red zone and into the end zone.