In his clever book ‘Messy’ Tim Harford talks about our obsession of ordering everything and how this can block us in the pursuit of our goals – especially when our problems are multifaceted or “messy” as he puts it.

Imposing tidy targets on a messy world can stifle creativity and innovation. You can be hitting the target but missing the point. When the goal is unrealistic, or perceived to be beyond reach it can lead to lying, cheating and distorting reality in order to reach the target. Here are real examples of workplace targets from the book- where service and performance suffered, but the target was reached and the behaviour was rewarded:

1. A bus driver rewarded to for being on time but driving too fast and not stopping for passengers.

2. GP practices working in a reactive way. Refusing routine appointments to free up time for emergency appointments to meet NHS targets. Every appointment becoming an emergency making the service unsustainable.

3. Surgeons avoiding operating on seriously ill patients, opting to work on those less in need – for a better end result and quicker recovery – not wanting to spoil the ratings which they are being measured by.

4. Managers scrimping on training or maintenance to save money in the short term as staff morale and wellbeing suffers and the long-term stress timebomb ticks.

Clearly an obsession with measuring and focusing in the wrong things can lead to disastrous results!

Your results may not be dangerous, but are they dodgy?!

I’m an advocate of tracking progress, yet measuring something in isolation is not always helpful. Sometimes we focus on the wrong thing (a number, a time or a weight) We can even find ourselves altering our behaviour to meet the measurement in a way which completely conflicts with our goal!

As I read this book with lifestyle in mind, I thought about ‘tidy’ health and fitness goals and how messy and complex life really is. Tim Harford’s work is insightful and absolutely relevant for anyone who sets goals and targets. Ask yourself, how are you measuring progress? And, are you lying, “gaming” or cheating yourself in order to “fake reach” your goals? A clue to this is, feeling dissatisfied, despite achieving your target, or not making progress towards your more important long term goal.

Coaches and PT’s, do your clients cheat in training and eating in order to meet their goals in the short term? Do you encourage this, or give them a reality check?

So, what is evidence of this day to day?

Here are 9 messy examples I’ve seen over the past month. Many of us have done these at some point!  Notice if any of them have become a habit though.

1. Weight lifting with poor technique just to say you’ve improved your 1RM or to lift the same as your mates.      (Competitions can sometimes lead us to do this but be sure not to make this a habit!!)

2. Doing the RX weight in a wod with painfully poor technique rather than scale it to a version which you can do smoothly and safely.

3. Hammering a gymnastic movement i.e. muscle ups despite poor chicken wing technique – rather than a scaling it to a version which will lead to a better result in the long term.

4. Fasting to weigh lighter in diet clubs – and then bingeing after the weigh in.

5. A million selfies and using filters to distort images to obscure the results you want people to see. Remember, people in your real world know how you look. You are good enough- just so you know! :).

6. Avoiding the real exercises which lead to a leaner, fitter and stronger body because of an obsession with an ideal number on the scales.

7.Acting on quick fix advice from magazines about diet and exercise, rather than take the advice of qualified and experienced coaches and therapists. Only long-term commitment will deliver results. Laziness if your enemy.

8.Resorting to short term mood enhancing strategies like eating and spending to cheer yourself up- rather than seeking help, or making changes to everyday habits which lead to increased long-term happiness.

9.Engaging in transactional, fragile relationships and being nice to people in order to get what you want. Cultivate secure relationships which involve integrity, respect, give and take. These will feel satisfying and will deliver long term gains for all involved.

Recognise any? That’s great, because now you can take action to realign.

Cultivate a more honest approach to achieving your goals.

Lifestyle , sport and fitness goals are particularly multifaceted, it’s not wise to measure them with a ruler.


Weight loss- For example, measuring weight loss on the scales in isolation is problematic. Consider better and a variety of ways to measure progress which means that eating well and exercise habits become part of your life. What outcomes lead to behaviours which actually help you to make progress and motivate, inspire and encourage you, rather than keep you yo-yoing and on a rollercoaster of cheating and lying?


Is this a pattern for you? Want a bit more help with your mindset to feel more empowered? Get in contact for some 121 support utilising NLP or Coaching.