If you want to lose weight, you are urged to set precise goals. Goals can help us get up in the morning and tackle the day with zest and enthusiasm.
The extremely successful industrialist Henry Ford said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”
So, it makes sense to set goals for weight loss.
Claire Madigan, senior research associate at Loughborough University (UK) writes, “Many weight loss programmes start by asking people to set a goal. And research indeed shows that creating this “intention” actually motivates you to change your behaviour.”
But if that were enough, there wouldn’t be 45% of adults in western countries trying to lose weight at any one time. So, what can you do as well?
Recently, there has been more focus on harnessing your values to help you lose weight – what psychologists call “self-affirmation interventions.” (These are not the same as affirmations, where you repeatedly say things like “I take time to think before giving into cravings.”)
Social psychologist Claude Steele originally popularised self-affirmation theory in the late 1980s. It remains a well-studied theory in social psychological research. Self-affirmation theory says that if individuals reflect on values that are personally relevant to them, they are less likely to experience distress and react defensively when confronted with information that contradicts or threatens their sense of self. They are more likely to be able to change.
It’s well-known that when people are faced with information designed to change their behaviour, they often respond defensively. They find ways of ignoring or justifying their existing attitudes and behaviour. They find reasons not to change.
Faced with the information that you should eat fewer fast-food meals, do you dig in and ignore it or find a reason to dismiss the message as untrue? When someone queries how much alcohol you drink, do you justify it by the quality of the wine you drink?
In self-affirmation interventions people are encouraged to write about their values. Researchers have found that this reduces defensive responses and encourages change.
How is this of use if you want to lose weight? First of all, you need to identify some values that are important to you. There are lots of lists of values that you can use. Just search the internet for “list of values”.
In my book 190 Weight Loss Hacks: What the Evidence Says, I list these values that might be relevant for weight loss:
Pick one of these values and spend some time writing about it and its relationship to your desire to weigh less. On another day, read what you’ve written. You may want to add to it. You may want to choose another value and write about that instead.
So, let’s look at acceptance. You may write about the importance of accepting the body you have and being grateful (another value!) for what it can do rather than how it looks. Maybe you need to write about accepting that eating healthily means excluding some of your favourite foods most of the time.
What about determination? You may write about how you start out determined to lose weight, but your determination quickly disappears in the face of temptation. How does this make you feel?
Writing about forgiveness may involve thinking about your parents. Did they insist that you ate everything when you were a child? Did you get praised for clearing your plate? Do you still get offered that high-calorie cake “baked especially for you,” when you go back to your parents’ home?
Maybe you feel angry with them – they’re the reason you weigh so much now. What happens when you look at the events through the lens of forgiveness?
Do you feel that you don’t honour honesty in terms of weight loss? Maybe you see yourself as an honest person, but in this respect, you feel you are dishonest. Do you eat in secret and pretend it doesn’t count? Do you tell people you’re quite happy with your weight, even when you feel totally upset about it? Do you lie about how much you weigh?
If you took the value of independence, you might write about the pressure to be slim on social media and how you don’t want to give into pressure, even if it means you weigh more than you want to.
Addressing your values in this way can make you more open to change and more motivated to change. It can help you see what is blocking you from achieving the weight loss you desire. It can help unzip your brain from its obsession with food or help you maintain the weight you’ve lost.
Do you think setting goals is enough to achieve them? Why or why not? What do you think about the notion that self-affirmations and values may be more important than goals? Which values would you explore first in your weight loss quest? Please share the values you choose and a little of the process and its effect on your weight loss journey.