Have you ever tried to lose weight and failed? Started a diet and given up? Tried to stop a bad eating habit or start a new one, only to discover you didn’t have the willpower or discipline to sustain the new behavior?
This article is not touting one diet or another. Rather, I’d like you to consider why we fail to achieve goals we say are important to us — using dieting to lose weight as the prime example.
Do a quick internet search of “why diets don’t work.” You’ll discover a bounty of evidence pointing to how neurological obstacles, biological responses and false expectations render diets ineffective at best, psychologically and physically detrimental at worst.
But counter this compelling research with successful dieters gracing the covers of magazines, winning TV weight-loss competitions or giving diet-ad testimonials. Aren’t they proof of mind over matter?
Some of the smartest people I know have failed to achieve their weight-loss goals, despite earnest attempts at one diet after another. Still, their hope springs eternal as they embark on the seemingly next best diet. I’ve been fond of saying that any diet works if you stick with it — the problem is we don’t stick with it. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that.
Missing in the research of the diet naysayers and the attempts by potentially naïve dieters is a crucial element of why most diets fail. This vital missing component is at the heart of everything you do — and everything you don’t do that you wish you did. The skill of motivation.
When you master your motivation, you create the choice, connection and competence to generate energy for sticking to your diet or continuing to pursue tiny habits that result in behavior change over time. Consider these scenarios.
It’s not about the muffin — it’s about creating choice
You go on the keto diet recommended by your nutritionist. The list of what you cannot eat includes foods and drinks you have been living on for years. The tray of muffins at a company meeting calls to you. You answer, “I’m on the keto diet, I can’t eat that muffin.” You have just threatened a psychological need required for thriving (and we all desire to thrive) — your perception of choice. Your first instinct is to take back your prerogative by eating the muffin. You need choice; you need to feel that you’re in control. At this moment, you think it’s all about that muffin. But it’s not. It’s about your perception of choice.
When you have mastered the skill of motivation, you recognize the real issue and ask yourself, “What choices do I have?” You can choose to eat the muffin. Or take a bite of the muffin. Or choose to eat the blueberries and yogurt. Sometimes, just recognizing that you have a choice is enough to make the right choice.
Why knowing your “why” isn’t enough to create connection
Understanding your “why” is a popular refrain these days. But your answer to “why do you want to lose weight?” may not lead to the psychological need for connection required for optimal motivation. If your “why” for going on a diet is to impress high school buddies at your high school reunion, release the pressure you feel from your doctor or family members pushing you to lose weight for health reasons, or win the iPad offered by HR for the most pounds lost, then your “why” isn’t going to generate the optimal motivation you need to sustain your efforts.
Your “why” needs to reflect reasons that are meaningful, values-based, purpose-full, noble or of inherent interest to you.
I have witnessed people unsuccessful at losing weight until they identified a “why” that created a sense of connection to something or someone more important than the food they had to give up. This could be being more authentic toward the person they want to be, having more energy to pursue meaningful goals or being more present for those they love. When you master your motivation, you create connection by focusing on what you can gain instead of lose. When you diet from a values perspective, your energy shifts from feeling restricted to positive energy fueled by the peace and joy of living a healthy lifestyle.
If you don’t gain competence, you’ll give up
Creating competence is essential to your optimal motivation. If you’re going on the keto diet, understanding the process of ketosis can be energizing. Consider what else you could learn from the experience. When I chose a vegetarian lifestyle almost 40 years ago, I was as energized by learning about nutrition and healthy ways of eating as I was in giving up meat.
When my husband embarked on a new way of eating, we talked about what he was learning. Neither of us knew that red onions have fewer calories than white onions (less sugar content). But he positively beamed describing how he learned he could order a hamburger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun or pay for a full order of French fries instructing them to only fill the carton halfway.
He said, “They thought I was crazy, but I learned that it feels good to eat only a few fries.” He also learned that he doesn’t have to be perfect. If he has a day where he chooses to eat more than he needs, he accepts it and finds himself eager to return to a routine that generates more positive energy.
Diets by their nature tend to undermine the choice, connection and competence needed to succeed. Mastering your motivation could solve the mystery of why diets don’t work — and what does. Create choice, connection and competence, and achieving your most aspirational dreams will become more likely.
Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com.