S1: How do you feel when you get on that scale these days?
S2: Frustrated, I’ve lost from, say, 220 down to 206, and I’m just losing a steady pound a week, I feel good about it, I’m successful.
S3: All of those cues should keep me motivated. And they do. And it’s just I lose it.
S4: Welcome to How to. I’m Charles Duhigg. I am pretty certain that almost everyone listening to this at some point has struggled a little bit to lose weight. I know that. I certainly have. And the frustrating thing about this is that there’s a pretty simple equation, right? You eat fewer calories and you drink water instead of soda, etc., etc. But of course, the real hurdle is the one that’s inside your head. Finding the motivation to stick with your plan even when it gets boring and tedious. And the weight loss seems so slow for this week’s listener, finding the motivation to not only lose weight, but to keep it off. That’s the hardest part.
S3: My name is John. I am living in Oklahoma. I’m 72 years old.
S2: I’m in the process of retiring and I have been dealing with a lifelong challenge and frustration, which is my weight.
S1: And John, I got to say, I deal with that same challenge if I feel like you’re in good company, you and most of America. John’s a former engineer and he spent the last 20 years doing leadership development and coaching and dieting. When was the first time you remember thinking to yourself, like, I should lose some weight?
S2: Oh, well, I can remember precisely when it happened. I was in second grade and I slipped up in second grade. Kids made fun of me. I got ridiculed because my big breasts total embarrassment. Yeah, that’s hard for a kid. Yeah. So Junior, in college, they built a new physical fitness center right across from my dorm. So every night we would go over and play racquetball every night and I started eating better and I went from 240 down to 185.
S1: Wow. Like when you when you hit 105, did you feel different?
S2: I did. I liked being at that weight. I liked the way I looked. I liked the way I felt.
S1: So John knows how to lose weight. He stayed at one hundred and eighty five pounds for years. But eventually, you know, life happened and the pounds started coming back. And so he recommitted to improving his diet. And this time he joined Weight Watchers, which these days is known as W-W.
S2: And it worked really well for me. I was in marketing and sales, so I had this huge expense account. So when I would go to restaurants, I could get whatever I wanted prepared exactly as I wanted it. And I got back down to one hundred eighty five and I stayed there for another, I don’t know, fifteen years. Gradually it crept back up and I’ve worked it back down to 215 and I am stuck.
S1: John’s especially discouraged because now on the cusp of retirement, all he wants is just to lose another fifteen or twenty pounds.
S3: I can stop playing my blood pressure medicine. I would play better pickleball, I would have more energy. I could have more fun when I go on trips, all of that. But, you know, it’s weird, Charles, because it’s like I can’t quite get my head in the right place.
S5: And so to help John, we called up Katie Milkman, who specializes in getting people’s heads in the right place, especially when they’re trying to do something that’s both hard and takes persistence. Katie is a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
S6: John, the story you just told about the moments when you had turning points is so fascinating because it’s so perfectly aligned with a lot of the research on when we change that moment in college, your circumstances change and you find a fun way to lose weight. I think there’s inspiration in the fact that that you have been able to use these turning points in your life before as catalysts for change. And I bet you’ll be able to do that again if we figure out a way to make this a turning point.
S2: I hope so, because that’s my frustration. I’ve been there before, so I know I can do it and I just don’t push it through to the finish.
S1: On today’s show, how to motivate yourself when things get hard and hold yourself accountable to your goals, whether it’s weight loss or anything else. We’ll see if Katie’s research can help us all stay away from that ice cream that’s just in the fridge calling out our name.
S7: Stay with us.
S1: So, Candy, let me ask you, how did you get into this, like what was your path to to studying things like how people change their behaviors and how they lose weight?
S6: Well, actually, I loved hearing that John was an engineer because I was an engineer and I studied, you know, differential equations and how to optimize shipping times and music to my ears. Yeah. So so my passion was engineering, but I just sort of found myself outside of the classroom wondering about self-control, problems that I had and that my friends had. I had issues trying to get myself to the gym at the end of a long day. And I was always curious, like, why can we solve these sophisticated problems and build bridges effectively, but we can’t solve our own very simple problems.
