Browsing the archives for the weight loss tag.
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How Not to Blow a Diet Over the Holidays

Strategies and goals


It’s one thing to maintain willpower in normal circumstances, in an environment you can control, after a lot of practice. It’s usually much more difficult to stick to your chosen path when circumstances change: travel, holidays, restaurants, vacations, celebrations, moves, new jobs, and so on. Thanksgiving through Christmas is like a parade of these kinds of issues, at least for anyone working on weight loss. Yet some people get through the holidays maintaining or reducing their weight, in the same way some people can go to restaurants full of unhealthy foods and find the good choices there. How does this happen?

The information in this post is specifically about weight loss, but these tactics work for any kind of challenge to willpower, and apply to sustaining any habit through a hard time. The tactics are 1) commit yourself, 2) get informed, 3) make a plan, 4) throw away illusions, 5) enlist help, and 6) resist attacks.

Commit Yourself
You can either let yourself go on the one hand, consuming huge quantities of food, feeling overstuffed, gaining weight, and possibly feeling unhappy about it; or you can commit to eating modestly and expending a lot of effort, avoiding a lot of foods you’ll probably really want to eat, being conspicuous, feeling much better than everyone else after the meal, and then maybe marveling at your success.

If you do want to eat a lot, probably no one will stop you–but if you’re deciding to eat healthily, you’ll need to commit yourself completely. Habit and tradition are generally too strong to be overcome without real resolve.

Get Informed
What foods will be at the event you’re going to? Which ones might be good choices for you to eat? Find out the calorie counts (or exchanges, etc.) for each one. Whatever system you use to track what you eat, apply it to the things you expect to see at the event you’re going to, so that you know for certain whether or not a sliver of pumpkin pie fits in your plans, or whether the potatoes or the cranberry sauce are a good idea. If you don’t have a system for tracking what you eat, you’ll almost certainly need one.

Make a Plan
If you expect trouble over the holidays, that’s an immediate indication that the habits you already have probably aren’t up to the challenge. So you’ll need to make specific plans for behavior–plans more advanced than a general intention to eat less. Willpower is not a vague energy that you can draw from the æther to apply to different situations by “just doing better”; it’s using mental tools to steer yourself into acting differently than you usually would.

What will you eat? How much will you eat? What will you do if the food you’re expecting to see isn’t there? What will you not eat? What will you say when someone tries to urge you to eat it, since after all, “it’s a holiday” or “it’s just this once” or “Martha made it herself” or “it doesn’t count”? What anti-hunger techniques will you use? (See “24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry” for some options.)

If you want better choices for food, considering making or bringing them yourself. Eating separate food from everyone else takes a little courage and makes you stand out. But it also demonstrates that you’re serious and committed.

Remember that you’ll need to plan for each event you go to, or else make rules that will keep you on the path for all events. It especially helps to have an emergency plan for unexpected events, like when someone brings cake into the office or you’re invited to dinner on short notice.

Throw Away Illusions
You may not need to hear these things, but in case you do: when you’re trying to lose weight, everything you eat “counts.” Your biology won’t care that it’s Thanksgiving. If you don’t get to eat something that looks good to you, you’re not owed any compensation. You don’t get any do-overs except that you can try again the next time an event comes up. Some people at the event may try to make you feel guilty for not eating; if they don’t have to haul the resulting fat cells around, though, they don’t get a vote.

Enlist Help
If you tell people in advance that you’re losing weight and really don’t want to gain it back over during the holidays, they have more of a chance to prepare themselves and to assist and support you. Walking in the door with your own meal in Tupperware when some one’s already gone to the trouble of making your favorite pie can cause trouble both with your relationships and your eating habits. Giving notice in advance can make it easier for others to help.

Not that everyone will necessarily want to help. Some people may feel that your work on your weight is an implied criticism of their own weight. Others may mistakenly think that trying to lose weight means that you think you “need” to lose weight to be a valuable person rather than that you’re just a valuable person who just wants to lose weight. Some people may be offended that you don’t stick to traditions or don’t eat what they’ve prepared. You’ll have to decide whether it’s more important to have their approval or to stick with your own priorities. It’s very easy to go with the approval; that’s the popular choice.

Resist Attacks
It’s very likely that someone will offer you food that doesn’t fit your plans–and maybe even try to insist. In addition, foods have a nefarious and evil way of offering themselves. Plan how you will resist these attacks and remind yourself that they are attacks when they occur (not in the sense of someone else intending to cause harm, but in the sense of posing immediate and real danger to your well-being). It sometimes helps to recognize the attraction before fighting it, for instance saying mentally “Yes, I could have some more mashed potatoes with gravy, and I would probably enjoy them. I ‘m just choosing not to.”

