Shrink

The psychology of weight loss.

How to Know If You’ll Ever Accomplish That Goal

Why some of us succeed and others fail

I counsel people who want to lose weight; many have big goals: 50 lbs, 75 lbs, 100 lbs. The reality is not many people lose this kind of weight and among those who do, many will gain it back. However, some people will achieve the goal and remain successful. Who are these people? What are they doing that the others aren't? Weight loss is just one example, but this applies to any major life goal whether it be career, relationships, or learning a skill. How do you become the person who is able to change his life-- for good? 

The problem we have when we set a goal is that we focus entirely on the specific actions that will achieve the goal and little else. Take the person with the 100 pound weight loss goal. They put intense focus on changing their diet and exercise, because these are the steps that are directly related to reducing one’s weight. This makes perfect sense, right? Of course you focus on the steps that lead to the outcome. Unfortunately, if you are doing this and only this you will not likely achieve your goal.

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I am not suggesting the steps are the wrong steps or that you shouldn't focus on the steps at all.  There is another point of focus that is just as important as the steps. You need to focus on becoming the person who has lost weight.    

What does this mean?

Consider this. You are at a coffee shop and meet a concert pianist. How do you know he is a concert pianist? Likely because he said so when you asked his occupation, or he mentioned heading to the concert hall after coffee. One day he invites you over. You notice he has a grand piano in the living room and a smaller one in a spare bedroom. You see autographed pictures of musicians hanging on the wall, some of whom he says he has met and have inspired him. He also has some antique instruments as decor. You hear classical music playing.  Then, a few of his friends show up, many of whom are also musicians. You would know you were in the home of a concert pianist even if you had not met him previously. His love for music is apparent in his surroundings.

People who truly achieve a goal transform their lives such that it becomes a part of their identity. For the concert pianist, the goal of playing good piano means more than taking lessons and practice. His life has become music. Music is how he spends a lot of his time, even his house and his belongings exude music, a large part of his identity has become music. 

Achieving any goal requires the same transformation.  People who successfully achieve their goal actually become their goal. He wanted to learn to play piano well, now he is a concert pianist.  If you want to lose 50 pounds, you must become a healthy living person.

You might currently be following the steps toward a goal (e.g., weight loss, new career, etc) but finding that you aren't really becoming the goal, or that it feels like drudgery. Surely the pianist would tell us it felt like drudgery at times, so that is not necessarily a bad sign.  However, becoming your goal requires three things.

You Value The Journey As Much or More Than the Goal. To truly become your goal you must value the journey. Take the person with the weight loss goal. Ask yourself, why do I want to lose weight? Your reason should be something that would actually result from the journey (not the outcome). If your reason is “to look better” that may or may not come from the journey, but instead is probably tied to the outcome. You will probably fail. If your reason is to “live a healthy life” this is inherent in the  journey since the steps themselves are healthy behaviors. In the latter case, you will have a higher chance of success. A good analogy is the difference between someone who does a job purely for the money versus someone who does a job because they love the job. The latter person has as much appreciation for the work as they do for the outcome, and as a result they will probably work harder and go further. If you do not value or enjoy the work of attaining your goal, you will not likely reach it (or maintain it should you reach it). The work of weight loss is living an active lifestyle and eating a healthy diet.  Do you value and enjoy such a lifestyle?  Or is it merely the necessary evil delivering you to your goal?  If the latter, you are sure to fail. To obtain success, you must find a path to your goal that you love. 


You Understand the Magnitude of the Work.  Remember the high school assignment where you had to interview someone in the career you wanted to pursue? After the interview you either became more excited about the career or lost your excitement altogether because it was not what you thought. This is an important step for any life goal--not just career choice. You must find others who have achieved the goal, hear their stories, learn about the challenges, and understand what it took to get there.  This is an important reality check about the journey. With weight loss especially, I find that many people have a very unrealistic idea of the type of effort necessary to achieve their goals. Because they have underestimated the effort, they tire prematurely and frustration sets in, ultimately leading to reduced motivation and failure. Connecting with successful others will help align your expectations with reality. (Check this out for stories by people who have lost weight) Are they leading the life you want to live?  Or is their life not one you could see yourself living?  If you cannot see yourself in that life or it does not appear desirable to you, then it is the case that you value the goal but not the journey. This is a setup for failure.

Let It Take Over Your Life.  The third requirement is that your goal must pervade all areas of your life. Goals that live on islands always end up sinking. To get your goal onto the mainland of your life it must be anchored to every aspect of your life. Life is made up of family, friends, work, past times, and belongings. The people who become their goal will engage in goal-related activities with family and friends. They will connect with people who share a similar goal. If we were to tour their homes we would see evidence of their journey. For the person trying to lose weight, if we were to peek into his kitchen cabinets, we would think, “A healthy person clearly lives here.” We would see evidence in his surroundings--- maybe a calendar of his workouts,  gym shoes, and exercise equipment. When we talk to him we come away thinking, this is a healthy living guy! Our impression of him would not be based on whether or not he has achieved his goal, but on the evidence we see of his journey. Think for a minute about what people learn about you when they spend time with you. Would they see much evidence of your journey?  Or would they be surprised to know that you are on this journey?

At first the process of entering the goal into all aspects of your life may be difficult because you experience resistance from others, don't have friends who share the goal, or you feel like you don't have the funds or time. All of these are solvable problems. Figure out what the stumbling blocks are and devise some workarounds.  The unsolvable problem is not truly understanding and valuing the journey. If it becomes clear that you don't, then consider letting go of your goal. To abandon a goal that is not in your heart is not failure; it’s the smartest thing you can do because it will free you up to put your energies toward something that is in your heart. Failure is persisting at something half-heartedly and as a result never achieving much.

Change isn’t solely about following rules, steps, and recipes. Change is about understanding what it means to be the person who has done it, wanting to be that person more than anything, and embracing the journey even more so than the destination.

 

Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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