Maintaining enthusiasm for a program is relatively easy when you have a goal that is important and transformative. I’m talking about weight loss – getting motivated to stick to a program when the goal is tantalizing is straightforward. I can motivate myself by thinking about the clothes I’ll buy when I reach my goal weight that I can’t wear now. I can motivate myself by thinking about how much more comfortable I’ll be in an airplane when I’ve lost the weight that currently makes the airplane seat uncomfortable.
But when we’re talking about motivating myself to stay exactly the same, well, that’s a harder sell. It’s hard to get very motivated about the clothes I’ll buy next month when I’ll be exactly the same weight I am today. And then to do that year after year after year for a payoff that seems like nothing special once I’ve been there a while already? That gets really repetitive, sometimes even onerous, over the course of years, and I think the main reason that people start gaining back weight after an initial period of maintenance is because they just can’t talk themselves into the right choices any longer because there’s no motivating factor. So, in the absence of a motivating factor, what do I fall back on?
Habits. The cornerstone of maintaining a weight loss forever is to form the habits that require and, in some cases, cause a compulsion in me, to make those right choices. So let’s talk about forming habits. First things first: 21 days is not long enough to form a habit. I know that’s the common internet wisdom, but it’s false. According to researchers published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days to form a habit.
All right, I hear you thinking – I can do something for 66 days! There’s a catch. There’s always a catch. That research pertains to ONE habit. Just one thing – in this case, drinking a glass of water every day. Weight management is a conglomeration of dozens of habits working together to create a net of actions and skills. And that’s my bad news for you today – it’s not going to be 66 days, it’s going to be 66 days TIMES the number of habits that need to be formed, which varies depending on what you already do, and how resistant you are to habit-forming. It’s going to be a really long time.
Here is my experience: The first 4 years of maintaining I was militant, even religiously zealous about my recordkeeping, food consumption, monitoring my weight on the scale every day, and exercising. The next 2 years I was highly compliant with the program I had established for myself, but there were times when one or two of my parameters would fail and my weight would creep up, then I would tighten up my control again and get things back down. And for the last two years I’ve found that I can keep my weight fairly stable without writing down everything because my eating and exercising habits are now just that – habits. If I don’t exercise my body feels bad, like there’s an itch I can’t scratch. If I eat unsupportive foods my stomach gets upset and/or I feel sluggish. That’s what I’ve come to understand is meant by a habit – something that I just do automatically because doing anything else feels wrong.
However, the last thing I would want to do is make you feel like forming all of the habits necessary for weight management is impossible – I’m living proof that it’s not. What I’m really trying to convey is that if you don’t have it down in 66 days, or even a year, it’s not because you’re a failure, it’s because that advice is not really applicable to the size of the task you are undertaking. It takes years of trial and effort, you’re not unusual if it takes you several runs at solving this problem. You are undertaking a radical course of Behavior Modification. Most people enlist behaviorists, coaches, psychologists, and other specialists to help them in this journey. If you have access to these types of specialists, use them for all they are worth. If you don’t, be kind to yourself, but also firm. This is a challenge you are up to meeting.