Specific ways to resist attacks are listed in that article on hunger I mentioned.

Holidays and special events aren’t easy to navigate. If, like me, you’re walking into the den of the beast with the intention of coming out lighter on the other side, good luck! Today I weigh 182 pounds. I’ll update this post in early January to let you know how it came out for me: I expect to have lost at least a few pounds. (Added later: want to know how it went? Read the follow-up post.)

Photo by Donna Grayson

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5 Ways Moderation Gets in the Way of Real Progress

Strategies and goals


I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of advice over time warning me not to push too hard at anything: “You have to ease into it” … “Moderation in all things” … “One step at a time.” It’s folk wisdom, founded in neither exceptional experience nor careful examination of the facts, and in many cases following it will ruin your chances at making any real progress toward your goals.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ways that moderation applies. For instance, trying to pay a lot of attention to more than one thing at a time is a doomed approach to making big changes in your life. Also, it’s sometimes necessary to take things in steps for safety’s sake, like not trying to go directly from no exercise program to extremely intense workouts. Apart from that, it’s just plain bad advice, and there are five reasons that’s so.

1. The status quo likes to be kept
The habits you already have, the situation you’re already in, and the choices you’re used to making are deeply ingrained. We’ve piled on connections in our brains to strengthen certain behaviors–these are our habits–and those strong behaviors need a lot of effort to overcome. The people in our lives expect us to act certain ways and may get anxious or even interfere if we change, even if we change in a healthy way. Activities we’re not used to turn out to have complications we haven’t solved yet and requirements we didn’t know about. Even a body that’s used to maintaining or increasing fat stores has physical mechanisms to prevent losing those fat stores too easily. If we want to overcome these obstacles, the most effective approach is usually to push hard–not to try something small and see if it makes an impact, because often it won’t.

2. Habits form much more quickly when behaviors are repeated close together
I’ve mentioned in a post about habit formation that in a study designed to determine how long it took people to form new habits, the only people who were actually successful at forming new habits during the study period were those who repeated the desired behavior virtually every single day. It is possible to form a habit by doing something three times a week or every four or five days, but it will take much, much longer than if you do that thing daily, and the results will take much longer to show.

3. Intense work on a goal provides quicker rewards
One of the problems with trying to change habits or pursue a goal is that often it’s hard to see whether we’re making progress, and if so, how much. This can easily lead to discouragement and apathy. By contrast, if we throw ourselves into working on a goal, the results are faster, more dramatic, and more motivating.

4. Immersion fosters momentum, focus, and smarter choices
When we are very active with something, working hard at it, we become immersed in that activity: we think about it more, we tend to become more committed to it, and we become more aware of opportunities. We also create momentum. For example, a writer who writes every day doesn’t have to spend the first part of each writing session brushing up on what went before, getting plans back in mind, etc.: the memories of the work are fairly fresh and therefore more detailed and easier to access.

When we’re more involved in a goal and therefore thinking about it more, we also make more connections in our minds regarding the goal and think of more ways to further our intentions.

5. Hard work makes goals into rules
I’ve talked elsewhere about how rules promote better self-control. The short version is this: if you have a rule that you’re trying to follow, and if the rule is well-designed, then whenever the rule applies, your choice is both clear-cut and obvious.

Of course, having a rule doesn’t automatically mean you’ll follow that rule all the time, but it does make it much more likely than if you didn’t have a rule. Without rules, we tend to talk ourselves into sticking with the behaviors we’re used to more often, which is not an effective way to change habits or improve our lives.

Doing hard work on a goal every day takes a lot of the waffling out of choices about that goal. For example, if I decide to do 30 minutes of filing in my office every day until my files are pristine, then I never have to ask myself “Should I do some filing today? I don’t know … there’s so much other stuff I need to get done …” Instead, I simply ask myself when I’m going to start. A lot of the nonsense gets brushed aside.

Sound extreme?
Does this kind of no-moderation approach sound extreme? If so, you’ve understood me perfectly. Extreme effort has a much better chance of providing meaningful progress than trying to ease in slowly, and yes, it can be a lot to get used to at first. But if you’ve ever had trouble making real progress toward a goal, ask yourself how hard you’ve pushed. If you’ve tried taking it easy on yourself, consider trying again–and this time not holding anything back. For most of us, going flat out will result in some discomfort, but the same is true even of moderate approaches. With an extreme approach, much of the early effort will pay off even if things aren’t done perfectly, and you won’t be left wondering any more whether change is possible, because you’ll see the evidence in front of you.

