"Sometimes you screw up. It's called being human. The big question is what you do afterwards" … Michelle Bridges.

"Sometimes you screw up. It's called being human. The big question is what you do afterwards" … Michelle Bridges.

When I start training a client, I like to ask them early in the relationship if they are a man or woman of their word. Most of them quickly leap to their own defence – "Yes, I am! Of course I am!" – and offer up an opinion of themselves that establishes them as a person of honour and principles.

Yet when it comes to crunch time, often they are not. They can't stick to the eating plan I gave them, even though they said they would. They don't do their training homework, even though they promised to. It is a totally different ball game when it comes time to walk the walk, not just talk the talk (as it is for many of us).

What they don't realise is that they have more to gain by being straight with me in the first place, realising that when it comes to diet and exercise they tend not to be men or women of their word, and then going through some introspection to uncover the reasons why they aren't, and determine what they would like to do about it.

When this happens they have the opportunity to be guided by their lighthouses – their principles – instead of sailing into them, to re-establish and create principles. You begin to move forward because you've set your lighthouses up to light your way. There are things that you are prepared to do, and there are things that you aren't prepared to do because they breach the principles that guide your life.

You now start to understand things that you never knew before, and you start seeing things differently. Things about your environment, your career, your family and yourself. Interestingly, you can also look back over past events with fresh eyes, and see different outcomes, perhaps even know now that you would have acted very differently.

Draw up a principles list with three parts:

• What are the personal principles that you wish to live your life by?

• What actions will you need to take to guarantee that you live up to these principles?

• What past events would have had different outcomes had you used those actions to stick to your principles?

Example:

• Principle: To be honest and accountable with myself about my nutrition and my exercise.

• Action: I eat more than I admit to myself. I need to be honest about the excuses I make around exercise and eating healthily. I will write down all of my excuses, cross off the ones that are ridiculous and find solutions to those that are genuine.

• Past event: Last weekend I ordered a large pizza and garlic bread for myself before I went out to dinner with friends. I ordered fish and salad in front of them in an attempt to look like I was being healthy. This wasn't a reflection of my new stated principles and I let myself down because I wasn't being honest with my friends, or myself. This led me to feel that I was a failure and consequently I hated myself. I can now see that if I had stuck to my principle, not only would I not be feeling these things, I would actually feel the exact opposite! I would have questioned my choices and not eaten in private to avoid accountability.

This kind of work takes guts. To write down a set of principles is not easy, but it's still a lot easier than living by them! Especially because when you are writing them you might be thinking, "Jeez, I really don't know if I can live up to these for the rest of my life!" Be prepared to fail, but don't let it stop you from doing the drill. Trust me. If you didn't fail, we'd all be calling you the next Messiah and bowing down at your sandal-wearing feet.

That said, don't be a hypocrite and have all these principles stuck on sticky notes all over your fridge and bathroom mirror and not live by any of them. It's about being conscious of what's going on around and within you, seeing the potential to screw up, and making measured, thoughtful choices.

Sometimes you will screw up. It's called being human. The big question is what you do afterwards. Do you learn the lesson? Instead of completely breaking yourself over that lighthouse, do you feel the warning hit and steer in another direction?

Many people will glaze over when I talk about these kinds of drills, thinking, "Yeah, yeah, I know where she's going here. I get it. Now let's get onto the diet and exercise bit." To me, this is like someone who plays tennis just once a week signing themselves up for the state championships in order to make a better impression on their mates. No matter how much positive thinking this person does, they will get slaughtered!

It's the same with health and fitness. You cannot violate, ignore or take short cuts in the natural order of things. Attempting to hunt down the short cut will result in disappointment and disenchantment.

Yo-yo dieters are the classic short-cutters. Generally speaking, they are all about the quick fix rather than the slow burn. Significant changes to lifestyle take time and planning, but it is the only way that offers lasting results.

What do you want? This shouldn't be a hard question, but lots of people baulk when I ask it. Most of us are clear on what we don't want, but often struggle when we try to understand exactly what it is we do want. I often hear things put in negative terms, such as, "I don't want to be this weight any more" or "I'm sick and tired of feeling sick and tired". But believe me, it makes a great difference if you can formulate changes you want to make in a positive way.

So grab a pen and a piece of paper and write a list, and be as specific as you can.

Examples:

• I want to run five kilometres non-stop.

• I want to lose my love handles and feel slimmer before the first day of spring.

• I want to team up with my daughter so we both lose five kilograms before her wedding.

Now ask yourself: What excuses have I used to stop me from achieving these goals in the past? Be ruthless! Write down as many as you can think of. (I have a female client I have worked with for six months and she can still come up with more than 20 excuses!)

When you have all these excuses written down, delete the ridiculous ones (come on – some of them are ridiculous!), then find solutions to the ones that are left by formulating specific action plans. These drills may seem tedious, and you might be inclined to gloss over them. But be warned! If you're the type of person who tends to be hot and cold, or maybe a yo-yo dieter, this is where you are always going wrong.

People who want to rush in and get started on lifestyle changes without the proper preparation are, in my experience, the ones who are most likely to fail. The "I want it all and I want it now" mentality of always looking for the short cut to reach a goal as fast as possible simply doesn't have the success rate of the more measured, calculated approach needed for profound changes.

This is backed up by research conducted by Professor Susan Byrne, a psychologist from the University of Western Australia. She did an interesting study that highlighted the potential pitfalls of what she calls "dichotomous thinking" - the all-or-nothing, black-and-white approach to life.

People who charged into their weight-loss journeys in this all-or-nothing frame of mind generally set unrealistic goals and imposed strict diet and exercise plans on themselves. But these plans are hard to keep to (unless you're stuck in The Biggest Loser house with me kicking your butt every day), and Byrne found that such people were more likely to chuck the whole thing in and go back to unhealthy eating at the slightest provocation - even if they had just a single lapse.

The slow-burners who didn't have this dichotomous thinking style turned out, in contrast, to be happier with a modest weight loss, even if it fell short of their goal. But they were also more likely to carry on eating well and exercising regularly, having accepted that, while they may not yet have reached their target, they were still better off than when they started.

So be aware that your long-term outcome is likely to be affected by your mind set at the get-go. If you put in the effort at the preparation stage, you are much more likely to reach all your goals. So take your time – and do the drills. 

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Edited extract from Your Best Body, by Michelle Bridges (Viking), to be published on January 30.

Lead-in image image: photography by Chris Colls; styling by Melissa Boyle; hair and make-up by Alison Boyle. Michelle wears Jets by Jessika Allen swimsuit, Bloch tie belt.

Top image: styling by Melissa Boyle; hair and make-up by Alison Boyle. Michelle wears Bassike swimsuit.