People have asked me how I maintain my current DIET AND EXERCISE and I always end up say I hacked willpower. It’s too long a conversation to get out succinctly and politely but I wanted a place to put it into words. Hence this entire blog as an excuse for this post. Here’s the disclaimer: This worked for me, your mileage may vary, don’t BITE MY HEAD OFF.
Willpower is a muscle. You can tire it out, you can strengthen it, and you can trick it. If you sit at a table with a plate full of donuts, you can withhold grabbing one for 5 minutes, but after a while, you REALLY want one, right? Eventually you give in and eat it. While I have no idea HOW TO CONTROL CRAVINGS, I do have an idea how to gradually change your willpower to go from “man I really like sitting on the couch” to “man, I really HAVE to sit on the couch.”
Hacking your willpower is an appropriate phrase. Video game designers have been doing it for years. In an effort to pad the length of their games, they’ve incorporated a thing called “farming” where you do some repetitive, long, boring task, in order to “level up” or gain experience or gold or whatever value system they’ve put into the game.
When you think about boring, long, repetition, if you aren’t thinking about working out or dieting, you’re some sort of monster. No one likes the treadmill, stair climber, lifting weights, or eating healthier, but if you look at it like trying to level up, it becomes a little easier.
No one successfully sets their goal as “I want to lose 150lbs in 9 months.” You need to set realistic, short term goals, keeping that longer goal in mind.
The formula is simple. Identify your weight loss goal and time. Let’s use 10lbs in 5 weeks, because the number is easy. That’s 35,000 calories you need to burn. Use this calorie calculator to figure out your baselines. It includes diets and menu suggestions. It’s awesome. Let’s say you need to eat 2,000 calories a day to maintain your weight. What we’ve done is given you concrete numbers to work with, that you can track and manage without any guesswork.
So, we know we need to lose 2lbs a week. That’s 7,000 calories, which means we’re looking to burn 1,000 extra calories a day.
If you’re bad at dieting, like I am, we’re only going to cut 200 calories from your diet. That’s two cokes, or a cupcake, or two beers, something, gone from your diet. Skip the bag of chips at lunch and you’re most of the way there already. This is the brilliant part. We’re not having you count your calories and keep track of everything, we’re gonna have you count what you’re cutting out.
Then? Walk. An hour of walking, depending on your weight, can burn 500 calories. This tool will help you figure it out. When I ws 340lbs, I was able to walk at a 3.5mph pace for an hour, and it burned 618 calories. Since we’re looking now to burn 800 calories, it’s roughly an hour and a half walk. My usual goal was to get home from work, change into more comfortable clothes, walk for that hour and a half, and then prepare dinner. This also helped me break my routine of coming home, plopping a frozen pizza in the oven, and then being hungry again at 9-9:30. But you can break that up, walk to work if possible, go for a walk on your lunch break, add some ankle weights or wrist weights, etc. It’s possible to maximize your burn/hour, depending on your confidence and skillset. Additionally, it’s also possible to start smaller, with less weight loss, or longer-term goals, if walking an hour is too difficult.
So, you’ve burned 1,000 calories in a day. If your scale measures down to the decimal, you’ll have seen a 1/3lb drop by the end of your day (or not, we”ll get into measuring and tracking analytics later). If you keep that up for the course of the week, you’ll see a 2lb drop. I always set rewards. If I maintained that pace for a week, I got to treat myself with something I’d been looking forward to. Some of my rewards over the course of 9 months were big, like “new suits” or “tattoo” but they can also be small, like “piece of chocolate” or “movie with friends.”
Those rewards are your “level up bonus.” At the end of your 5 weeks, set something bigger, like “new raybans” or “weekend trip to X.” After a few weeks, you start looking forward to that grind, because you’re conditioning yourself to hit those accomplishments. It’s a lot like breaking down a To Do list into smaller pieces so you can check off more boxes as you go, and it takes the seemingly insurmountable goal of “losing ten, twenty, one hundred pounds” into easier, manageable, and trackable amounts.
Eventually, you’ll feel more confident in your dieting, or not miss that extra coke a day, and you can build on that and cut something else. Or you’ll feel more confident walking for an hour every day, and feel like adding to that. Now that you have a baseline, you can set your next 5 week goal, and then also add a 6 month goal. If you know you’re losing 10lbs every two months, give or take, you can check in in that 6 month goal knowing you should be down 30. If you are? Get yourself one of those bigger rewards! Congrats! That’s more than most people lose in a year.
The key is that mental voice that says “I did something good today, I deserve a reward.” Before I started tracking specific numbers, I ended up working out in the gym for an hour, burning 300 calories, and then eating something that set me back 450. I would feel productive and be actually ruining my effort. We need to trick that voice into looking longer term for it’s reward, and changing rewards from food based to activity based. “If I do well this week, I get to see that movie this weekend.” Better yet, “If I do well this week I can play sand volleyball with my friends this weekend.” It’s that constant viewing this activity as a reward that will eventually train yourself to look forward to it. After 5 weeks, you’ll see that success, and you’d be surprised at how ready you are to build on it.
There’s obviously more to it than this. If you’ll notice, 150lbs works out to a bit more than 30lbs in 6 months. I’ll talk about ramping up your work outs, worrying about the plateau, and breaking out the weekend bad habits later. Probably.