Photo by renatela

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24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry

Strategies and goals

Midnight eating binge

While hunger evolved as a system for telling us when we need nourishment, in modern times our feelings of hunger can often get out of step with our actual bodily needs–especially for those of us who are trying to get more fit. When you’re getting enough nutrition but your body is still crying out for food, these techniques can help make hunger a non-issue. Each of these tactics is based on scientific research and/or experience of people who have lost and kept off substantial amounts of weight. Some may sound weak or unlikely, but try any that you haven’t tried already, since many are much more potent than they seem.

Remember that feelings of hunger are often temporary: if you can last a little while, often they will go away.

If you’re interested in finding out where hunger comes from, read this recent article.

Rethink the hunger
1. Remind yourself that if you have enough nourishment and are trying to lose weight, hunger is a good sign: it’s often an indication that your fat stores are going to be raided.
2. Visualize what the hunger will help you achieve.
3. Accept the hunger. Reconceive it as not painful, but healthy.
4. Enjoy toughing it out; take pleasure in being contrary. Tell the hunger, “Is that all you got? Come on, bring it!”
5. If your hunger is arising because you’re upset, use idea repair techniques to detect and fix the problem ideas.
6. Focus your attention on things other than food. Thinking about food will tend to make you more hungry.

Distract yourself
7. Start doing something really engrossing that will take up your attention.
8. Get into a conversation.

9. Eat something very healthy and low in calories, like celery; an apple; or very low-calorie, fiber-rich crackers. If you don’t have anything like that handy, go buy something that fits that description. (Do not pick up a bag of M&M’s while you’re out.)
10. Chew some gum (if you’re in a place where that wouldn’t be inappropriate). You won’t be able to eat (or much need to) while the gum lasts.
11. Drink tea or another no-calorie/very low-calorie drink (preferably with no cream, sugar, etc.).
12. Drink water. Every time you feel like taking a bite of something, take a swig of water instead. In addition to providing a substitute for eating, water also gives you a temporary feeling of fullness.

Create limits
13. Start an activity during which you can’t eat (e.g., working on your car, cleaning a bathroom).
14. Go to a place where you can’t eat (e.g., a library).
15. Physically remove any inappropriate foods: give them away, throw them out, or simply put them somewhere hard to get at.
16. Choose specific times during the day when you’ll eat, and make a rule that you won’t eat outside those times. While this may not work perfectly, if you get in the habit of short-circuiting food deliberations with the thought “Nope, not time to eat right now!” you can take your mind off food, which lessens the urge to eat.

Change your physiology (immediate techniques)
17. Resolve not to eat anything for just a short time (say, 10-20 minutes). This can work especially well if you’ve just eaten something, as it takes a little while for feelings of satiety to set in after you’ve eaten. Other kinds of emotional and physiological hunger triggers, too, are likely to go away after only a short time.
18. Get some very brief exercise: jumping jacks, dancing for a couple of songs, push-ups, crunches, a few minutes on an elliptical trainer or treadmill, etc. Research seems to show that even a little exercise can help fight feelings of hunger.
19. Go for a short walk: this supplies the benefits of exercise and distraction, tends to improve mood (due to both the exercise and the change of scene), and gets you physically away from the food … just don’t end your walk at a bakery.
20. Avoid sugary foods: eating foods with a high sugar content can cause your body to deploy extra insulin. The insulin cleans out all the sugars in your bloodstream, causing a temporary shortage that sends signals to your brain: “Dangerously low on sugar! Need Twinkies, stat!” This can create a vicious cycle and is probably one of the factors that encourages binges.
21. Eat something low in calories but high in protein, like nonfat yogurt or canned tuna. Protein appears to lessen feelings of hunger both in the short-term and throughout the day; for instance see this article.

Change your physiology (longer-term techniques)
22. Exercise on a daily basis: this can raise your metabolism, yet can actually help suppress hunger for up to 24 hours. Doing 30-60 minutes of vigorous exercise when you’re actually hungry will tend to suppress the hunger while you exercise in addition to giving you the metabolism boost. Exercising twice a day is ideal for helping to minimize hunger.
23. Eat in moderate amounts: avoid eating a lot at any one time. Doing this consistently over time when it has not been done in the past can help reduce stomach size (meaning the organ itself, not the fat over it). Binges tend to keep the stomach at a larger size.
24. Eat a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, and fiber. Fiber helps you feel more full with fewer calories consumed, while protein helps minimize physiological hunger demands.

If you find yourself facing hunger often, link to or print this post and read it through when you’re feeling hungry. If you’re still hungry by the end of it and no solution jumps out at you, try something that’s new to you or that has worked for you before from what you’ve just read.

