One simple exercise to motivate yourself to lose weight

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A regular reader has written to me with an all too familiar story, of how it’s hard to motivate yourself to get started with weight loss. I was going to reply by email but then I figured I might as well tidy up the full stops and commas and post it on here instead.

This reader—let’s call him Zac—says he really really wants to lose weight. He’s put weight on over the last few years and now feels he’s reached a point where he really wants to do something about it. But he also says that motivation is the main problem. He has read all the blog posts and magazine articles and even scientific papers on what to eat and what exercises to do in order to look like a cover model, and the problem is motivation. If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard it.

From an outside perspective, Zac would seem to be plenty motivated. He sounds unhappy as he describes his experiences around weight loss. He says he’s ready. And in the next breath says he’s lacking in motivation. Motivation is just a fancy word for ‘wanting to’, so these statements are in direct contradiction. Something more complicated is going on.

When we talk about being unmotivated, to go to the gym to make healthy food choices, write that screenplay, or repair the fence, what we really mean is usually that we have two sets of ideas or beliefs that are in conflict. I want to be thin, and I want to eat comfort foods like pizza. I want to be a great surfer, and I want to sit watching TV. These sets of incompatible thoughts can be really complex. I’ll just point out a couple of things that are frequently going on, and perhaps they’ll resonate.

First, we can just be unclear about what’s really important to us. This is far more common than we admit in polite society. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. Well, sorry Socrates, but 99% of all humans have bumbled along since your time, seldom spending more than an uncomfortable thirty seconds thinking seriously about what they want from life. You may be a kick-ass philosopher, but humanity wants your soundbites not your advice.

Second, humans and animals alike tend to be motivated less to pursue rewards that are a long way in the future compared to a reward that’s right here right now. (You might remember a ranty post about stuff like this before.) It’s called temporal discounting. This is a problem. You can have pizza right now. Being thin and sexy is weeks, months, or years off. That means pizza would win even if you find pizza quite a lot less rewarding than you would find looking in the mirror at the new svelte you.

The answer to both these problems is the same. We need to do the uncomfortable psychological work of really figuring out what we want from life. This sounds like taking a sledgehammer to break a nut, right? Well it’s not. We have no hope of reaching a far off goal like “being slim” unless we remind ourselves, and regularly, why we want to reach it. That we want to reach it just isn’t powerful enough.

Psychologists oftern refer to this as values clarification. Values aren’t goals. Goals are end-points. Values go on forever. Values are those ideas you’d like your life to reflect. (Classical philosophers had a similar idea in ‘virtues’, though they were supposedly universal rather than personal.)

Getting from goals to values requires a bit of serious thinking, and that you be brutally honest with yourself. Here’s my favourite exercise for clarifying your values. Be warned, if you’re not in a good place right now, this might open a can of worms…

Personal values are those things you cherish in life. Each of us has a different set of them, and there really are no right and wrong values. Your values are what you want from your life — what and how you want to be in life — not just what others expect from you.

Imagine it’s your 80th birthday party. Close your eyes and really see yourself there. You’re surrounded by people you know, some people you know in the here-and-now, and some you’ll meet before you’re 80. Rather embarrassingly, someone gets up to give a speech about your life. Assuming you can’t stop them giving the speech, what do you hope they’d say? What qualities, tendencies, and habits would they talk about? Now lets imagine that when you let your mind wander you find that future you has been a philanthropist, running a wonderful charity helping needy children (aren’t you amazing?), well your friend would hardly say “and she ran a charity”. She would say that you are hard-working, kind, thoughtful, and so on. In this exercise, have the friend describe the qualities in you that you would like to embody in life.

Do not allow yourself to cop out of this exercise by saying simply what you think is desirable to others. (I really shouldn’t have used the charity example!) For instance, amongst my most cherished values are to be inquisitive and adventurous. Those values just aren’t for everyone. When I say “adventurous” to people they often look at me like I’ve just joined the conversation from Mars. Be honest about what you want for your life, not what you think other people want for you. If you cop out and say what you think other people want to hear, then this technique isn’t going to hep you achieve anything at all.

Seriously spend some time on this. Ponder it more than once, if that helps. Revisit it tomorrow if you don’t have time to dedicate, but start the exercise now.

Ready? Go! [Don’t skip ahead. Come back tomorrow if you need time.]

Done?

Now figure out what your current state of health and fitness means for these values. Does it feel like any of these values aren’t really very compatible with being overweight, inactive, or less healthy? Then perhaps those values are why you want to lose weight. For example, if you’re quite a bit overweight, are you risking diseases like diabetes and stroke? How would that play in?

What if being overweight isn’t incompatible with any of your values? Well, perhaps you don’t really have a good reason to lose weight. Get on with living those values, and learn to accept yourself as you are. Plenty of amazing people have been overweight.