Lowering the Criteria

Okay, so you hit a brick wall in your fitness. You’re experiencing a plateau, or even a major setback. We established why it’s important to still stay positive, and learned how to deal with these in the moment with a little AC/DC.

But how do you DEAL with a setback? How do you get over, around, or through them?

Luckily, zookeepers have TONS of experience dealing with these issues, and their lessons can be easily passed down to us in our fitness.

There is a saying among animal trainers- “There are as many ways to teach a behavior as there are keepers to train the behavior.” What this means is animal professionals are a creative and resourceful bunch. Each one is an individual and not part of  a collective mind. It means each trainer may have a different method, process, or plan to achieve success.

Why do I bring this up? I’m going to discuss two main methods to dealing with plateaus- Lowering the Criteria, and Going Back to Kindergarten. This doesn’t mean these are the ONLY two methods out there, or the only two that work. These are simply two practices which have been successful for me, and I am passing on these gems to you. They are also pretty popular in the animal training culture, so there is an essence of “tried and true principles”.

Today, I’m going to focus on Lowering the Criteria and how we can implement it in our fitness journey.

Figure Out Your Criteria

At the beginning of this series, we briefly discussed setting certain expectations, or criteria, you need to accomplish in order to receive reinforcement. This can change throughout the process, and in fact, it actually SHOULD change. As you get stronger, develop habits, and the behaviors become easier, you should slowly increase your criteria. Because it’s kinda ridiculous to reinforce yourself for lifting 100 pounds when you are easily hoisting 150.

But, I want you to REMEMBER that original criteria. You don’t have to maintain it, just keep it in your back pocket. When things get tough, you can fall back on that temporarily to get through rough patches.

For instance, let’s say you built a healthy habit of regularly going to the gym 4 days a week. Chances are you didn’t START at 4 days a week. I hope you built yourself up from possibly one day a week, and gradually increased your criteria over time to four days. You are going strong on four days, and then, well, life happened. Four days is no longer feasible for you. You missed two days in a row. Things at work are hectic and you can’t make it to the gym on the days you committed. Your children’s schedules just went from busy to insanity level. I get it. It’s called “life”.

You practiced the methods discussed previously in dealing with setbacks, but now where do you go? You can’t magically make time to visit the gym 4 days a week if you don’t have the ability to go 4 days a week.

Well, let’s see what a zookeeper might do in this situation with their animals.

Lowering Criteria to Improve Future Success

The zoo is expanding their small carnivore exhibit, which is great news for the meerkats, fennec fox, and honey badger. During construction, the animals have moved away from the construction of their new home temporarily. Living an a completely different space has thrown the animals completely out of whack. How do zookeepers work with the animals with so many distractions and challenges? They lower their criteria.

The honey badger (let’s call her Bee) may be fully trained to enter her crate, step onto a scale to get a weight, and lean into the fence on her own to receive an injection. But in the current living quarters, she is skittish and jumpy. Lowering the criteria will help her adjust to her new home, give her confidence, and help her get back on track.

Instead of asking Bee to enter the crate, her caretakers may simply ask her to approach and TOUCH the crate. The keepers may back away from the fence and then ask Bee to lean in, instead of staying close-by when doing injections . Instead of stepping onto the scale, trainers may have Bee target next to the scale and hold her position.

It’s a little bit like rebuilding their trust in the bank. Setting the animals up for success by showing some compassion for the situation. Lowering the criteria is a temporary process. After a short time working on solid behaviors with a lowered criteria, the animals are back to normal, and working with their caretakers once again.

Micro-Wins to Mega-Wins

If temporarily relaxing the expectations we place on the animals helps them through challenges, why can’t it work for us?

On his wonderful site Optimize.me, philosopher and life mentor Brian Johnson often talks about the value of micro-wins. So often we are looking at the big picture, and we don’t see all the little habits and small behavior changes. Those small gestures we work on every day make a huge difference. So, don’t discount the idea of going smaller than you are used to. It’s STILL a step forward. In fact, it’s the micro-wins which create the enormous victories.

When you are overwhelmed by life, or unforeseen circumstances get in your way, take a step back and see if all you need to do is lower the criteria. Once your schedule goes back to normal, or when you figure out a new routine, then slowly increase your criteria back to when you dropped it.

This method is great when planning for vacations. Honestly? Are you going to really “hit the gym” every day your ON VACATION? Well, maybe you could. But thinking about it realistically, perhaps it’s better for your program if you simply relax what you do normally. Then, if you do more than you expected, it’s an even bigger reason to celebrate. When you make a PLAN to work out at a lower frequency and intensity, it’s actually easier getting back into the normal schedule when you come home.

Have you fallen off the wagon and don’t know how to get back on to where you were before you fell? No sweat, just lower your criteria and get back on the trail.

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