Image by Corrie Howell


Where Hunger Comes From

Strategies and goals

hungryHunger is a widely misunderstood feeling: we tend to think that it’s our stomachs that are mainly responsible for making us feel hungry; that hunger is a signal that something’s wrong in the body and needs to be fixed; that hunger is painful; and that hunger means the body needs food. All of these can be true in some situations, but all can also be misleading or false.

In this article and its follow-up (“24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry”), I’ll be focusing on causes of and solutions to hunger, for those readers interested in improving health and promoting fitness.

Where hunger starts
The thing we call “hunger” is actually a variety of interrelated sensations and physiological processes. These include:

  • The familiar signals from an empty stomach
  • Low blood sugar levels, which can cause sugar cravings. Ironically, these can be caused by eating sugary foods (see the follow-up article on anti-hunger techniques for more on this)
  • Physiology, especially the hormone leptin, which appears to have more to do with hunger than either stomach signals or blood sugar levels
  • Emotions: habits of using food to distract ourselves from negative emotions (including eating “comfort foods”) and other kinds of emotional eating can cause us to desire food even when there are no signals in our bodies calling for it
  • Circadian rhythms: Our bodies are accustomed to eating at specific times during the day. If we eat at a particular time consistently for even a short while, our bodies will start reminding us each day of that being “feeding time”
  • Social factors: In many situations, it’s polite to eat when other people are eating, for instance when meeting someone at a restaurant. Often we eat during these times even if we have no need for food
  • Habits and unexamined reactions, for example eating a piece of cake whenever someone puts cake out at the office, eating snacks at parties (even if it’s not expected socially, as it often is), or snacking whenever sitting down to watch TV or a movie

The evolution of hunger
It can help put hunger in perspective to realize that throughout the great majority of human development, almost all of our diet was made up of fresh plant foods, meat, fish, and poultry. The occasional honeycomb or small harvest of wild grain would provide an unusual burst of carbs, but staples of our diet in modern times, like bread (especially white bread), soda, candy, pastries, ice cream, and so on are so far out of the norm of what the first humans of our kind had available to eat, it’s hard to imagine what they would even think of them. Add to this the comparative ease with which most of us can get our hands on as much food as we want (or at least much more than we need), and it’s not entirely surprising that we have so many problems around the world with obesity: the foods we tend to eat are very different from what we evolved to eat.

What do you mean, “hunger isn’t painful”?
While we’re used to thinking of hunger as physically painful, it generally isn’t. We do tend to think negatively about hunger sensations, but only in extreme circumstances does hunger actually result in actual pain signals. Hunger’s usual feelings are more like mild physical discomfort, which can become a stronger psychological discomfort when we tell ourselves that we need some food. Yet when we reflect on the many causes of hunger, it immediately becomes clear that hunger is not a direct signal telling us our body needs nutrition.

Separating hunger from a decision to eat
In order for a person to change long-standing eating habits, it’s necessary to separate feelings of hunger from a decision to eat. Regardless of hunger, it’s essential to get regular nutrition with protein, fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and even some fat. Provided we have the minimum amounts of those we need–which we can achieve without excessive calories by eating highly nutritious foods–any other food we eat is unlikely to help us and fairly likely to harm our goals, if we’re pursuing weight loss.

In changing eating habits, it helps to lay down some rules. Tracking everything you eat is an excellent one to adopt, for reasons explained in this article. Another might be to eat only at designated times, and not at all after a certain time in the evening. Rules can be more helpful here than simple guidelines or intentions (see How Making Rules Can Improve Willpower). Another helpful mindset change is to try to think of eating in terms of the question “What food does my body need?” instead of the question “What can I get away with eating?”.

The follow-up article to this one lists 24 ways to stop feeling hungry, based on research and the real-life experience of successful weight controllers.

Photo by Gilmoth

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Sustain Your Motivation By Tracking Your Progress Daily

Strategies and goals


In this article, I talk about Decision Logging, a practice of writing down each decision, action, condition, or major thought about a goal that’s important to you as it happens to become much more aware of your mental process. Elsewhere, I describe the importance of feedback loops in self-motivation. Following up on Wednesday’s article on how tracking behavior helps weight loss, it’s worth our time to look at a more intense feedback strategy that keeps our goals front and center in our minds, but doesn’t require the high amount of time and attention that decision logging takes: tracking progress daily.

How to Track Behavior for Feedback
For weight loss, daily tracking comes in a particular form: writing down information throughout the day like foods eaten with their nutritional stats, exercise done, and weight. For other kinds of goals, often reviewing once a day in the evening, or twice a day in the morning and evening, provides a similar benefit. Tracking isn’t the same thing as feedback, but it is a key component. Without reliable, consistent information about our behavior–whether that comes from jotting down notes in the moment, reflecting back over the past week, or from some other process–there’s no opportunity for feedback. Once we have that information, we can proceed to the next step in our feedback loop, which is making judgements about our behavior: what worked well, and what didn’t? From there, we can make plans for the future: more of this, less of that, try this new thing, and watch out for this other pitfall. We start with raw information and work our way through to an action plan tailored exactly to our current circumstances and progress.

