Why is it that some people have no problem staying lean, while others struggle to lose weight their whole lives?
Is it bad genetics? A demanding career? Lack of willpower?
While all of these things have the ability to influence a person’s weight, none of them are the determining factor.
Let’s start with genetics. It’s true that your genes influence your natural hormone levels, how much fat you tend to keep in your body, and where it gets stored. Genetics can make it easier or harder to lose weight (and gain muscle).
But your genes don’t change the fact that every human body has the ability to lose fat. As long as you consume fewer calories than you burn, and assuming you don’t have a disease that impairs your basic physiological processes, you will lose weight. Bottom line: your genetics likely aren’t preventing you from getting in great shape.
Okay, so if it’s not genetics that determine someone’s ability to lose weight, it must be how busy they are. Let’s face it: if you have a demanding, stressful career, it’s harder to make time for health and fitness. And if your job has you traveling all the time, it can be difficult to find healthy options.
And yet - we all know people who are busier than us and still manage to stay fit. There are Fortune 100 CEOS that look like greek gods and goddesses. So we have to conclude that it’s not the amount of time we have in the day, but how we use our time that truly matters.
What about willpower? Isn’t losing weight all about discipline? Actually, not so much.
Willpower is a finite resource that diminishes throughout the day (the technical term for this is “decision fatigue”). It’s why most people are more likely to overeat at dinner than at breakfast. So if you’re relying on willpower to lose weight, you’re screwed.
Discipline matters, but only if you use it proactively to set up new habits. People don’t stay fit because they have more willpower. People stay fit because they’ve set up systems that conserve the willpower they do have.
And that brings us to the real difference between those who stay fit and those who struggle: behavior change.
The fit among us have different habits. This means that if you want to lose weight and keep it off, you need to focus more on what you do each day than on which diet or workout program is “the best.”
In other words, you need to play the infinite game by creating new behaviors instead of playing the finite game of simply hitting a goal.
So now you’re probably wondering…
If behavior change is the key to sustainable weight loss, then what are the highest-leverage habits you can adopt?
I’m glad you asked.
Here are my top 7 weight-loss habits (I’ve based the order on what time our clients tend to do them each day - starting with the morning):
HABIT #1: MEDITATE FOR 5 MINUTES UPON WAKING
The science is clear - meditation helps you lose weight. It lowers the stress hormone cortisol, adjusts your mindset, and moderates food cravings.
I know, I know. You’ve tried meditation before and you can’t stop your mind from running. Does this mean that meditation can’t work for you?
Not at all. It’s completely normal to have thoughts come up when you meditate. In fact, the whole practice of meditation is about having a thought, noticing that you got distracted, and then coming back.
Each time you come back to the present moment, it’s the equivalent of doing a bicep curl for your mind. You’re training yourself to recognize when you’ve gotten lost in thinking. Overtime, this helps you become less reactive to stressors throughout the day.
So when you notice you’ve drifted off, don’t beat yourself up for it. Just make a mental note, say to yourself “thinking”, and return to your breath knowing that you just got another rep in.
The other objection I get from people who don’t meditate regularly is that they don’t have enough time to meditate. But remember what I said about time earlier in this article: It’s not a matter of time — we all have the same amount of time — it’s a matter of priorities.
If Oprah, Katie Perry, and Jerry Seinfeld can make time for meditation, so can you.
There’s an old Zen proverb that goes, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” In other words, meditation is even more important when you feel stressed or short on time.
But I’m not asking you to meditate for 20 minutes at first. In fact, one of the best ways to form a new habit is to start small. So if you don’t meditate right now, or if you’ve been inconsistent with it, start with 5 minutes a day and don’t increase that until you’ve been able to do it 5 days in a row.
If you're new to meditation, there are plenty of free apps and timers that can help. I particularly like Tara Brach’s guided meditations on the Insight Timer app. Otherwise you can just sit down, set a timer for five minutes, and focus on your breath going in and out of your nose until time is up.
I suggest meditating in the morning because that way you know it’s going to happen before unexpected things come up throughout the day. But feel free to take a few breaths throughout the day when you get stressed. Or add in a quick session before dinner as a way to transition out of work.
There are lots of ways to practice mindfulness. Cooking, walking the dog, and yoga are all fair game as long as you do them in a way that keeps you in the present moment. Experiment and find what works for you. But give meditation a legitimate shot first.
HABIT #2: DRINK A TALL GLASS OF WATER
It’s important to stay hydrated throughout the day, but one of the most critical times to re-hydrate is in the morning (since you haven’t had water in the last 8-9 hours). Drink a tall glass of water before eating breakfast.
Many of us confuse thirst with hunger and, as a result, we end up eating more than we really need to. The exact amount of water you should drink each day depends on your bodyweight and level of activity, but most people recommend around two liters (which equals 8, 8 ounce glasses).
