The Calorie counting trick

Like everybody else, my weight fluctuates. Once I cross the 185lb, I try to lose weight. It works great most of the time. But, one year, this strategy didn't succeed; my weight continued to increase, hovering above 195lb. It wasn't a coincidence that the weight increase happened in the first two years of Truework. At the time, things were rocky from a product-market-fit perspective. More on that later. I needed a new and better way to lose weight.

The most straightforward path to weight loss is sustained calorie deficit. A calorie deficit means ingesting slightly fewer calories than your body needs. For men of my size and activity level, a two hundred calories deficit per day amounts to one pound lost per week. The math is easy, but success hinges on having the willpower for long enough and a way to track calories. Two hundred calories is a small amount of food. MyFitnessPal is the best app to track calorie intake. You input the food you had during the day in the application; it gives you the number of calories. You stop eating once you've reached the calorie target, and voila, you're on your way to losing weight!

The input of food day after day is tedious, but it works well enough. Additionally, the application shows all kinds of statistics that made the geek in me happy. I knew how much sodium, calcium, and other nutrients I was getting daily. After a few weeks, I could see the results on the scale. My weight was finally going down!

Then, things turned interesting.

Without me realizing it, calorie counting turned slowly into an obsession. I wanted, no, I needed to enter every meal into the app and count every macronutrient. I refused to eat items not listed in the application. I felt depressed and anxious if my calorie intake was 50 calories above target for a day. I worried about every drink, every bite of food.

In truth, I had stopped calorie counting to lower my weight; calorie and macronutrient counting was now my goal. Months went by before I stopped using MyFitnessPal, far after I had reached my weight goal.

But this is not a story about my weight loss and calorie counting. Remember how I said things were rough for us at Truework in that period? Compared to making the startup successful or the act of losing weight, inputting food day after day was straightforward and more predictable. I would get my dopamine hit when I hit my goal.

Counting macros and calories was complicated but tractable complexity. Calorie counting was a relief in times of stress, surrounded by complex projects!

This pattern is common across people and organizations. Products are hard to build, and products rarely succeed in the market. Managing management is stressful. Business outcomes are challenging to drive and take months or quarters to become a materialize.

Confronted with that level of complexity, organizations naturally gravitate towards tractable complexity. They trade the "hard stuff" for tasks they control, even when these tasks loosely relate to the original goal.

  • Making sure the organization is secure? That's hard, but we can update dependencies at the slightest hint of a security notice.

  • Launching a new product? There's no guarantee this product will be successful or that customers will love it. Instead, we can focus on refactoring the old code and maybe changing the database before launching the product.

  • Writing a new post on this blog? That’s a lot of work. Better to look for a new note taking tool.

We all want to avoid dealing with tough challenges and prefer tackling small items. Who doesn't like victories?

I don't claim that breaking down large tasks into subtasks is a bad idea. It's helpful and powerful to give your team a sense of moving forward. However, as a leader, you must ensure that you keep yourself and your team honest about what challenging problems they must focus on.

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