The once-a-day approach only needs to take a few minutes. With it, you answer a few questions:

  • What did I do today that moved me toward or away from my goal?
  • What do I think about those choices?
  • What would I like to do the same or differently tomorrow?
  • What am I learning from this?

The twice-a-day approach is similar, but with it the morning session has more to do with planning for the current day, and the evening session has more to do with reflecting on the day that has passed.

Tracking and reflecting on progress each day doesn’t need to take more than five minutes, and it’s very effective in keeping a goal alive and moving forward. It’s also instrumental in forming a habit of reflecting on progress, and getting to that level of awareness creates an enormous advantage in pursuing goals in the future.

The Top Obstacle to Tracking
One of the biggest dangers in tracking progress is not tracking whenever there’s something bad to write down. If I’m trying to teach myself French and don’t study at all during the day, I might be tempted not to track on a day when all I can say is “Didn’t do any studying today. Could have studied during lunch and/or instead of watching reruns of House.” When we think about it, though, it’s not really all that traumatic to write down the equivalent of “I didn’t do as well as I hoped today, but I’ll try to do better tomorrow.” If I don’t write that kind of thing down, I’m likely to forget how I got off track, which makes me pretty vulnerable to that problem in future. And tracking the lack of progress keeps up my habit of tracking, which makes it more likely I’ll both think about and possibly even do some French studying the next day. Finally, tracking is a victory in itself: even if I haven’t learned any French, I’ve done my tracking, which means I did put at least a little effort into my goal. This can be a badly-needed morale boost when the more workaday steps toward a goal aren’t going so well.

Not all goals lend themselves easily to being tracked in writing, but with a little creativity, it’s possible to find something meaningful to write down daily about almost any goal. Doing this accomplishes one of the most important steps in self-motivation, which is keeping the goal in mind every day, and it goes a long way toward helping us understand our own behavior better–and therefore understanding better how to change it.

Photo by Bruno Gola

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Why People Who Track Their Behavior Are Much More Likely to Lose Weight

Strategies and goals

notepadMy current reading is Dr. Daniel S. Kirschenbaum‘s 9 Truths About Weight Loss. Kirschenbaum teaches psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, is the director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago, has  done a good deal of original research in weight loss, and has consulted for the U.S. Olympic Committee and Weight Watchers–so we could be excused for assuming he has a pretty good idea what he’s talking about. I’ll review the book itself in a near-future post, but for now I want to make use of a point that, he demonstrates, is powerfully supported by research: among people who are trying to get fit, those who track their progress are a lot more successful than people who don’t.

How Strong Is the Connection?
In fact, the connection between keeping track of what behavior and actually making progress (in terms of losing weight, which isn’t a perfect measure, but has some value) was very strong. People who were very consistent about tracking their diet, exercise, and weight tended to consistently lose weight; people who were a little inconsistent tended to have just a little weight loss or to maintain their weight; and people who weren’t consistent didn’t tend to have any success at all.

Even a person who is normally very consistent will tend to stop losing weight when they stop tracking, according to the studies Kirschenbaum cites (including his own research). For instance people who were very careful about tracking their progress over the holiday season were much more likely to maintain or lose weight than people who didn’t track their progress. Just to repeat that for emphasis: these people were losing weight over Thanksgiving and the December holidays, no mean feat.

Tracking as Feedback
The value of tracking may not be that surprising when we consider the importance of feedback in self-motivation: after all, if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, how can I change it effectively to point myself in the right direction? And we human beings tend to fudge things a bit in our favor. If I eat well for most of the day but have a piece of peanut butter pie with lunch, and if I don’t track calories, I may think I did pretty well–while in reality, that one piece of pie is (for me) about 40% of my daily calorie limit, which means it’s a good bet I completely missed my target. My vague impression that I did well, aided by a desire to forget the piece of pie, reinforces the idea that I’m doing well and my frustration when the scale has a different opinion.

How Long and How Often?
Kirschenbaum feels that successful weight controllers (his term) need to track their progress–especially what they eat, whether in terms of calories, exchanges, planned meals, or any other accurate measure–at least 75% of the time. That may be so, but other research also implies that doing something 75% of the time is not enough to make it an ingrained habit. That suggests that tracking as close as possible to 100% of the time is much more effective, since beyond the benefits of tracking itself, you begin to acquire a good habit that can eventually almost automate that behavior for you.

