Recently I lost 30 lbs (14kgs).
I went from 198lbs (close to 90kgs) in December 2017 to 168lbs (76kgs) in July 2018. I did the opposite of what a lot of people did. I didn’t shout it from the rooftops. I didn’t make a big deal out of what I eat. I just made a few changes and stuck with them.
So how come it’s “so easy” for me but not for others?
It’s not “easy”, it’s just unemotional.
First a caveat: Losing weight was not a long-term battle to fight the temptation of food for me. Unlike others I have read about, I was not someone who used food as a crutch or when I am down. I was also not someone who struggled over years to lose weight. Nor was I someone who was bullied about my weight or felt social or cultural or family pressure to look a particular way.
All of those would complicate how I approached this, but I think my experience is still a blueprint for anyone who has faced those things (the only advice I would add is that therapy can really help in addition to what I’ve written below).
For me, I stepped on the scale one day after a long time and saw that was up to the very edge of 200lbs. Why was that number important? I don’t know. That part probably was emotional. In fact it was really emotional.
I thought of when I used to run as a teenager and play soccer how I had never been heavier than 174lbs (I don’t know why that number always stuck with me). And how all through college and law school I hadn’t really weighed myself much at all, but when I did I never remember the number being higher than 180lbs.
Both of those things took all of my extra personal time away from me when before I might have done more physical activities like hiking or walking or going to gym or playing in a weekly soccer game with your friends. Half of them went away when I had my first full time job. The other half when we had our eldest daughter a year later.
Six years later looking at the scale creeping up to 200lbs, it was a jarring moment. But I realized that everything I had done well in my life has not been emotionally done, but emotionally motivated.
And that was the key first step: using the emotion of seeing 198 on the scale to motivate the change and from there, being totally unemotional about how to make it work.
Treat it like work.
I do research and teach for a living so perhaps this comes a bit more naturally. I find that many people — especially those not in academia — have another mode for work than for their personal lives. Why? I think people realize that they make better decisions when they are unemotional in a work context, to the point where we even having a saying for it, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” That basically means “it’s not about how I emotionally feel about this, it’s about what will work and makes the most sense”.
Why don’t we approach our personal problems in the same way? I’m not saying to be an automaton (anyone who knows me knows this definitely is not me). Have those emotions and embrace them. But don’t use them to solve problems. That’s not their job. The job of emotions is to motivate us to action and to connect us to other people. Not to solve problems. The parts of your brain that connect dots rationally? That’s the part you want to use for solving problems.
So use your damn brain!
For me, I did a ton of research. Not just nonsense google searches (though that is where it started), but also getting into peer-reviewed scholarly articles on nutrition, on obesity, on lifestyle and food contributions to weight. I encourage you to do the same, but the cliff notes version: you need a calorie deficit everyday and every week to lose weight.
My first response was: “that’s it? Like, duh.” But that simplicity hides some difficult choices. This is an accounting problem at heart: you either have to reduce your intake, increase your expenditure, or both. Reducing my intake took a hard think at first- I didn’t feel like I was eating that much.
So, I did an accounting.
Before I tried to reduce any amount of calories, I wanted to start with a baseline. I used, like seemingly everyone, MyFitnessPal for this but there are so many others available that are also easy to use.
Within a week of honestly (!) tracking, I had spotted an easy source of calories to cut: sweets and white bread.
I calculated that, if instead of a sweet after lunch or dinner I had fruits, I could basically eat double the volume of fruits than sweets and consume half the calories. And for bread, I literally just bought wheat bread and starting eating less slices of it (about half).
Everyone of us has very specific things that need to be cut so don’t let my specifics guide you. There is so much information about the food we eat so use it! But take a baseline first to figure out where you can cut without too many changes.
Then came the calorie expenditure side. I walk to work (and sometimes bike). I have a standing desk and stand in class. But I am otherwise pretty sedentary in my off hours. I would plop myself down and watch Netflix or get lost in the internet
The plopping down in front of the TV is relatively innocuous in the sense that, late at night, I am always so tired that won’t be replaced by exercise. But this led to the next two logical conclusions: don’t beat yourself up about EVERYTHING and exercise.