S1: So Katie decided to apply her engineering background to how people make choices, but both rational decisions and irrational ones. And that eventually landed her in behavioral economics.
S6: I generally think of myself as an expert on behavior change. I’ve read a lot about all kinds of behavior change, including weight loss, and many of the same principles apply to these different sets of problems.
S1: And the first step in analyzing John’s problem is figuring out why he’s losing focus because he really wants to lose weight and he knows how to do it.
S4: So what’s going on inside his head when he suddenly decides to eat a cookie and throw his diet out the window?
S2: Actually, right now, I find that one of my challenges is my walk. This is my second marriage that my wife with the covid has been like cooking cakes and things. So there’s stuff around. And how does that manifest? I’m not watching my meals and I’m eating snacks, unhealthy snacks or too much of the wrong foods.
S1: What’s the snack that you find yourself eating that you’re like, oh, this is a bad idea? For me, it’s peanut brittle. My wife gets his peanut brittle and I love it. It’s so good, but it’s just like pure sugar. What about for you?
S2: Yeah, if they’re sugary things in the house, then that’s where I migrate. The other day, for instance, we’re trying to stay covid safe. My wife’s immunocompromised and so we get food delivered or our daughter in law brings us things when she goes to the store. And at the last minute my wife says, oh, get a big jar of peanut Eminem’s well. And they sit there on the counter and it’s just so this week I’ve done great since last Saturday. And last night I just had to have a handful of peanut homonyms. If they had been to the house, I never would have thought about it. Do you notice them every time you walk back? I do. And in fact, what saved me for the week is, is I visualized that she’d sneezed in the container and said I was sorry.
S3: And I put oh, no way am I going to have a handful of those.
S1: Katie, let me ask you, you know, what have you struggled with? Like like I mean, you’re so accomplished. It sounds like you’re good at everything.
S6: No, I think it’s funny that you think I don’t struggle. I have all sorts of problems. I have just engineered my way out of them. I had issues with exercise. I was a very competitive tennis player in high school and then in college. And I quit the varsity tennis team halfway through college. And then I would really wanted to stay in shape. And I struggled to find ways to get myself to the gym at the end of a long day of classes because I was tired, exhausted. All I really wanted to do was just sort of like lie down on the couch and watch TV or like curl up with a good a good book. And so I realized, wait a minute, maybe I can solve both of these problems and the very same way. And I concocted a scheme where I only allowed myself to enjoy those kinds of indulgences. And specifically I got really into audio novels. I only let myself listen to audio novels when I was exercising.
S5: And this is our first trick for doing something hard, like losing weight.
S8: It’s something Katie calls temptation bundling. The basic idea is if you can take something you really don’t want to do and then combine it with something you really do want to do, then the hard thing will get easier.
S6: I would come home from a long day and I would find myself looking forward to a workout because I was going to get to find out what happens next. In my latest novel, Time Flew when I was at the gym. It was really fun to work out.
S1: So if John wanted to try to apply temptation bundling to his situation, I mean, we know we know what he likes. He likes em. What what does he do with that? Because because because. Because you’re not eating and eating him and. Yeah, yeah.
S6: Food is a tough one. When I use it in temptation bundles, it’s usually the temptation component. But you can do that because you can restrict your access of and try to figure out what you tie it to know.
S1: That is the hard thing, right. It’s not like smoking where you can just say, OK, I’m putting the cigarettes away, you got to eat every day. And so it’s it’s about making the choice for the healthy choice to get the salad rather than the chimichanga. So, Katie, how do we deal with something like that?