Though it might seem as though tracking everything you eat would be tedious and time-consuming, according to Kirschenbaum “It takes less than 2 minutes to do a whole day of both writing down fat grams, calories of everything eaten, and exercise; less than 1 minute for most people.” I’ve done this myself for some time, and I have to say that Kirschenbaum’s time estimate seems just about right, although it’s easier for me now that I know the numbers on a lot of foods by heart. Back while I was still learning, it probably took me longer–maybe 4 or even 5 minutes a day.

So time to do the tracking isn’t really a barrier: the real barrier (and I’ll talk more about this Friday) is not wanting to immortalize our own bad choices.

Following Up
Interested in what the research has to say? Take a look at The Impact of Regular Self-weighing on Weight Management: A Systematic Literature Review.

As useful as tracking is for weight loss, it can be just as strong a tool in other kinds of self-motivation. In Friday’s article I’ll talk about ways to make use of tracking to get and stay motivated toward almost any kind of goal.

Photo by Eric Mallinson

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How Do Tactics Change As We Learn New Habits?

Strategies and goals


In cleaning up my office recently, I found several notes to take down from older phases in my health and weight loss process. Over the last few years I’ve lost more than 50 pounds (so far), put on a good deal of muscle, and improved my general fitness and energy levels–but it has taken a lot of effort, and it surprised me to realize how many different approaches I had needed over even just the last couple of years.

And when I look the notes over, I realize they were all good tactics. It’s not that I kept trying things and failing, but really the opposite: I would struggle with a set of goals for a while, eventually make them part of my automatic behavior, and then turn my attention to the next step for me, whatever that was at the time. The notes I pulled down today were tucked in places around my desk where I was guaranteed to see them several times a day. They were each at different times a small part of my self-motivation, and when I needed to quickly remind myself exactly what I was working on at the moment, they were always there.

Generation 1
The oldest note I still had up covered six principles that helped me minimize some of my bad eating habits and improve my nutrition and health in general. They’re not so much universal wisdom as the specific things I personally needed to concentrate on. (These were just for eating: exercise was always pretty much a simple matter of “get active, and stay active!”) My note (paraphrased a little) said:

1. Plan food choices instead of choosing while you’re hungry
2. Know how many calories are in something before eating it
3. Eat only from servings*
4. Fruits and vegetables are good choices for snacks and fillers
5. Eat at regular times
6. Write down everything you eat

* For instance, instead of eating from a box of crackers, I would serve myself some crackers on a plate.

Generation 2
As these things became deeply-ingrained habits, I stopped looking at that list, and eventually I created another, this one of things I could do to not eat if I felt hungry (except for fruits and vegetables, which for me personally are always a good idea). They were things like eating a fruit or vegetable, getting involved in something absorbing, drinking tea, etc. They helped solidify my habit of eating only at particular times.

Generation 3
As that grew to be old hat and both good eating and exercise grew to be pretty ingrained habits for me, I added a new goal, task management. Now my reminder note had to do with always knowing what the next thing I wanted to do was, focusing on making good choices every time a choice was presented to me (regardless of the subject), and going out of my way to find enthusiasm for the most important items on my task list.

A Continuing Cycle of New Tactics
What I hope you’ll glean from all this isn’t so much the specifics of my reminders to myself over time as a picture of self-motivation as an ongoing process of acquiring habits. You identify some behaviors you want to change, remind yourself of them every day, and then as they become habits, you set your sights a little higher or make your goal a little larger. For this new vision, you figure out what behaviors you need to change. One goal gives way to the next, and if things go well, you gradually acquire more and more of the habits you really want to have, and lose more and more of the behaviors you don’t want.

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Don’t Be Tricked By Fake Goals

Strategies and goals


In another article on The Willpower Engine I mentioned the useful mnemonic S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) for checking to see if a goal is a good one. In this article, I’ll get more specific about goals that seem to be good but aren’t: fake goals.

If it’s not entirely up to you, it’s a fake goal
What do I mean by a “fake” goal? A fake goal is anything you want to have happen that you can’t always make happen by your choices and actions. This is tricky, because often people won’t take responsibility for something that really is within their control (like a child saying she didn’t do her homework because it’s impossible for her to remember it), while at other times things are likely to be within our reach but not within our direct control (like being hired to play with a particular orchestra).

It’s important to sort out real goals from fake goals because fake goals screw us up and cause real damage. For example, if my goal is to become first violin in the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, I might practice obsessively for many years to get good enough to play with the PSO and give an awe-inspiring audition, but if they already have a first violinist who is extremely good, happy with the post, and in good health, that dream might never come about, and I might become depressed, frustrated, and anxious while missing out on amazing opportunities because they don’t match my (fake) goal.

