Jack Plotkin

I woke up in a hotel room in Florida with a groggy head, stuffed nose, and a chalazion on my eyelid. It felt like I hadn’t been able to breathe properly for about six months and my physical fatigue was near-constant. I was shuttling between cups of coffee and doses of stress. During a break in a sales meeting with my largest potential client to date, I called my doctor back in New York and showed him my swollen eye on FaceTime. He was kind enough to phone in an antibiotic script to the local pharmacy.

            That was the start of winter – the roughest winter of my life. I was seeing my thirties in the rear-view window. I had devoted my years to building businesses and pursuing creative ventures and had tied myself to a goals-driven locomotive that had left my health writhing on the tracks. I opened my eyes that Valentine’s Day and realized with absolute clarity that I was sick of being sick and tired of being tired. It was now or never. Get busy living or get busy dying.

            I walked into an Equinox that day and I signed up for a year-long membership, with a side of locker and laundry. I wanted a financial commitment that I could feel, a financial commitment that would eat a hole in my gut every day that I didn’t go to the gym. I cut out sweets. Now, you need to understand; I love sweets. My sweet tooth is elephant-tusk sized.

            I won’t lie, it was tough going. I would drag myself to the gym when every muscle fiber screamed “not today, go tomorrow”. What’s one day anyway? Skipping one day is not a big deal, right? Wrong. I went. I cancelled all my lunch meetings, ate lunch at my desk, and went to the gym at lunch. Every day. Five days a week. I was sore? Didn’t matter. Sick? Didn’t matter. Tired? Didn’t matter. I went. Sometimes I could only get on a bike for ten minutes. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t about working out hard every time, it was about working out every day, five days a week.

            When I would pass bakeries, I would begin salivating like Pavlov’s dog. What’s one cookie? One chocolate chip muffin? One mouth-watering French pastry? Having just one is not a big deal, right? Wrong. I pointed my feet forward and kept walking. I used to never have a restaurant meal without ordering dessert. I discovered a secret: you can get a cappuccino instead.

            I got a standing desk. I signed up for a vegan meal plan. Work interfered, as it always does. Didn’t matter. I rescheduled calls, I adjusted meetings. I put my health first because I knew I had to. Get busy living or get busy dying. And if I was busy dying, I wouldn’t be any good at work anyway.

            Six months later I had lost thirty pounds. I could fit in pants I hadn’t been able to zip up since my twenties. I felt full of vitality. Ironically, I had become a better manager and colleague. I was more patient, more empathetic, and more thoughtful. My business ventures were better than ever. My physical health directly translated to my mental health. I could breathe again.

            Physically, I’m a regular guy. I wish I was stronger, faster, taller, and less bald. For me, it was simple: eat better, move more, and give myself zero outs. That was my whole strategy.

            Zero outs – what’s that all about? The thing is I had tried dieting and working out before – lots of times – but it never stuck. It would always start the same way, with one little cheat: a cookie at work, a missed workout after a stressful day, a slice of cake at a birthday party. And every time that one little cheat became a snowball rolling down the hill, getting bigger and bigger until I was back to square one.

            Zero outs is a mindset, a commitment, an unshakeable faith in your own willpower. The way it works is you take the little guy in your brain that rationalizes and makes up excuses for cheating, and you shoot him dead on the very first day. You know that you will want to indulge yourself, to deviate from the plan, so you have to decide upfront what to do when that happens.

            Zero outs doesn’t work by ignoring your self-sabotaging desires. It works by recognizing that those desires are going to be there, under the surface, always pushing to rear their ugly little heads. Zero outs works when you say: “I see you, self-sabotaging desire, I see you, rationalization, and I choose me instead.”

            Zero outs happens when you stop trying and you commit to doing. It happens when you stop playing with shades of gray and commit to black and white. Going or not going to the gym is binary. Eating or not eating unhealthy food is binary. These things either happen or they don’t happen.

            Does adopting the zero outs strategy mean you can never eat ice cream or miss the gym ever again in your entire life? Of course not. But it does mean you don’t eat ice cream or miss the gym long enough to realize that your willpower is stronger than you ever imagined possible. Six months. If you can go zero outs for six months, you can do anything.