S6: What you need to focus on is finding a way to ensure that for every meal you have options ready that you are going to enjoy, even if they aren’t Peanut Eminem’s. There’s like two things I’m thinking about. One is just your environment, right? Your environment is, it sounds like, filled with temptations. If you’ve got these peanut, Eminem’s on the counter, your wife’s baking cakes, you know, that’s not good. But I think you need to work with your wife on creating that environment in your home so that you purge the unhealthy snacks as much as possible or put them in a locked cabinet that she’s got the combination for. And you don’t. So if she doesn’t want to restrict herself, there’s a way to restrict you.
S5: At least this is our next trick. We’re only as strong as our environment. And so if you want to succeed, you need to think about what surrounds you. How can you take away the temptations and make it easier to do the right thing? Like, can you put an apple on your desk and put all the candy in a closet on the other side of the room? But what if you’re not fully in charge of your environment? What if, for instance, you share a house with your wife and she loves baking cakes during quarantine? Well, you know what? There’s a solution for that. And we’ll hear about it after this quick break.
S4: Hey, listeners, if you like this episode, you’ll want to check out another episode called How to Lose one hundred and Fifty Five Pounds Happily. It features a listener who lost a bunch of weight but was still insecure about her body. And so we brought in Britney, the real life inspiration for the movie. Britney runs a marathon to talk about how she learned to accept herself at any weight. You can find it in all of our episodes by subscribing for Free to our podcast feed.
S1: We’re back with our expert, Katie Milkman and our listener, John, who’s trying to figure out how to reduce the temptations for eating in his house without at the same time hurting his wife and feelings. So let me ask if you went to Wanda and you said, Wanda, honey, I love you, but I don’t love the fact that there’s all these snacks around me. And I want to ask you, can we take all the sweets and put them in in a cabinet? You maybe even a locked cabinet and you’ll have the key. You can eat them anytime you want, but it’s going make it harder for me. How do you think Wanda is going to react to that in general?
S9: I think she’d be supportive. She gets I think well, in fact, I know she feels hurt if I don’t want to eat some of whatever she cooks.
S1: But pretend I’m your wife. I’m Wanda. John, what’s in this for me as your wife? Like I love you and I want to support you. But why should I do this? Come on. This is your issue. I’d be easier to live with, you are smart guys. I don’t get many points, does it? So this is a tough one, Katie, because I think that what John saying, and I feel like this is true at the time, is that oftentimes when we talk about the things that we struggle with, it’s so influenced by the people around us and in their attitudes to the change that we’re trying to create.
S6: Absolutely. It’s so social. We have a lot of evidence supporting everything. You just said that the people around us are a huge contributor to where we go with our behavior. So if everybody around you starts eating more, you’re much more likely to do the same and vice versa. If if Wanda decided she wanted to cut back, you would be likely to eat a little bit less and lose a little bit more yourself. So trying to get on the same page is going to be really valuable for your success.
S1: Here’s our next trick to get your environment right. It helps to get everyone else living in that environment, working together. At the very least, they need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish so they know how to support you. And even better, if they share your goals, you get the benefits of social accountability. And you think Wanda would be game?
S9: I’m not sure.
S1: Have you talked to her about weight and sort of how you feel about it?
S9: It’s complicated. I haven’t talked about some of these things, and I absolutely need to do that. And I will actually and I will commit to do that.
S6: By the way, I love that you just committed publicly to doing that, that behavioral science shows is quite helpful, but it’s even more helpful if we hold you accountable. I don’t know if I can convince Charles to do this, but I think it’d be kind of cool to call you back in a week and get a little uptick and definitely do that. How things are going. If we promise to do that, it should help you, actually.
S3: That’s fair. That’s fair.
S9: So within the next seven days, Wandel, I will have a talk about.
S1: Wait, let me ask when you say it’s complicated and in that you’ve sort of shied away from a conversation with Wanda about this, why is that? Tell me a little bit more about what’s going on there.
S9: We dated in high school. We went our separate ways. We got back together 40 years later. And in some ways, it’s a perpetual honeymoon in a couple of ways. There’s some challenges. She’s more in the camp of, well, we are who we are and we can’t change in my and more in the camp of, oh, we can always change. That’s what life is all about. So we kind of butt heads over that sometimes. So all of that then it gets distilled down to talking about eating. It’s like if I want to pay a lot of attention, she sees it as I’m obsessing when you try and diet.