On a smaller scale, I might have a goal of winning a local dance contest, then get upset when the contest judge’s sister-in-law wins it instead.

In both cases, the skills and resources needed to achieve the fake goal are in my hands, but sooner or later it comes to a decision that someone else makes, and as I’ve written about in another article, other people are not under our control in any healthy and meaningful way.

Losing weight: a classic fake goal
One very popular fake goal is losing weight. At first glance, this might seem contradictory. Surely getting fit is under our control? And in large part, it is–but losing weight is not necessarily the same as getting fit.

For example, take my own fitness saga. I got serious about fitness in late 2005 by beginning to log how many calories I was eating each day and starting to exercise regularly. Since that time I’ve lost about 50 pounds. So how is weight not a good indicator? Well, there are two main problems with it. First, there’s the fact that weight isn’t the same as fitness (and neither is BMI, which simply uses your weight and height to come up with a number). In the summer of 2007 I went through a transformation from a relatively heavy guy to a relatively fit guy–and didn’t lose any weight, because as I was gradually losing fat, I was also not-so-gradually building up muscle.  And second, weight varies throughout the day and from day to day based on things like water retention, time of day, and the last time you’ve eaten. On the more extreme end of things, yesterday I weighed in several times and found my weight varying five pounds from waking to bedtime!

So if weight isn’t a good goal, why do I pay any attention to it? Because it’s useful information. Often the indications we get of how we’re doing in our progress to our goals are limited or imperfect, but limited and imperfect information is worlds better than no information at all. While it doesn’t convey the complete story of my fitness progress, the fact that I’ve lost 50 pounds so far and am nearing my target weight is one of the clearest indicators I can give myself or others about how things have gone for me.

A bad goal can be a good aspiration
But if winning a contest or losing weight isn’t a good goal, what should we do instead? Give up on goals? Rid ourselves of aspirations?

Definitely not. To motivate ourselves, aspirations (like winning a contest or losing weight) can be powerful tools. In addition to providing valuable feedback, aspirations can fuel our visions of what we want the future to be like, which can be powerfully motivating. However, we need to treat aspirations less seriously than goals. If we’re not achieving our aspirations, there comes a crucial moment when we have the choice of either getting attached to it in a way that will hurt us or surrendering it so that we can focus on other opportunities that might pay off better. What this means is being willing to look at the scale that says I just gained two pounds, reflecting that my diet and exercise have been excellent over the past couple of weeks, and shrugging it off with the thought that unless I’m confused about what I need to do, my progress will show up on the scale sooner or later. It also means looking at the contest I didn’t win or the orchestra position I wasn’t offered and recognizing that there are other contests and other positions, and while the loss or the lack of a job playing violin might be valuable information for me to think over, it isn’t the end or the goal.

Real goals are about what we do, not what we’ll get
The most powerful and productive goals are ones that are connected with a change in habits and the immediate, reliable benefits of what we’re doing. (For example, read about this related research finding.) Instead of having a goal to lose weight, I can (and did) strive to get in the habit of eating more healthily and mindfully and to exercise regularly. My goal in doing these things is to constantly become healthier, have more energy, and improve my mood. I certainly had aspirations of looking better, being strong, and winning Taekwondo sparring matches, but if I had focused on those instead of on progress, I would have been disappointed when I didn’t look much different after the six months, wasn’t noticeably stronger for some time, and lost at my first Taekwondo competition (though I won at my second).

The violinist would be better served by a goal of getting in a certain amount of good practice every week, and the dancer by the goal of perfecting a new dance routine for every competition that comes down the line. Both people are likely to have a lot of aspirations about things they can’t entirely control, especially other people’s opinions of how well they do, but can take these in the context of their specific goals.

When several small goals = one big goal
A note here about multiple goals: in other posts, I’ve talked about the importance of focusing on only one new goal at a time. It would probably be more precise for me to suggest focusing on only one new area of accomplishment at a time, since a violinist could simultaneously be working on the related goals of practicing twenty hours a week, mastering a particular piece, and making certain bowing techniques available by reflex. At the same time, it’s worthwhile to consider whether some goals would benefit from being broken down. For instance, eating better and exercising are complementary parts of an overall fitness goal, but both of them can take a lot of learning, planning, and effort to achieve, and it might work best for many people to get one on track before really digging into the other.

Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd.

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Kelly McGonigal on the Power of Expecting Less


Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal blogged today about a study that looked at how optimism and pessimism affect weight loss. The short version: the pessimists came out ahead, but McGonigal makes a good case for this being mainly a matter of understanding the real benefits of the goals we’re pursuing.

Here’s the post: The Virtue of Pessimism. It’s based on this study.

