I often compare losing weight to running a marathon. For many of us, it’s a long, exhausting journey that calls not just for physical, but also mental endurance.
Sometimes, the unthinkable happens — we pull a muscle, we fall and twist our ankle, we land in a bad way on our left foot in wet weather. Maybe we won’t be able to race for the next couple of weeks. Or months. Or years. But we listen to our body and rebuild our strength with a solid plan. We get back up and start racing again, and eventually, we reach the finish line with a personal best.
What happens to those of us who don’t put in the work to get race-ready but sign up for a marathon anyway? We end up missing the cutoff time to qualify as a finisher or we could end up with an injury that leaves us hurt, demotivated and put off racing for good.
The same applies when we’re just starting out on a weight loss journey. Many of us jump into a particular diet because everyone else is doing it, without giving much thought to how it works, if it’s right for us and even how we became overweight in the first place. We prioritize tactics over laying the foundation for lasting fat loss. We put all our energy into counting calories, obsessing over how many grams of carbs a cup of broccoli has and whether the ingredients in a recipe we want to try are "allowed."
We desperately look for quick fixes: grabbing at fat-loss tactic after fat-loss tactic without understanding the inner psychology of what it takes to lose the fat … for good.
No matter which diet you pick — and there is no right or wrong here — you’ll be setting yourself up for failure if you don’t address the invisible scripts holding you back from long-term weight-loss success. Here are some simple mental strategies I used to make my own weight-loss habits stick through ups and downs, and how you can too.
1. Give your goals plenty of weight.
Start by asking yourself this question: What do you want to accomplish during this journey? Whatever answer you come up with, next ask yourself, “Why?” Use your final answer to turn your fat-loss goal from generic into a meaningful one, or what I call a "heavyweight goal."
A heavyweight goal will have you sticking to your guns instead of reaching for that bucket of fried chicken when you’ve had a bad day, and heading for your workout, even if you don’t feel like it.
2. Make time for you.
The most common reason I hear when people aren’t able to stick to their goals is, “I just don’t have the time.”
Reality check: No one can exercise or eat healthily for you. If you want the pounds to drop, you’ve got to put in the work. Try using a time-tracking app to record how much time you spend on everything you do throughout the day. Once you’re done filling up your time diary, pay attention to how much you spend on your top priorities.
Then, ask yourself, "How can I replace time suckers that don’t really benefit me with activities that will support my heavyweight goal?" Could it be spending 15 minutes planning your meals for the next day, or fitting in 15 minutes of exercise instead of mindlessly watching TV?
3. Never rely on willpower alone.
Ever wondered why you’re more likely to order that extra large pizza when you’ve had a really bad day? Like a muscle, willpower weakens as you use it, says Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, making it pretty much unreliable in the long run.
The good news is, there’s something even more powerful and efficient than willpower: Habits. The bad news? Habits can be good or bad, depending on how you program them.
Want to create habits that support your weight loss? Focus on replacing unsupportive habits with better ones. Blow off steam with a yoga sequence or kickboxing class instead of food. Place your workout clothes next to your bed so getting dressed and out the door for your run is a no-brainer. Have a salad before a main so that you don’t overdo it with the pasta.
Do these things often enough and your brain will remember them as automatic shortcuts to remedy unpleasant situations, minus the unpleasant outcomes.