I recommend using your own portable water bottle to stay hydrated throughout they day. First, it will help you measure your water intake (there are even fancy bottles that will measure automatically). Second, if you have water on hand with you all the time, you’re more likely to drink it.
If you get bored of drinking plain water all day, but you don’t want the empty calories that come with soda and juice, I highly recommend seltzer with fresh lemon or lime.
Once you’ve measured your water intake for a couple of days, you’ll start to have an intuitive sense of whether you’re drinking enough. At that point, you can use a handy (and kind of weird) trick to remind yourself to hydrate.
If you go to the bathroom and your pee is more yellow (versus more clear), then you’re probably not drinking enough.
HABIT #3: GET YOUR FIRST MEAL OF THE DAY RIGHT
Notice that I did not say “get breakfast right.” If you don’t have the time or appetite to eat breakfast, it’s perfectly acceptable to fast until 10 or 12.
While intermittent fasting is not the panacea that it’s sometimes made out to be, it can be a good option for those who don’t want to eat breakfast and are looking to lose or maintain weight. You simply end up eating less food when you’re only able to eat within an 8-10 hour window each day.
Whenever you do have that first meal, I recommend you keep these three criteria in mind:
It should be real food. This means plants or animals that would actually go bad if they didn’t get eaten. Avoid ultra-processed foods that are several steps removed from what you’d find in nature as they are both less healthy for you and highly correlated with weight gain.
It should be high in protein. I aim for 30 grams of protein. Eggs are one of my go-to protein sources for breakfast. As a reference, one egg contains 6-7 grams of protein.
It should be low in carbs. Carbohydrates aren’t very filling. So by reducing your carb intake, you’ll likely eat fewer calories. Plus, when you reduce your carb intake at breakfast, you may notice that you avoid the post-lunch energy slump.
Some first meal options to consider include eggs, lentils, spinach or other veggies.
Notice that cereal is not included in the above list. A processed sugar bomb is pretty much your worst breakfast option. If you absolutely must eat cereal, I recommend doing so after dinner as your desert. That way, when your blood sugar crashes, it will be time for bed anyway.
When you are considering what to eat for your first meal of the day (or any meal for that matter), simply ask yourself, “What would a healthy person eat right now?” and do that. You already know intuitively that kale is better than waffles, so don’t overthink this.
I recommend experimenting to find the breakfast that works best for you. One reason why there’s so much conflicting nutrition advice out there is that everybody is different.
Some people recommend eating the same breakfast every morning to avoid decision fatigue, but personally I prefer rotating through 2-3 of my go-to options.
When you get the first meal of the day right, you’ve set the tone for future meals. You’ve taken advantage of the meal that will provide most of your fuel for focused work. And you’ve made a healthy decision before all of your willpower is used up later in the day.
HABIT #4: STOP EATING AT 80% FULL
There is a Japanese practice called “hara hachi bu” which translates roughly to, “eat until you are eight parts (out of ten) full.”
This Confucian teaching works well for weight loss because it encourages portion control through mindful eating. But there’s a problem…
Most of us have no idea what 80% full feels like.
So in order to effectively implement this strategy, you may need to experiment with some related habits first:
Put your fork down between bites. Doing this forces you to actually chew your food and take pleasure from it. When you slow down and savor each bite, you may find that you don’t want to eat as much.
Avoid highly processed foods. Chips, candy, and crackers are engineered to make you want more - from the way they taste to the way they sound when you bite into them. It’s much harder to get a sense of how full you are when eating highly processed foods.
Stop eating in front of your phone or computer. Instead, eat with someone else or in front of a window. The less distracted you are, the more aware you’ll be of how full you are.
Once you’ve started to get a sense of your true hunger level while eating, you can practice stopping at 80% full. At 80%, you should no longer feel hungry but you also shouldn’t feel stuffed. If you learn to listen to your bodies natural signals, you won’t have to count calories to lose weight.
HABIT #5: DO 30 MINUTES OF TRAINING THAT YOU ENJOY
The first thing to notice here is the word training. Most people work out with the goal of sweating and getting sore. A much more effective way to way to approach your workout is as a way to practice, or train, whatever type of movement you’re doing.
The second thing to notice is the last part: you must first identify what types of training you enjoy. For some people, that might be lifting heavy weights. For other people, it might be walking, yoga, or dancing.
Life is too short to spend your time on the elliptical (unless you’re into that sort of thing…which I’m not).
Whatever you choose, remember that you are focused on consistency, not intensity - the primary goal is to become the type of person who moves their body every day, not to end up on the floor in a pile of sweat. If you don’t build the habit of training first, you’ll stop once you reach your goal and then end up right back where you started a few months later.
