Seeing the “WHY”

by Charles Platkin, PhD

He appeared to be in his early 30s, and since I have found that most people under the age of 40 are less concerned about their health than those over 40, I took a stab. “OK, but are there any other reasons?”

Well, it turned out that he was the father of 2-year-old twins. He went on and on about how his boys would have a greater chance of becoming smokers if a parent smoked, about the risks of exposing them to secondhand smoke and about how the house smelled from cigarettes. Everyone in the room — except him — could see that his real reason for quitting wasn’t to improve his own health but to improve the lives of his children. Unfortunately, however, he wasn’t seeing the “why.” And until he was able to do that, he probably wouldn’t succeed.

So how do you apply that same principle to dieting and weight loss? Let’s assume you’ve already decided you want to be healthy and lose weight. Now suppose I ask you why you’ve made this decision. In other words, what’s the REWARD you’re working toward?

You need to be able to answer that question. Because when it’s time to battle the temptation of a fudgy, chewy brownie or some hot, salty, oh-so-good french fries, you’d better be clear on your motivation.

I call this “Seeing the Why.” Why do you want to lose weight in the first place? I realize you might think the answer is obvious — just like that guy at my lecture — but trust me, many times it’s not. “I’ve found that people often convince themselves they’re losing weight for one reason when clearly it’s about something else. People don’t always understand the motives that are driving them, and their lack of understanding backfires,” says Richard M. Ryan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York.

If you haven’t clearly defined your reason for wanting to lose weight, as soon as you run into complications or the going gets tough, it will be hard to convince yourself that it’s worth continuing.

After all, why would you pick a baked apple over a piece of chocolate cake at your favorite restaurant? The idea is that if you think your motivation is to lower your cholesterol, and that’s not compelling enough to stand up to the chocolate cake — well, the chocolate cake will win every time. But if, instead, you’re choosing between chocolate cake and feeling good about yourself in shorts during your upcoming family vacation — and that is truly important — then maybe that baked apple might start looking good after all.

How often have you done something because someone else wants you to do it, especially when it comes to losing weight? We hear it from our doctors, friends, parents, and spouses who “mean well” — but then we go on a diet for the wrong reasons. “People mouth goals that someone else has set for them — and this is not a very stable basis for personal change,” adds Ryan. When someone else sets expectations for us, we are often compelled to rebel. How many times have you looked at that doughnut and said, “I don’t care what my husband (or wife) thinks — I’m eating that Krispy Kreme.”

In fact, research demonstrates a greater likelihood of success on any weight-loss program, including increased weight loss and weight maintenance, if the participant’s motivation is autonomous. In other words, you need to want to do this for YOUR OWN reasons, not because someone else thinks you should or because you think it’s “the right thing to do.”

Make sure your reason for losing weight is personally important. Like the gentleman who asked about the smoking: Make sure that you care about it, and remember that your choices directly affect your reward. Don’t rely on feelings of obligation or pressure to motivate you, advises Ryan. If you end up saying things like, “Oh, I shouldn’t eat that — it’s a ‘bad’ food,” you’re really not connected to your reward. “Your reward needs to be strong and internally integrated for it to be motivating,” says Ryan.

In order to find your reason “Why,” you may need to think about what it will be like to actually lose weight. How will you feel? What will you look like? If you’ve never been at your goal weight, it might be hard to get in touch with the feelings and benefits of being that weight. Spend time considering your end result. Use self-reflection and visualization techniques and fantasize about realistic, but exciting, reasons for being in shape.

Being honest with yourself is critical. Ryan recommends asking yourself probing questions. Get your mind thinking about what makes this goal important. Self-honesty is no simple task. It involves “reflecting and then endorsing, not just accepting,” says Ryan. “Just saying words like, ‘I want to be healthier,’ or, ‘I want to look better,’ might not be enough.” Those words are too broad. You need to ask yourself why you want to look better or be healthier — what does that mean to you? Does looking better mean you’re more attractive to others? That you get compliments? Don’t just say the benefits — explore them and break them down. Get to the roots. If looking better is your reward, break it down into what that actually means to you. For example, “By looking better, I will get compliments from others. This will increase my motivation and will increase my confidence, and this makes me feel better about who I am.”

Often we feel guilty about our reward because it’s not “politically or socially correct,” says Heather Patrick, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Our goals are OUR goals. Whether they’re about fitting into a great pair of pants or being able to strut around in a bathing suit, that’s our own business. The only caveat is that your goals shouldn’t be physically or mentally destructive to yourself or others. Patrick also cautions, “Be careful what you choose, because certain rewards are fleeting and will not last over the long haul. For instance, if your reward is to get more compliments by looking better, what happens when the compliments end?” She recommends picking rewards that will continually motivate you. They tend to be the most powerful. One example could be the ability to spend more active time with your family.

“Create an advantage/disadvantage analysis — basically a list of all the advantages and disadvantages for losing weight and all of the advantages and disadvantages for NOT losing the weight. Create four columns,” suggests Jim Afremow, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Athletes’ Performance in Tempe, Ariz. This allows you to define your “why” and clarify your thinking. “It helps when you see these in black and white, and the list will serve as a reminder.” After you write up your list of rewards, look it over to see which ones are the most important, which ones are “autonomous,” and which ones will keep you going when things get rough. Then, review your list throughout the weight-loss process and continue to add to it. It’s a great way to keep you on track.

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