What separates the people who succeed at losing weight and keeping it off from those who don’t?
It isn’t giving up carbs or sugar.
It isn’t cleanses, fasting or detoxes.
It isn’t exercising every day.
It isn’t willpower.
It isn’t ANY diet.
People who lose weight and keep it off succeed because they have integrated new habits into their lives about how and why they eat.
Willpower is a finite resource. Think of it like the battery in your smart phone. After a while, it runs out. Observe your own willpower in the morning versus late afternoon. You have a lot more self-discipline earlier in the day, don’t you? And that’s why using willpower to diet and avoid eating certain foods you love or forcing yourself to go to the gym is simply not a sustainable way to permanently lose weight.
The simple fact is that habits work where willpower fails. Here’s why.
When you create a habit, you literally rewire your brain so that you do the particular activity automatically. No one has to remind you. Most of the time, you don’t even have to think about it. It becomes how you operate. No willpower needed.
For example, you probably have a habit of brushing your teeth twice a day. Before you go to bed, you automatically go to the bathroom, load up your toothbrush with some toothpaste, and brush. And while you’re doing it, you aren’t thinking, “up-down-up down.” You could practically brush your teeth in your sleep. That’s a habit.
That’s what you need to do with how and why you eat if you want to lose weight. You need to establish positive eating habits. By positive eating habits, I mean things like:
- Listening to your body’s hunger signals and only eating when you’re hungry.
- Eating while seated.
- Eating without distractions.
- Stopping eating when your body is lightly full.
- Putting food into a serving bowl instead of eating mindlessly from the package.
That’s why I tell my clients to gauge their progress on their weight loss journey by how they’re changing their habits, rather than the number on the scale. For example, each time you sit down to eat, you are doing something that is going to help you eat with awareness so you will likely eat less. This will lead to weight loss, and you should celebrate it as a win. You don’t have to wait to see the number on the scale go down to know you’re doing something that is making you healthier.
B.J. Fogg, a behavior scientist at Stanford University and expert on habits, has found that it is easiest to start a new habit from a very small, targeted goal, and then build from there. He teaches that it is easier to focus on starting new habits than stopping old ones. Here’s what I mean.
Say you want to start walking 30 minutes every day. Instead of starting out with that and coming up with excuses about why you can’t do it some days, making it harder to establish the new habit, start with something eminently do-able, like putting on your running shoes or perhaps walking for 5 minutes every day. Something so small that you can’t reasonably come up with an excuse not to do it.
Big habit changes require a high level of motivation, so Fogg teaches people to start small and build on their success. The easier the behavior is, the more likely that you’ll actually do it. Once you start, building on it is easier.
Fogg compares growing habits to growing a plant. You start with a little seed, find a good spot for it, and nourish it. In his free five-day program called Tiny Habits, this is what he teaches:
- Start with a tiny behavior you want to grow into a habit.
- Anchor this behavior to something in your daily routine that you already do so that you associate the new behavior with the existing routine or habit.
- Nourish the new habit by practicing it and celebrating your victories
For example, say you want to start a meditation practice. You decide to start small, like meditating for 3 minutes a day. To anchor your new habit, you decide that you will do it after you get dressed every morning, so you associate the new habit, meditation, with an old routine, getting dressed. It is important to have something that triggers you to do the new habit so you don’t forget.
After you do the little habit, Fogg instructs that it is crucial to celebrate your success because the positive emotion you create is what will establish your habit. His research concluded that “emotions create habits.” When you do the behavior, and you congratulate yourself for it, you feel good. This feeling actually works to rewire your brain to make establishing the new habit easier. It reinforces the behavior.
With the meditation example, after you meditate for three minutes, tell yourself something like, “Wow, I did it!” or pump your fist, and say, “YES!” Maybe even do a little dance.
So if you want to lose weight, choose a new habit to establish. If, for example, you want to keep a food journal, put your journal at the table where you eat, and record what you ate immediately after eating. That way, you are anchoring journaling with your existing habit of eating meals. Then give yourself a fist pump, and congratulate yourself. You can work on two or three small new habits at a time.