I see it all the time — with my clients, my girlfriends, my coworkers, and my family members. And I definitely used to see it in myself.
Feeling desperate to lose weight, determined to lose it by any means necessary, and preparing for a week-long carb-cutting, calorie-restricting, food-avoiding ordeal . . . that ultimately ends in failure.
Even between diets there are an endless series of days that start with resolving not to do something and end with giving in, feeling ashamed, and doing it all over again.
And it’s this very all-or-nothing approach, which requires tremendous willpower, that keeps you stuck in the same place, sometimes for years.
But willpower never works. Maybe sometimes in the short term it does, but it definitely doesn’t long term.
The problem is that as soon as you try and use willpower to accomplish something, you’re entering into a bargain where the inevitable failure of the endeavor — which occurs when you run out of willpower (and you will run out) — is all your fault. After all, if it’s up to you to muster enough willpower to do something and you run out of it, it’s on you, right?
No, it’s actually not. But you end up blaming yourself anyway . . . for a flawed approach that was never going to work in the first place.
But know this: it’s the process, not the person. It’s not that you’re not strong enough, dedicated enough, or good enough. It’s the fact that you’re using willpower.
So what if you changed your approach?
I can already hear you saying, “But if I stop using willpower, I’m going to blow up like a house!”
I promise you, you won’t. Because the opposite of using willpower isn’t a free-for-all. Deciding that you’re going to allow yourself to eat fast food sometimes doesn’t mean that you have to spend all day bingeing on it.
There’s a way to achieve a goal without having to use willpower or spend all day worrying that you won’t have enough of it when you need it most. In fact, it makes willpower irrelevant.
Any big goal is made up of a series of smaller goals. You don’t wake up and run a marathon — you practice running one mile until you’re able to do it 26 times. And every one-mile increment you add to your runs, you build your confidence to keep going and do more.
Confidence is important for two reasons. First, when you feel confident, you feel more in control, which means you can actively make a choice rather than just reacting to whatever’s going on around you. Second, feeling confident means you’re more likely to do things that are good for you.
The easiest and most effective way to build your confidence is to give yourself small wins throughout the day. When you start the day off winning and you keep on winning, choosing a salad over fast food at dinner is easy. After being so successful all day long, you’ll want to keep your winning streak going. And even if you decide to eat the fast food, you’ll do it consciously — rather than reacting to an uncontrollable urge that built all day while you were obsessing over it.
So let’s put this into practice. Here are some tips for giving yourself daily small wins that make the more challenging goals easily achievable and that eliminate the need for willpower:
Make them easy. You want to start your day with a small win, right out of the gate. If you try something too challenging and you “fail,” that sets the tone for the rest of the day.
Give yourself a bunch of easy things to successfully accomplish — even if they seem silly. Drink a bottle of water before 10 am, eat a handful of blueberries before you take the kids to school, do 10 pushups as soon as you get out of bed. The goal is the win, so make it easy to get.
Add, don’t subtract. It’s a lot easier to add something to your routine than it is to eliminate something. Eliminating requires willpower, so you don’t want any part of that. Don’t try not to eat sausage for breakfast; add an orange to your breakfast instead. Plus, adding healthy things starts to naturally crowd out the unhealthy things, so you don’t have to keep trying “not to.”
Build them around your big goal. The smaller goals don’t have to relate to the larger goal you’re trying to achieve that day, but it can be fun if they are.
If you’re trying to avoid eating pizza for dinner, some of your small wins could be to look up the restaurant’s menu ahead of time, choose what you’re going to order, make your own salad dressing for the salad you’ll order, or buy some dark chocolate to take with you for dessert. The main thing is to get the win, so any small goal you set works.
Plan ahead. Don’t try and throw small wins into your routine. Life tends to take over and you’ll either forget to do it or you won’t feel like it. Plan exactly what you’re going to do that day to get your wins. An added bonus is to write them down and check them off. This will multiply your feelings of control and accomplishment and give you even more motivation to keep going.
The best part of this small-wins approach is that you get to make new distinctions, which is everything if you want to change your habits.
When you’re choosing to eat a salad rather than forcing yourself to, you can pay attention to the experience and how it makes you feel, instead of sitting in misery while you “deprive yourself” of pizza. These distinctions help you make better choices in the future.
Your ultimate goal in your journey to lose weight is to change your thoughts and habits around food and eating. This approach will help you do that because you’ll begin incorporating these small changes to your routine, which helps modify your habits. And by paying attention to what you’re doing and feeling while you’re eating, your thoughts will start to change.
And changed thoughts lead to a shift in perspective — most notably that you don’t have to waste your life making yourself miserable, constantly trying to lose weight.
Losing weight is totally within your reach, and it can actually be fun. And, as always, when you stop making your whole life about losing weight, it will easily lose itself.