S1: Do you worry that she sees it as a criticism of her, that that even though you’re doing something healthy for yourself? Yes. Yeah.
S6: Often a big opportunity is to figure out a third party perspective on any kind of disagreement you’re currently having, something you’re currently irritated about with your partner. How would another person see this conflict and what would they think about it can help relieve some of the emotional tension and improve the relationship. So maybe you could both try that if Wanda would be open to it. And I feel like we’re putting a lot on her, even though she’s not in this conversation. I hope she won’t be irritated with us. But if she’d be open to try to think about it from a third party perspective, you could tell her we we asked that she might consider that. And then if you guys could have a conversation where the stated goal for both of you is how do we end up in a place where you each get what you want?
S9: I think that’s an excellent suggestion.
S8: And that leads us to our next trick, which is actually more like a rule, you need a concrete plan, not just I’m going to lose 10 pounds. That’s a goal, not a plan. A plan is a set of steps that you’re going to take. So, for example, you should plan out your meals for the next week and then plan out what you need to buy from the grocery store in order to have those meals. The more detailed and specific your plan, the higher the chances it’ll succeed and then use the people around you, your support network, to keep you honest. Tell them the plan and give them permission to check in, because sometimes you might slip up. In fact, you probably will.
S6: You’re going to slip up, nobody’s perfect. And so one risk when you make plans of this kind, of course, is actually something called the what the hell effect, which I love, that there’s an academic term for something and the academic term is the what the hell effect. But a challenge with this kind of plan we’re talking about a pretty rigid plan is you’ll never actually live up to all of your objectives. And a big problem can be when you slip up saying, oh, what the hell, I give up. Right. So if you have a plan for the day and then you eat a Cinnabon for breakfast because your wife just made a beautiful cinnamon bun, then you say, oh, what the hell, let me just have a steak and fries and pie for lunch. And so one thing when you have a plan is you also have to have some thought go into what will happen when you slip off track. What will you do? How will you get back on track? How will you forgive yourself? And how do you avoid slipping off track all the time and being too forgiving? There’s a sort of tightrope you have to walk.
S8: And the reason why other people are so helpful is because they force you to stay on that tightrope. But there’s other ways to keep yourself honest, too. You can use something as low tech, as like a piece of paper where you write down what you eat every day, which is actually the single most effective technique for weight loss according to studies. Or you can go High-Tech and use a tracking gadget that tells your family and friends how much you’ve walked that day. That’s what Katie did with her dad.
S6: I’ve been very worried about his physical activity levels because he’s in an apartment. I wanted him to get enough exercise and I convinced him to buy a Fitbit. We have the ability to see each other’s steps and he knows I’m watching. In fact, he confessed to me that his steps weren’t upload and he spent two hours on the phone with Fitbit support because he was so upset that the idea that I would I would think he had walked enough that day. So if you can make progress, say, for a month and doing something new consistently, even when you lose motivational little, you probably won’t fall all the way off the wagon because you do build some habits. In my studies, about 30 percent of the behaviors we start doing for a month around, say, exercise, tend to stick. Even if all of the tricks and bells and whistles we’ve been using to put those good behaviors in place are pulled away. So a habit is one thing that can be really helpful.
S1: OK, so we have a plan and we have social accountability. But what if that’s still not enough? What if your motivation starts to wane? Well, one way to battle that is to build the right habits. And the way you do that is by rewarding yourself consistently for doing the right thing, because our brain loves rewards. It makes whatever comes before a reward easier to do. And a reward doesn’t have to be something big, like a cheap meal. It can be as simple as reminding yourself to to feel a sense of pride by writing down how much weight you’ve lost each week, or allowing yourself to take a nice long shower after a workout or asking your wife to compliment you when you’ve lost another pound. Have you told Wanda how important this is to you? How much how much of your emotional life is kind of tied up right now with weight loss? No, no. You telling that story about being in high school and people making fun of you because of your body? Like, these are all things that once we’re adults, we don’t we don’t like to admit to like, you know, random strangers, even our family members, we don’t want to go back and relive that trauma. But that trauma is real. That’s something you carry around. And I am absolutely certain I can tell just from the way you talk about it, when you hit 185 pounds in the past, you were proud of that. And I think if if you share that with Wanda and she knows how important it is to you, then when she congratulates you, it’s going to be really, really rewarding.
