Six Crucial Psychological Tips for Weight Loss

By using SMART goals, you may be able to diet more effectively.

Posted Oct 23, 2019

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Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight knows just how confusing it is to process all the information currently available. The field is buzzing with fad diets, long-held misunderstandings, and contradictory science. Weight loss information always seems to be changing, and new research is being generated all the time, so how can anyone hope to make sense of so much complexity in order to form and adhere to meaningful weight-loss goals?

Although no single source will contain all the information you need or articulate a foolproof plan that's guaranteed to result in weight loss for everyone, it’s still possible to find some basic core principles of goal achievement that can help you cut the pounds you’ve been trying so hard to lose. They’re called SMART goals—where “SMART” stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. The concept has been around since 1981 when it was developed in the context of business administration by George T. Doran—but it can also be used for anything you’re trying to accomplish.

First, when setting a weight loss goal, be specific. Don’t just say you’re “trying to lose weight” in general. Set a number of pounds you'd like to lose or, perhaps, a number of days you’d like to stay on a particular diet. If you don’t set a specific goal, it's much harder to find the motivation to accomplish it; on the other hand, if you know your goal is to lose five pounds, and you've lost four already, you’ll be more confident and motivated about losing that last one.

And when you set a specific goal, be sure to pick one that's clearly measurable. Just planning to “lose weight" doesn’t tell you how much to lose, or give you any sense of how long you need to work to accomplish it. By contrast, deciding to lose a set number of pounds and weighing yourself every day will give you reliable, actionable information on your progress.  Before you set any goal, identify some of the ways you’ll measure this progress. By tracking your weight, you’ll know if the diet is going well or not. You’ll know if you have to change your strategy or whether you’re exactly on track.

The "A" in SMART goals refers to selecting a goal that’s achievable, meaning one that you know you can accomplish. You may want to lose 50 pounds, but it’s quite likely that your motivation will flag before you get there; on the other hand, a weight-loss goal of 10 pounds is much easier to grasp. Start small, Michael Feigin, M.S., C.S.C.S. advises. Don’t set huge goals. Establish a target weight that's just a little bit of a stretch for you, because if you choose goals that are too large, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. 

Dietitian Elizabeth Bedell Marino says that by setting smaller goals, you're still taking real steps toward the large, long-term goals you'd like to accomplish. And it’s not helpful to try to permanently deprive yourself of what you want, either. Instead, consider rewarding yourself with a treat on occasion, to make sure you don't feel too restricted. Knowing that you get an occasional break from the rigors of dieting could actually make it easier for you to stick to your plan.

SMART goal-setters also choose realistic and relevant plans, as the "R" in SMART suggests. To do this, you’ll need to make sure your plan will effectively lead to your goal. You'll need to educate yourself about weight loss, possibly with the help of a registered dietitian or a nutritionist. Don’t be too tempted by the latest quick-fix diet trend; try to make healthy, manageable, long-term changes to your diet. With this information, establish a healthy, medically-sound weight-loss strategy that has been proven to yield the amount of weight loss you’re trying to achieve. Understand that your weight-loss strategy and your weight-loss goals need to be in harmony, because you may need to make big changes if you want to lose a large amount of weight.

The "T" in SMART—the last necessary element of a successful weight-loss plan—stands for time-bound. No one can succeed at a nebulous, difficult task without setting a deadline and knowing how much time one has to accomplish it. This quality is closely connected to the realistic and attainable aspects of SMART goal setting, in that it is always important to focus one's efforts within the appropriate amount of time—that is, to bring one's goals within one's reach, and to give oneself enough time to accomplish them. Don’t try to accomplish too much, too soon—but be sure to challenge yourself, as well.

The final element of effective SMART goal setting is not actually reflected in the SMART acronym—although it would be if we added a second "A" for accountability. Accomplishing one's goals requires personal and social accountability, which is to say, being responsible to oneself and one's community for keeping promises. When you establish SMART goals, write them down somewhere visible, to make sure you hold up your responsibility to yourself. There's also plenty of evidence that keeping a food diary—writing down everything you eat, ensuring that you're honest with yourself about it—correlates highly with weight loss. Dr. Michael Dansinger, director of the Diabetes Reversal Program at Tufts Medical Center, emphasizes the importance of the food diary by saying, "In my experience with patients, food logging is almost always necessary to get results. Whether we're working toward lasting weight loss or diabetes remission, the food log serves like my eyes, so I can see what the patient is eating and provide feedback and accountability."  (M. Dansinger, personal communication, October 23, 2019).  

Being accountable to yourself in this way means you shouldn't be secretive about your goals. In fact, current research in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that if you share your goals with someone whom you perceive to have high status, such as someone you respect in your family, you’ll be more likely to stay committed to achieving them. 

The more you involve your social network and community in your weight-loss goals, the better your likelihood of accomplishing them. So try working out with a friend, as Michael Feigin suggests, because you’ll motivate each other to keep the gym habit going. Feigin also recommends putting your money where your mouth is, by making a bet with other people about losing weight on schedule. (There are plenty of smartphone apps and websites designed for exactly this purpose.) In the end, no matter how good you are at setting specific, measurable, and attainable goals with a genuine, practical chance of success and giving yourself enough time to accomplish them, losing weight is probably not going to be a smooth process. 

Part of being realistic about your goals is accepting the inevitable setbacks that will happen along the way. Vacations will interfere with your exercise plan, and holiday celebrations will mess with your strict, no-carb diet. If this happens, don’t give up. Reassess your goals if you must—as long as you do so in a realistic, self-compassionate manner. Give yourself more time, or try adding a new weight-loss strategy if it works for you, but stay focused on your SMART goals and your healthy aspirations.


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