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1.  Don’t over-regulate

Avoid the ‘what the hell’ effect—we’ve all been there, and it’s an unfortunate result of the rigid ‘all or nothing’ approach that characterises so many unsuccessful weight loss attempts. As human beings, we like the freedom to make our own decisions, but as soon as this is taken away from us (ie eat this, don’t eat that), we can only put up for it for so long before we think, ‘That’s it—I’m done. I’m sick of that controlling mechanism trying to rule my life—I’ll show it that I can’t be controlled.’ Then, instead of having just a slice of chocolate cake, we have two or three, or maybe even the whole cake. Instead of a week of no exercise, we have a month or a year or even ten years. The result? Sabotaged weight loss.

Be wary of over-regulating your approach to healthy living. Balance is important, and so is maintaining a sense of your own control—after all, it is your body and your life! Psychologists call this extreme reaction to excessive control mechanisms ‘counter-regulation.’ The best way to avoid it is to not over-regulate in the first place!

2.  Don’t reward yourself

The reward is the weight loss! Honestly, nothing else really measures up. Think about which reward is more preferable: the sweet victory of winning your weight loss war and becoming one of those people who never have to worry about their weight again, or getting a nice massage? You can get a massage anytime!

More importantly, many studies show that extrinsic rewards actually demotivate us. Rather than spurring us to achieve our aims, they shift our focus away from what we really want and foster short-term thinking and short-term results—neither of which is good for weight loss.

To suggest that you need some other kind of reward when you’re on your weight loss journey devalues the weight loss itself. Weight loss, don’t forget, is ultimately what you’re aiming for, and it’s the best reward of all.

3.  Recognizing that will power is a muscle too

Recent studies show that will power is like a muscle, meaning that it can be exercised and strengthened over time. It’s worth keeping this in mind as you embark on your weight loss journey and encounter some challenging situations—each time you face a new challenge, you’re also facing an opportunity to make your will power stronger!

Of course, if you push your willpower too hard and too fast (as you might do if you join an ‘all or nothing’ weight loss plan or program) and you’ll soon confront the equivalent of a pulled muscle—one that you won’t be able to use until it heals. So go easy on yourself, and remember that building up your will power muscles—like building up your physical muscles—takes time, patience, and practise. 

4. Planning and preparation

Being prepared is vital when your will power is waning, but it means more than just having a few healthy meals handy in the freezer—it’s being psychologically prepared, too. This means building such resources as an emotional eating toolkit, which helps get you through those tricky situations and bad days that you’re bound to face at some stage on your weight loss journey. But if you’re prepared, you’ll know exactly how to deal with them.

Learning how to develop this kit takes time. If you’ve been an emotional eater for the last ten or twenty years you’re not suddenly just going to be able to stop yourself from eating a whole block of chocolate by going for a walk. You might go for a walk, but you’ll probably buy a giant block of chocolate while you’re out!

5. Motivation

By now, we’re all familiar with the usual benefits of being fit and healthy—you can reduce your risk of chronic disease, have more energy, sleep better, and not die young (that one’s kind of important). But unless your doctor says you’re going to be dead in a month those reasons aren’t really enough to motivate most people to get up off the couch.

80% of our decisions are emotional, not rational, so we need to learn how to tap into these behavioural drives and find out what makes us tick. Figure out what gets you motivated as early as you can in your weight loss journey, and it can help you cope when you encounter an obstacle. Sure, everyone’s motivated at the start of a new project (weight loss or otherwise). It’s exciting, and there’s a sense of joyful anticipation about what you’re going to achieve: all the clothes you’ll be able to wear again and the looks on other people’s faces when they see the new you. But inevitably, things will go wrong—you might plateau, or injure yourself and have to take time off exercise. But it’s much easier to get through those tough times if you can build up your motivational toolkit well before you actually need to open it up and dip inside it.

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Sally Symonds is the author of “50 Steps to Lose 50kg . . . And Keep It Off” – the inspirational story of how she halved her weight and doubled her life. She is also the director of her own Healthy Life Mentoring business which specializes in helping people lose weight and attain a work/life balance in time-efficient ways.