The capacity for self-control is like a muscle: It varies in strength from person to person and moment to moment. Just as your biceps can feel like jelly after a workout, your willpower “muscle” gets tired when you overtax it.
To strengthen it, pick any activity that requires you to override an impulse (such as sitting up straight when your impulse is to slouch), and add that to your daily routine. And take baby steps. Instead of going junk-free overnight, begin by eliminating, say, those chips you eat by the bag, and substitute them with a fruit or vegetable.
Hang in there, and sticking to your diet will become easier because your capacity for self-control will grow.
Believing you will succeed is key, but believing you will succeed easily (what I call “unrealistic optimism”) is a recipe for failure. Take it from the women, all obese, who enrolled in a weight-loss program in one study. Those who thought they could lose weight easily lost 24 pounds less than those who knew it would be hard. The successful dieters put in more effort, planned in advance how to deal with problems, and persisted when it became difficult. Don’t try to tamp down your worries — they can help prepare you for shape-up challenges.
And train hard. The same is true for your performance goals as well.
Monitoring may be one of the most powerful health habits you could practice. To stay clear about that gap between where you want to go and where you are now. Keep getting on that scale; mark the days you exercise on a calendar. Track your success.
Another thing: When you think about the progress you’ve made, stay focused on how far you have to go, rather than how far you’ve come. If you want to drop 20 pounds, and you’ve lost 5 so far, keep your thoughts on the 15 that remain. When we dwell too much on how much progress we’ve made, it’s easy to feel a premature sense of accomplishment and start to slack off.
Faced with unexpected temptations — the dessert menu, the catered work lunch — we end up eating things that sabotage our weight-loss goals. The best way to guarantee you make the right choices is to create an “if-then” plan:
- “If the dessert menu arrives, I’ll order coffee.”
- “If I am at a business lunch, I’ll have a salad.”
Studies suggest that coming up with safe-to-eat plans makes you two to three times more likely to reach your diet goals.
When we make goals that are vague, like “I want to lose weight,” we set ourselves up to fail but being specific about your goals will help you find motivation and success. Being specific gives you clarity because you’ve spelled out exactly what success looks like. That means more motivation — and better odds of success. Motivation happens when your brain detects a difference between where you are and where you want to be. When you are specific about your goal (I want to lose 10 pounds), that difference is clear, and your brain starts throwing resources (attention, memory, effort, willpower) at the problem.
Reinforce new, healthy habits. Habits take time to develop. It doesn’t happen overnight. When you do find yourself engaging in an unhealthy habit, stop as quickly as possible and ask yourself: Why do I do this? When did I start doing this? What changes do I need to make? Be careful not to berate yourself or think that one mistake “blows” a whole day’s worth of healthy habits. You can do it! It just takes one day at a time!
Replace unhealthy habits with new, healthy ones. For example, in reflecting upon your eating habits, you may realize that you eat too fast when you eat alone. So, make a commitment to share a lunch each week with a colleague, or have a neighbor over for dinner one night a week. Other strategies might include putting your fork down between bites or minimizing other distractions (i.e. watching the news during dinner) that might keep you from paying attention to how quickly — and how much — you’re eating.
Food diaries are a proven aid to people pursing weight loss. Keep track of what you’ve eaten and how many calories the food contained. If you also keep a record of your exercise, you can compare how many calories you’re burning to how many calories you’re consuming. You can carry a small notebook and log everything or use an app: MyNetDiary, Loselt, MyFitnessPal, and MyPlate are four popular apps to track calories.
Swap out the high-calorie or high-fat snacks in your diet for healthier alternatives. Fruits, low-fat string cheese, peanut butter, and whole-grain crackers are some good options. Create snacks that combine carbohydrates and proteins, like peanut butter on apple slices, as they will make you feel full longer.
Skipping meals sounds like a good idea, but it actually undermines your weight-loss plan. Your body thinks it is being starved and starts building body fat in an attempt to store energy away for later. On top of that, you’re likely to be even hungrier for your next meal and eat far more than you would have otherwise. The best course is to eat three small meals, with two or three small snacks in between.