Updated: Aug 18, 2020
How often do you think about the question: What's the right amount of ...?
What's the right amount of water to drink and calories to consume per day?
What's the right amount of exercise and rest to be in better shape?
What's the right amount of risks to take and saying 'no' to someone or something?
Each and everyone of us is prone to answering these questions rather intuitively: not by the amount of pleasure we can gain from it (short or long term) but by the amount of suffering we try to avoid (short term). That's just how our brains operate.
Let me give you an example. Whenever you work out there are basically two ways of doing it: One way includes a proper amount of pain and suffering and probably results in a good amount of long term gain if you go down that path. The other way is doing just enough to make you feel good about yourself (for a day) without too much suffering while doing it. You tell yourself that you've achieved something better than nothing, even though you are probably aware that this kind of work out won't lead you to any results. However, most of us chose the second option.
The basic and probably most correct answer to the above mentioned questions is "we should do this much of something", ideally given to us by science, studies, believable people who know what their talking about. Of course, the specific amount depends on specific parameters (e.g. age and weight regarding exercise and food). In contrast to that - and despite the vast amount of information that we have access to - what we tell ourselves and act upon is usually "I better do something instead of nothing, even though it's probably not enough"... A typical reason for that is not setting clear goals and not facing the fact that to achieve these goals we need to make sacrifices and be disciplined.
Here's a little story.
I've just turned 33. A couple of years ago, probably 5 or 6, I weighed something around 95 kilograms. I'm pretty sure I weighed around that mark for a couple of years before that as well. Back then, probably 10 years ago, a former colleague told me that "if you don't start taking care of those kilos now you won't be able to lose them once you've turned 30". I remember that situation and the way he told me pretty well. He was a prime example of what he'd just preached: about to turn 30 and in bad shape. It stuck with me.
However, back then it didn't scare me as much as it should have. I thought I had plenty of time to lose weight and become more athletic. It's not that I wasn't working out or doing all kinds of other sports. I was just not taking care of my eating habits and I'd rather let a work out session slip than a dinner invitation. I wanted something, but I didn't truly desire it. And I was well aware of that!
Albeit the fact that I knew very well where I wanted to be regarding my physical appearance and overall fitness - always being somewhat jealous of people fitter and better looking than me - it took me until last October to get finally get serious about it. Even though I'd managed to get from 95 kilograms down to around 82 by late September 2019 - that's 13 kilos in a bit over 2 years - I was not happy with that. So, as a non-runner, I set myself a pretty ambitious goal: 5 runs per week, at least 8km per run. As part of the goal I was aiming at "lean" and "low-body-fat" physical appearance (incl. a six-pack) by the end of 2019.
The goal I set for myself was ultimately what defined the amount of everything that was necessary to achieve it. Be it the amount of workouts incl. 5x running per week, the amount of food I ate (FDH or "Friss' die Hälfte" in German, meaning: cut down your food intake by 50% for every meal), etc... and by the end of December '19 I managed to get down to around 70 kilos. That's another 12 kilos in just under three months.
Did I suffer? Of course I did. But here's the deal: I had something in mind. I wanted to prove something to myself. I had the desire to achieve something really bad. I was motivated. It might be hard to believe but ultimately I enjoyed the suffering. And it made me feel better than ever about myself - pushing through can be so, so satisfying...
Let me get back to the initial question: what's the right amount? Looking back there are a few lessons I've learned from the above mentioned story. And even though I'm well aware that there are studies, numbers and recommendations for the "right amount" of almost everything, the first and most important thing I came to understand is this: The amount of something is defined by the goal you are trying to achieve but it is not a specific number.
It's rather defined by repeated behavior and attitude than by raw numbers and metrics. It's a moving target and part of a process. It's usually less than one might think (or fear) but more than what your weaker self feels comfortable with. Therefore, it's not about what you want because you've seen it somewhere else, it's about what you truly desire since it goes along with overcoming certain barriers within yourself. And it's about taking responsibility. This might seem a bit abstract, so let me give you some more concrete suggestions that I have been following:
Exaggerate! Sometimes you need to exaggerate in the beginning to achieve something and get back down to a healthy level to maintain what you've achieved. It means that you might need to trick your brain and push a little harder in the beginning - in other terms: overachieve - to then get back to a healthy and sustainable level. You don't need to run a marathon every other week to get to and maintain a healthy, low-body-fat physical appearance. But if you've pushed yourself to get to that level for a short amount of time you then have room to decrease your efforts and still do well. It's the same with saying 'no' when you feel you've got too much things going on (professionally or in your private life). Say no to (almost) everything for a short while and then allow certain things to re-enter your sphere. I've learned that there is no point in trying to achieve a certain level by slowly sneaking up to it from below. It won't stick.
Have a steady process! It is more important to set up a proper process that's working towards a few goals than to have a vast amount of goals and no idea how to get there. If the process is solid, not too complicated and includes a good balance of pain as well as pleasure - think of how to reward yourself in a reasonable manner once the tough parts of the process have been followed - it will help you a great deal towards achieving any goal. Write it down.
Set rules to support the process! For me it was very important to have a certain set of rules to stabilize the process and to read them out and remind myself of the rules regularly. One of them was "You will not skip a single run until Christmas!" - the plan being 5 runs per week. It is also important to have rules that generally improve your discipline and "toughness" in other areas than the one you mainly focus on. I.e., I've written down a rule that stated "You will not spend a single CNY (Chinese currency) on anything that you don't need!" to improve financial discipline - while "needing" was being defined not only by me but also my wife.
Welcome the pain! Realizing that pain and sacrifice is necessary to achieve anything meaningful in life is a very important lesson I've learned. I'm not talking about physical pain, even though that is a part of if as well. It's the pain and inner struggle that comes with convincing your weaker self that you need to overcome the automatic and subconscious barrier that makes you stop when it starts to get difficult or uncomfortable. Everyone knows this feeling even though it's difficult to describe so let me try to give you an example: When you look at that one piece of chocolate and you feel like "it's OK to eat it" stop right there and say "NO!" (not necessarily aloud though...). When you want to go to bed and remind yourself that "I should've done these 10 push-ups I wanted to do every day" just DO them NOW and don't tell yourself "I'm going to do 20 tomorrow.". Don't give in. Stop for a second. Then do the opposite. This form of discipline will make reaching every goal you set for yourself that much easier.
Ultimately - and in most cases - the right amount is defined by you and your desire towards the goals you set for yourself. If you feel the desire to achieve something, you need to take responsibility for the actions that lead towards your goals. You need to appreciate and understand that there is a path that has to be taken and that this path usually comes with pain and sacrifice. If you are not willing to appreciate this fact, don't complain that the outcome isn't what you've hope for. Most of us want to be rock stars - but only very few put in the work that it requires...