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How Much Sleep Do You Need? 8 Hours Isn’t for Everyone



I’ve been particularly looking forward to the sleep chapter in John Medina’s book Brain Rules (one of my current reading books) because I was interested to know once and for all how much sleep I needed. Was 8 hours really the magic number? What were the consequences of averaging, say, 7 hours, or 6? What about naps? I was interested in knowing how sleep affects our brains so that I could begin to see how it might affect self-motivation.

The answers were very helpful in some ways and completely unhelpful in others. What are the findings about how much sleep we need? Research so far seems to say that there is no definite number, and sleep needed varies widely from person to person. Some people (who have a condition called “healthy insomnia”) only need 4 or 5 hours a night and don’t seem to suffer any ill effects. Kids going through puberty definitely need more, preferably in the morning. There also seem to be genes that determine whether someone is a morning person (a “lark”), a night owl, or (like most of us) a “hummingbird,” which is to say someone with a “normal” sleep schedule. Sleep needs and daily schedules change as a person ages, too.

Too little sleep has serious costs
But one very clear finding across the board is that not getting enough sleep actively sabotages the brain’s abilities. As Medina puts it, “Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge … manual dexterity … and even gross motor movements.” Also, interrupted sleep or inadequate sleep severely limits our ability to remember things we learned that day, increases stress, and causes effects that mimic accelerated aging. Not getting enough sleep even forces the body to crave sugar while reducing our ability to make good use of sugar when we get it, playing havoc with healthy eating.

Figuring out your own sleep needs
Most of us already knew that shorting ourselves on sleep was bad (though maybe we didn’t realize it was that bad). But how do we figure out how much sleep do we actually need to not condemn ourselves to tired, inattentive, grumpy days? The best answer I can give is that we probably already know. If you wake up feeling overtired, it’s probably no secret to you that you could use more sleep. Some of us treat sleep as expendable if something else important is going on, but since even small sleep shortages can have a major impact on performance, we may be more effective if we get the right amount of sleep even though that takes away from the waking hours in which we can actually get things done. If you find yourself adding in extra “down time” during the day because you’re tired, or making mistakes, being distracted, or having trouble getting things done because of a sleep debt, then the “bonus time” you’re getting by cutting out sleep–and possibly more time besides–may be getting used up by the problems caused by not getting enough sleep. In other words, shorting ourselves on sleep is both unpleasant and unproductive.

The need for naps is built into our genetic code
Pretty much everyone, it turns out, is programmed to need about a half-hour nap in the early afternoon, although some of us need it more than others. This isn’t just an artifact of not getting enough sleep at night: it’s a normal part of the sleep-wake cycle in human beings. Many of us won’t have the option of getting this extra sleep on a regular basis, but it may be worth experimenting with it when you do have the freedom to try and seeing if it doesn’t give you a lot more energy and attention. In one study, pilots who took a 26-minute afternoon step performed 34% better than pilots who didn’t. That’s a big improvement!

At the very least, it’s best not to schedule things that require a lot of attention in the early afternoon if you can help it.

Sleep and self-motivation
How does this affect self-motivation? Pretty profoundly, it turns out. Self-motivation requires knowing what you need to do, paying attention to your priorities, devoting a little time and focus to moving forward, being self-aware, and solving problems that come up with your process. All of those things are compromised when we short ourselves even an hour or two of sleep a night. So with enough sleep, self-motivation will tend to get noticeably easier.

I know you will have gotten the advice to “get plenty of sleep” time and time again, and if you aren’t currently getting enough, it might be because you are trying to get enough time in the day to accomplish everything that’s important to you. Only you can judge whether or not a little sleep-deprivation is worth being less intelligent and less capable while the sleep debt lasts. In the past, at least, I’ve often gone with a little sleep deprivation in the service of what sometimes seems like a good cause. Put in this light, though, I’m not sure I want to continue to make that kind of a bargain. I’m beginning to think of it this way: if I can accomplish everything I already accomplish without always getting enough sleep, how much better could I do if I were actually operating at full capacity? It’ll be worth finding out.


By the way, if noise interferes with your sleep, or if you just want a little more silence in your life, you might want to try any brand of soft, foam earplugs with rounded ends (above). I’ve found these very helpful, especially for sleeping when someone else has to get up early, during travel, working while someone’s watching a TV or listening to music nearby, concentrating while my neighbor is mowing the lawn, etc. I haven’t been as happy with plastic earplugs or with the kind that are made of harder foam and don’t have a rounded end. Fortunately, the earplugs don’t block out sound completely, so it’s still possible to hear (faintly) a phone ringing or an alarm going off even while wearing them.

Photo by tempophage

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