The best thing you can do, if you want to consistently make time for training, is to put it on your calendar. Personally, if something isn’t on my calendar, it may as well not exist. So choose a time of day that’s realistic for you to work out and set a repeating event for that time. You can move this appointment around if your day or week gets crazy, but you can’t delete the appointment. That time is accounted for.
Once you’re doing something active every day consistently, then you can start to look into making the most of that time. If your physical appearance is important to you then I strongly recommend you include some sort of strength training in your weekly schedule, as this will have the biggest impact on the way your body looks. A simple and effective strength-training program is Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1. If you decide to give this program a try, I highly recommend you use this free app to calculate your weights.
HABIT #6: WEIGH YOURSELF DAILY
This 2018 study from the American Heart Association suggests that those who weigh themselves daily are able to lose more weight than those who weigh themselves weekly or not at all.
One explanation for this is that tracking your behavior (what scientists call “self-monitoring”) increases accountability and gives you feedback, which can in turn increase motivation.
In order to make the most of this strategy, there are a few things you need to bear in mind.
First, your weight can fluctuate significantly day-to-day based on water retention. So instead of worrying about what the scale says on a given day, it’s best to focus on your “weekly low” and use that to determine progress.
Second, this strategy will backfire if it increases your anxiety. Don’t weigh yourself daily if you have a history of disordered eating or if you find yourself becoming obsessed with the number of the scale.
Third, weight is not always the best indicator of your body composition. If you’re gaining muscle while losing fat, your weight may stay the same even though you are headed in the right direction. This is why I also recommend taking pictures in the mirror, tracking your body-fat percentage, and using a measuring tape to better assess your progress.
A healthy target for weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week. You will likely lose more than that in the first week or two, but some of that will be water-weight. Keep in mind that it’s easier to maintain weight once you’ve lost it than it is to lose weight in the first place.
Final note: Try to weigh yourself at the same time each day. Otherwise you’ll get thrown off by your body’s fluctuations. Personally, I like to weigh myself after my workout before I hop in the shower.
HABIT #7: USE A “WIND DOWN” ALARM
If you’re like most people, you probably use an alarm on your phone to wake up at the same time every day. But you may not be as disciplined about when you go to sleep.
Research shows that when you are low on sleep, you’re more likely to overeat. Lack of sleep shifts your hormonal balance away from those hormones that promote fullness and towards those that promote hunger.
By setting a wind down alarm on your phone for one hour before bed time, you’ll be more likely to get enough sleep.
As a reference point, most people need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep.
What should you do once your alarm goes off to ensure that you’ll actually be able to fall asleep at bedtime? Here are some things that can help:
Shut down your electronics. Your computer, cell phone, and TV all emit blue light, which suppresses the secretion of melatonin and makes it harder to fall asleep. Even though there are apps like this one that will take away blue light at night, any type of light can interfere with your sleep. Plus, email and social media make it harder to relax.
Create a bedtime ritual. Personally, I like to stretch, journal, and read an hour before falling asleep. I don’t use an e-reader (see above point about blue light). I also don’t read non-fiction books because they make make it hard for me to shut my brain off. I read fiction and turn off the light when I feel myself starting to drift off.
Set a “wind down” alarm now and see if that helps you get to bed earlier.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN
While it’s tempting to try and implement all of these habits at once, that strategy is destined to fail.
The key to behavior change is starting small.
So my challenge to you, if you’re serious about losing weight, is to start with one habit and lock it in completely before moving onto another one.
Choose the habit that you feel most excited about implementing. Then approach it like you would approach an experiment — from a place of curiosity.
For example, let’s say you are most excited about the idea of getting more sleep, so you decide to set a wind down alarm. You set an alarm for 9pm and you’re feeling totally motivated.
But what if it gets to 9pm and you’re in the middle of your favorite show. Let’s say you ignore the alarm and end up going to bed an hour later than you wanted to. Does this mean that you have failed as a human being? Should you just resolve to use more willpower tomorrow?
If you’re approaching this with an experimenter’s mindset, you would ask, “How might I change my system today in order to give myself a better shot tomorrow?”
You might decide that since you hate stopping episodes midway through, the real problem occurs when you start a new episode too late. So you make a mental note: “Before I start a show in the evenings, I’ll check the time and make sure that it will finish up before my wind down time. If not, I will choose a shorter show or a different activity.”
Maybe that adjustment works. Or maybe you have to tweak the system in a different way. Even so, you’re eventually going to find the habit that works best for you. And once you find what works, you’re golden.
So now you know what the 7 habits are, and you know how to insert them one by one into your life.
Our clients track their daily habits on a one page, printable checklist. That way they can give themselves some positive reinforcement and stay focused on the process of weight loss instead of being attached to short-term results.
If you want to get a copy of this checklist, simply enter your email below and we’ll send it right over to you.
[photo credit: giphy]