We all know how to lose weight. Eat healthier foods, watch your portion sizes, and exercise more often. It’s a simple formula — so in theory, we should all have no problem getting to our goal weights and staying there.
But obviously it’s not that easy, or we’d all be at our ideal weights right now. So if we’re all following the same basic rulebook, why are some people successful and others need help losing weight?
The difference is mental toughness. Resilience, determination, willpower — whatever you want to call it, your mindset is what will ultimately make or break your weight-loss success.
We’re not saying you can simply think yourself thin. The rules still apply: You need to fine-tune your nutrition and break a sweat regularly. But if you want to be successful — if you want this time to be different — you need to have your head in the game. Because your healthiest intentions will be tested. You’ll have stressful times and comfort-food cravings and days when you just can’t get motivated to work out. And that’s when your brain needs to step up to the plate and keep you on track.
But I have no willpower, and that’s why I need help losing weight. Should I just give up?
Nope. You just need to change the way you think about willpower.
Willpower isn’t a superhuman trait that only a lucky few are born with — it’s a skill anyone can build. It comes from knowing what your weaknesses are, understanding why you haven’t lost weight in the past, and using that info to build a better game plan this time around.
“Obstacles will happen. It’s our response to them that means everything,” says Ariane Machin, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina, and co-founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective. “When we can identify potential obstacles that will get in the way of our goals — and identify strategies to get through them — the likelihood of success is significantly higher.”
Here are the most common mental obstacles to losing weight — and how you can keep them from getting in the way of your goals.
5 Weight-Loss Traps That Set You Up to Fail
1. You don’t have a clear strategy.
“I want to lose weight” is a pretty vague goal. If you don’t have a plan in place for how you’re going to accomplish that goal, it’s going to be impossible to gauge whether you’re on the right track. (Because, you know, there’s no track.) So you end up winging it, and we all know how that goes:
- You vow to cut back on calories — but you’re not tracking your meals or eating mindfully, so you’re likely consuming more than you realize.
- You want to eat healthier — but without a meal plan in place, you end up mindlessly grabbing junk food or ordering takeout as soon as a craving strikes.
- You conveniently “forget” to count liquid calories from beer or soda.
- You hit the gym without a game plan and end up jogging on the treadmill or doing a few halfhearted reps on the weight machines.
- You don’t schedule your workouts, so they get postponed when life is hectic… which is always.
When you kick off a weight-loss journey, planning ahead will boost your chances of success. It’s not enough to have a goal — you also need to know in advance what steps you’ll take day-to-day to achieve it.
2. You’re expecting to fail.
You’ve probably heard that 95 percent of diets fail. It’s a discouraging stat — and if you go into your healthy new lifestyle knowing the odds are stacked against you, you have a primo excuse to give up when things get tough.
The good news: there’s no clear research to back that statistic up. There are a million different “diets” out there — from watching your calories a little more carefully to cutting out entire food groups or subsisting on cabbage soup at every meal — and it’s basically impossible to measure how many succeed or fail, especially long-term. (If you eat a slice of cake today, is that an automatic diet fail?)
When you start a weight-loss program, try not to get hung up on fear of failure. “Many individuals take on an all-or-nothing attitude about weight loss — they’re either ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing,’” Machin says. Instead, she says, focus on how you’ll handle setbacks when they inevitably happen — and shoot for consistency, not perfection. If you make healthy choices 80 percent of the time, you’re on the right track.
3. You want to see results yesterday.
We’re conditioned to think of weight loss in quick-and-dirty terms: Suffer through a few days of misery and starvation and see dramatic results! But then a week later you’re hungry and cranky and you’ve maaaaybe lost a pound or two of water weight — at which point you decide this is clearly not going to work, and your motivation evaporates.
The bad news: If you’re currently overweight, you’re probably not going to have a six-pack in six days. Setting unrealistic goals will just set you up for disappointment — and make you more likely to quit when you don’t immediately get amazing results.
The good news: You can lose weight — and keep it off — if you’re willing to commit to a healthy, sustainable lifestyle instead of a crash diet.
The even better news: A healthy lifestyle will eventually become second nature, and research shows that just knowing it’ll get easier can make you more likely to stick with it when it’s not easy.
“We want to train our minds that this is a process of change, and change will take time,” Machin says. “Focus on process over outcomes — what types of choices do we want to be making each day to put ourselves and our health first?” If you’re focused on what you’ll gain by improving your lifestyle — fueling your body, getting stronger, feeling healthier — you’ll be more likely to commit for the long haul.
4. You’re focused on the negatives.
No matter how gung-ho you are at the outset, eventually that initial excitement is going to wear off — and if your weight-loss program is making you miserable, you’re going to run out of steam sooner than later.
Thanks to the whole “no pain, no gain” cliché, it’s normal to think of weight loss in terms of making big, painful sacrifices. Do you do the following things?
- You think of healthy food as “boring,” and junk food as a reward for “being good.”
- You force yourself to give up all the things you enjoy — no more ice cream, no more craft beer, no more onion dip.
- You drag yourself to the gym and suffer through an hour on the dreadmill — not because you enjoy it, but because you’re supposed to.
But, if you aren’t getting enough calories, it can slow down your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight. If your workout is too repetitive, your body will adapt, and you’ll burn fewer calories. (Not to mention you’ll be bored to tears.) And if give up everything you enjoy, you’ll be counting the minutes until you can quit.
Instead, Machin says, find a nutrition and exercise plan that works for you. So your favorite fitblogger lives on baked tofu and raw broccoli? Good for her, but if you don’t enjoy those foods, that’s not a sustainable plan for you.
“We don’t have to follow what everyone on social media is doing. We want to find something that works for us,” Machin says. Subjecting yourself to foods you don’t enjoy or a workout you dread is only going to create more mental obstacles. Instead, look for healthy recipes you love and a workout program that’s fun and challenging. It’ll be much easier to stay on track if you’re actually enjoying your healthy lifestyle.
5. You’re setting yourself up for burnout.
When you first start out and your motivation is at an all-time high, your instinct may be to go hard right out of the gate: Work out for two hours a day! Slash all the calories! No… sweets… ever!
You know how that ends, right? It works for a little while, until you have a small stumble — a skipped workout, a second glass of wine, a smothered burrito — and feel like a complete failure. And it’s pretty hard to be your own cheerleader when you’re berating yourself for whatever you did “wrong” today.
But here’s the thing: The occasional cheat meal or rest day is totally fine. They’re crucial to your sanity. (Sleep is key too — it makes you less likely to give in to cravings.) If your weight-loss plan doesn’t occasionally incorporate things you love — and give you some space to let loose now and then —it’s not a sustainable strategy.
Losing weight — and keeping it off — takes focus and determination, and it can be easy to psych yourself out when it gets tough. But just like you plan your meals and plan your workouts, you need to plan how you’ll deal with mental obstacles. When your resolve is MIA, remind yourself that you’re in this for the long haul.
“Taking a long-term approach will help buffer any setbacks you might experience day to day, because you’re keeping the bigger picture in mind,” Machin says. And that’ll give you the motivation you need to keep pushing yourself.