Waiting for Motivation
One of the more common stories I hear from people who want to lose weight is this one:
“I’ve successfully lost weight a few times in the past and each time it started with this big boost of motivation. I can’t explain it…I was just super motivated and stuck to the plan, and I lost the weight. It almost seemed easy. Now, I just can’t seem to get started. I wish I could figure out how to get back that boost of motivation.”
As a psychologist, I wish I had the secret of how to unlock that boost of motivation that so many of my patients’ desire…but their previous and future success is not due to just an initial boost of motivation. Motivation is only one piece of the puzzle, and quite frankly, not something that most overweight people lack. Think of it. What overweight person isn’t motivated to lose weight? It’s not a lack of knowledge. Most overweight folks can think of 101 good reasons to lose weight and many could write a diet book. It’s certainly not laziness. Overweight folks are some of the most eager and hard working people there are! They try and try and try and try. In my experience, one mistake that many overweight (and other) folks make is waiting to feel motivated in order to get started.
Consider the little vignette above. The person in this story (and many stories) is wishing they had that special missing ingredient that got them started in the past. They don’t know what it is or where it came from. All they know is that when they had it, losing weight was much easier. Well, I’m a psychologist and make a living studying and trying to understand human behavior and I can’t always explain it either. But I’m also going to tell you that you don’t have to figure it to be successful.
Sometimes the cause of that initial boost of motivation is easier to define. Maybe there was a major incident and you heard yourself saying “that’s it…I’ve had it!” and you were off to the races. Patients have told me countless stories of such events that were their “that’s it, I’ve had it” moment. One gentleman told me he couldn’t tie his shoelaces and had to ask a co-worker to help him and was terribly embarrassed. Another woman told me she sat on a chair and it broke beneath her. Yet another gentleman told me that his doctor (not so kindly) told him he’d be dead within a year if he didn’t lose a significant amount of weight. In fact, I can recall seeing one of my ex-girlfriends after she lost over 30 pounds and I vividly recall hearing myself say “that’s it, I’ve had it!!” and went on to lose over 50 pounds. Many of you probably have your own such stories. But the real question is, “What can you do when you DON’T have that kind of a moment?” How do you create your own motivation?
As I said earlier, that “moment” and the boost of motivation that followed does fully explain your past weight loss successes. That “moment” may have helped light the fuse, but it did not provide all of the fuel that kept the flame of all of your hard work and perseverance going. I wasn’t thinking of my ex-girlfriend’s success all the time. The gentleman who couldn’t tie his shoes wasn’t thinking of that awful moment all day, every day. Try to recall back to what you were doing for all of those months when you were successfully losing weight. Was your behavior exactly as it is now? Were you eating the same foods you are now? Were you eating the same amounts of food? Were you as focused as you were then? When you lost the weight, were you living your life exactly as you are now? Probably not. So here is the punch line:
Rather than wishing or waiting to feel that big boost of motivation to get started, why not start by doing all of those things that you did when you were successful losing weight in the past.
Consider this. If you don’t do those things then you’re not really doing what you need to do to lose weight…you’re just waiting to do something. Don’t hear this as criticism. Just a few moments ago I said you’re not stupid, lazy or any of those things. But you’re not doing what’s in your best interest to meet your goals.
Every day I speak to overweight people that admit that they have poor eating habits. They eat on the run. They don’t prepare meals. They don’t sit down at the table to eat. They eat too much fast food. The list goes on and on. And when I ask them what they were doing when they successfully lost weight in the past? They shopped for food. They cooked more often. They read food labels. They avoided fast food. They monitored their portion sizes. They didn’t eat cookies out of the box. They sat down at the table for meals rather than eating carbohydrate snacks out of the box while standing in their kitchen looking at the clock (we’ve all been there!). So, here is what you can do. Sit down with a pen and pad and try to recall each successful weight loss effort you’ve had in the past. Some of you may have one or two; others of you have four or five. If you have none, imagine how you would advise someone in your situation to lose weight. What would you specifically tell them to do?
On the pad, make a list of all of the specific behavior changes you made when you were losing weight. When you lost all that weight were you writing down everything you were eating? Put that on the list. Were you exercising? Put that on the list. Were you bringing fruit to work with you for a snack rather than hitting the vending machines? Put that on the list. Were you having yogurt and some granola for breakfast rather than an egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel every morning? Put that on the list. I think you’re getting the picture. Then, start introducing one or two of those behavior changes each day. Within a week or two, you’ll be doing all of the things you need to do to get back on track…even without the big initial boost of motivation to do so. By the time you notice that the motivation to get going wasn’t initially there, it will be there in the form of excitement that you got the ball rolling yourself.
Is my suggestion the answer? Perhaps not the entire answer, but it certainly is a big part of the answer. You know that somewhere along the way to losing weight, you will need to DO many or all of those things you once did to lose weight. So rather than waiting for that big motivation boost to come along to carry you through to making all of those behavioral changes, why not make some of those behavioral changes now and maybe the motivation will show up along the way?
Do I think this is easy? No…of course not. Wouldn’t it be easier to make all of those changes if the motivation were there from the starting line? Of course it would. But maybe that big boost of motivation isn’t necessary. Maybe the best way to proceed is to put the cart before the horse…the doing part BEFORE the motivation part. I know…it sounds a little strange. But if you don’t…you’re not really trying to lose weight. You’re waiting to try to lose weight.