Okay, show of hands.
Do your eyes perk when you see a new diet promising an easy route to weight loss?
But how much have you spent on diet books over the past five years?
How many diets have you tried only to give up after two days?
You begin each diet with rock-solid resolve. This diet will be different. This time you’ll lose weight. And keep it off.
But when you’re at a bar, you can’t resist the yummy cocktails. When you’re at your best friend’s birthday party, you fall for a gooey chocolate chip cookie. And before you know it, you’ve completely lost your resolve.
I feel your pain because I’ve been there too.
Knowing what and how much I should eat didn’t stop me from piling my plate with more green curry and having chocolate brownies way too often. I knew I shouldn’t , yet I continued to eat and later beat myself up for having no self-control.
Failure to stick to a diet has nothing to do with a lack of willpower, though.
Diets don’t work. Trust me. I’ve tried them all.
I’ve learned that shifting my mindset made sticking to a healthy path much easier than forcing myself to diet.
It’s not always easy — just look at the multi-billion-dollar diet industry that promises pills and weight loss powders. Worthwhile change requires action, not iron-clad willpower.
Let’s demystify what happens when we try to lose weight. Why do we sabotage ourselves? What’s the secret to making long-lasting changes?
1. Meet your inner elephant
Aren’t our minds mysterious, complex, and baffling? Science is only touching the tip of the iceberg of neuroscience and how our brains drive our behaviors.
Buddhist philosophy represents our logical mind with an elephant rider, while the elephant represents our unconscious, emotional mind.
The rider represents the thinking, planning, and executing parts of our brain. The elephant embodies our emotions and gut instincts.
Your elephant lives in the moment and doesn’t care about the long term. Without a trained rider, your elephant happily eats cookies and abandons any logical plans for a diet.
Who would win in a battle of wills between an elephant and a human?
That’s why you must learn how to work with rather than against your elephant.
2. Learn how to move your elephant
To stick to a healthy diet, you must cajole your elephant into acting on long-term plans and desires. Often, your elephant must forego immediate pleasure for future gains. This is difficult because your elephant is tremendously strong.
Why are those gooey chocolate chip cookies almost impossible to resist? Your rider knows what to do, but it can’t force a two-ton elephant against its wishes.
Are you doomed to be a slave to your desires? Only if you never learn to guide your elephant toward your end goal.
How can you get there? First you must dig down to your deepest wishes.
3. Uncover your deepest motivations
Be brutally honest with yourself. What motivates you to eat healthier or lose weight?
Uncover your deepest desires by digging deeper. Will losing weight make you look better? Do you want to have more energy to move easier? Do you want to avoid taking drugs for high blood sugar, cholesterol, or blood pressure? Do you want to live longer to enjoy more time with your loved ones?
Generally, your elephant eats for pleasure, but if she understands why she should eat well, she’ll comply.
My father died suddenly of heart disease at age sixty-four. I wish deeply that he was alive to meet my husband and son. I don’t want my son to have the same thoughts someday, so I choose foods that boost my immunity and keep me disease-free.
When I think about the long-term — living a long life with my family — junk food holds no power.
What is your motivation? Take a few minutes to uncover your deepest desires.
Our self-control is exhaustible. When you set too many new rules for yourself, your elephant rebels and runs away. Instead of deciding that you’ll never eat all your favorite foods ever again, start small.
Throw out the diet-label thinking — paleo, vegan, low-carb — and focus on small changes.
Start with one bite-sized change. Eat oatmeal with berries for breakfast. Or carry a pre-washed bag of greens, and add a salad to your lunch. Resist trying more until your first change is a habit.
5. Encourage your elephant’s good habits
The human brain is wired to look for the negative. We focus on the things we do wrong, and we ignore what we do right. Our biological instinct guides our senses and emotions to look for what could be dangerous to our survival.
As we evolved, we’ve kept this bad-seeking prejudice. It can be easy to ignore the things that you do right when eating healthier.
Rather than focusing on what you do wrong, ask yourself what eating habits work and how you can do more of those?
We all have bright spots, and you can find one.
Don’t force yourself into things you hate. If you detest cooked greens but like salads, start by adding a salad to your lunch. I love hummus, so I cook chick peas and eat it often. What are your bright spots?
6. Talk to your elephant in a silky-sweet voice
Imagine trying to move an elephant by yelling and hitting.
Violence is ugly. Unkind words toward yourself are a form of self-abuse. I learned to stop saying, “I have no willpower. I’m a failure.”
Simply by saying kind words to myself, I felt better, less stressed, and happier about my situation. I focused on my long-term reasons for eating well, and I felt more energetic and vibrant as I ate better.
When your rider accepts your elephant and gives love rather than hate, they can unite and work together.
And remember, if you miss a day of exercise or indulge a little bit, be kind to your elephant. We should never condemn ourselves. Just get back to your routine without regrets.
7. Hone your elephant riding skills
A skilled rider leads without engaging in a battle of wills. Because she knows she can’t win that battle without the cooperation of the elephant.
Imagine trekking in Nepal. Your elephant spies a mango tree dripping with hundreds of juicy mangoes, but the tree is in the wrong direction — the opposite way of your evening camp. You must distract your elephant before she spies the mango tree.
Don’t put irresistible temptations in your path. If you love sweets, bypass that part of the grocery, and resist stopping at the new bakery. Reward yourself after you’ve taken the right path. Buy chocolate in individual packets. Take one and walk away from the kitchen. Shift your focus once you’ve had your chocolate.
The Big Secret To Getting Your Elephant To Cooperate
Imagine you have an auto-pilot button for your change. Your elephant simply follows, without any direction from your rider. Eating a healthy breakfast becomes as easy as brushing your teeth and taking a shower. What’s the secret?
Repeat. Repeat. And repeat.
Use a simple trigger to prompt your elephant. If you want to eat a healthy breakfast, put your oatmeal ingredients in a jar in the fridge. In the morning, grab your oatmeal and go. I’ve eaten oatmeal with berries, flax and cinnamon for years.
I don’t think about what to buy or prepare for breakfast any longer. It’s like brushing my teeth and requires no willpower. Take a moment to think about your trigger — will you prep a breakfast or buy pre-washed greens for your salad? Set up your trigger.
The truth about long-lasting change
You have the power to tame your elephant. You can become skinnier, fitter, and healthier. And it doesn’t have to feel like a battle of wills to get there.
Understand what motivates you, and you will learn how to guide your subconscious mind.
Treat yourself with kindness and encouragement rather than harsh judgements.
Celebrate each small step toward a healthier you.
The next time you feel like devouring a tempting chocolate brownie, you’ll remember that it’s you, the rider, who’s in control.