Don’t beat yourself up about everything
When you do an accounting of your activities like this, it is easy to start picking on everything negative that you do. Don’t do that. When I started I was tempted to change every negative thing I saw in my daily and weekly routines and change it. I want to read more AND meditate more AND write more AND lose weight. Just stop. One thing at time.
There are two major advantages to changing one thing at a time.
First, it is much more likely that the changes will stick. If you are just focused on making one change, you don’t have to worry about everything you think you are doing wrong and it becomes rather easy. After about a month (for most people), the change will become a habit that you don’t even need to think about. That was how I approached this and it also happens to be backed up by years of scientific data related to habit formation. So I just spent the first month cutting out the unnecessary sugar (notice: not all sugar). This also helped me avoid the infamous “What-The-Hell” effect.
Second, just doing that one thing is relatively easy. I didn’t try to add exercise until after a full month of making cutting out sugars. That meant two actual months in real time because I had stops and starts with the sugar. There were days at a time when I fell of the wagon. I didn’t beat myself, I just started the clock again. Two months later I was not eating added sugar pretty much at all. If I had tried to do more, I probably would have failed at everything because I would have had too many things to keep track of. Again, this is also backed up by research.
After I had managed to cut out extra sugar (again, not all sugar), I moved on to the calorie expenditure side. The first thing I needed for this was not equipment or a trainer. It was time. This was probably the hardest part of my entire journey. I had read enough about habits and about exercise that I realized I needed to find time every single day to exercise. And, though I had read about people who had done 7–10 minutes of fitness training each day in their bedroom, that wasn’t me. I wanted to use this as an excuse to get out of the house and hopefully get outside (or when it was too hot get out to the gym).
So I had to try to find 30 minutes each day to work out. This again required an objective mind and some creativity. It also forced me to really look at the things in my schedule that mattered and force others to respect it. But I found the time — a 30 minute window right after I sent the kids off to school with their car pool group (we pick up in the afternoon but another family drops off).
The first few days I didn’t actually have the time I thought. It took me 5 minutes to get dressed, another 5 to get to the gym, another 5 to warmup, and another 5 to get back so really I only had 10 minutes in the gym. So I had my gym clothes on in the morning when the kids were picked up and did warmups while they ate their breakfast (they loved it and mocked me mercilessly — the jokes of a six year old in particular can be pretty funny). Then, I gave myself an extra ten minutes to get to and from the gym for 40 minutes total.
The most important piece of scheduling came next: I put it in my calendar as a meeting so that no one could schedule meetings during that time slot. It said: “Gym Time” so everyone knew where I was and I couldn’t get away with not bringing my phone, but it largely worked. People saw the calendar blocked out and didn’t schedule anything during that time.
From there, it was a simple matter of picking what I wanted to do at the gym. My buddy Mike, not knowing my general losing weight goal, had asked me around that time to run the Athens Marathon with him. It was 9 months away.
I read a lot about training for marathons as a beginner (which at this point I most certainly was) and figured I could do it with a very regimented plan (which happened to be exactly what I needed). So that’s what I did.
I started running and walking 3 days a week, doing strength exercises supportive of the running goal the other 3 days, and resting one day a week. I am 4 months in and I went from running not at all to putting in about 20 miles a week across three runs. I have moved very slowly (partly because I got runner’s knee about a month in which forced me to progress even more slowly than I had at first). But that’s okay. I have the new routine and it works.
Putting your goals on autopilot and shutting up about it
Similar to what our family does with our finances (a post for another time), I was objective about my weight loss goals and the strategies for making it work. I used research-backed methods, took my time, and didn’t beat myself up about missteps. And I made it “easy” by putting a lot of it on autopilot. You do this by building routines. I don’t even think about the sugary options now. In fact, almost everything tastes too sweet for me if it has even a little bit of sugar in it. I don’t really think about by training. I just do it. My body wants it. And if I don’t do it, it sends all kinds of signals to my brain to do it.
There is a decent literature about not telling everyone the about your goal. This works if the social pressure is real. I told my wife about my goal and that’s it. I didn’t post it on facebook or instagram or snapchat. I just went about my business.
The only reason I want to share my experience now is because so many people seem to struggle with weight loss.
Do weight loss like you would your work like: Plan, Do, Study, Act and then put it on autopilot.