S9: It’s hard to tell you how. How significant that was it it it was really important.
S1: How did it make you feel?
S9: It was an accomplishment. And I’d really done something. In looking at my picture, right, it was like, oh, yeah, it was like seeing who I really am. Rather than this kind of. Bob.
S6: I also just have to say that I hate that you had to feel that way. I mean, that that’s awful.
S8: But what if you aren’t like John? What if the rewards that you give yourself aren’t enough? Well, in that case, there’s another trick, a technique for upping the stakes that puts something you care about on the line to keep your motivation strong.
S6: The technical term economists use for this strategy is a commitment device. There’s actually a couple of different websites you can use where you can put money down that you’ll forfeit and you can even send it to a charity you hate. If you fail to achieve some stated goal and you can name a referee, say Juanda, to help you with that. But you can also you could have it be some sort of a shared value that you only get to unlock if you achieve your goal.
S1: Oh, the reason I think this might be important for you is because, you know, one of the things you said is that you know what to do, but that at some point your motivation kind of lags. Right. That like it sounds like something like a commitment device can might provide a little boost. You need make it more into a game, make it more into something where you can see that reward on the horizon. Do you think that would work for you?
S9: That might actually oh, I, I just thought if I were an if I was going to commit five hundred dollars to Trump Dam, I think I would lose the weight in two days.
S1: Well, and I wonder if this is a way to pull Wanda into this to say, look, I’m going to sign up for this thing because Katie Milkman told me that this is going to help. Would that make it more fun and bring her in?
S9: My initial response is that’s just silly. Just just do it, John. Just do it honestly.
S6: I love that you said that because the just do it motto. Right. But Nike has made that such a part of our culture. But the research so consistently shows that it’s just it’s not that easy. And and our motivation does wax and wane. And we need these systems. We have to recognize that it won’t be easy to just do it. Willpower is hard. And when you see the temptation, you reach for it. So the more you can do to structure the choices to help yourself, the better.
S5: And this leads to our last trick, which is that you can harness the momentum of a fresh start. In other words, take advantage of when your life changes to change other things as well. And luckily for John, he’s right on the brink of retirement.
S6: I’ve done research on the moments when people are more likely to try to make a change in their lives. And what we’ve found is that exactly these kinds of moments that feel like breaking points from normal moments, that feel like the start of a new era, the start of your retirement years, the start of a new decade in your life, even something, by the way, as trivial as a Monday, the start of a new week. These things help us step back and think big picture and think what are our goals and that that motivates us to start new projects like this. It also makes us feel more separated from our past failings. So like on New Year’s, you have this beautiful separation that arises because you can say, well, you know, like last year I meant to lose weight, but that was the old me that was like, you know, 20, 19 me. And this is 20, 20, me, 20, 20 minutes all over it. That’s not going to happen again.
S1: Did you ever use sort of that fresh start yourself?
S6: Oh, absolutely. I had always wanted to write a book and just hadn’t gotten up the nerve to do it. And my husband and I had been thinking about moving. We had a young son. We were ready to be out of an apartment and into a house. The day that we signed and became owners of a new house is the day that I sent out emails to agents and started the process that I just finished writing a book called How to Change. So that was the thing that pushed me over. It was a new era. I had a new home. I was ready to do that.
S5: Katis is the last thing to remember is that none of this is automatic. Some of it might work and some of it might not. And so you have to experiment and find the techniques that work for you.
S6: I think the key to figuring out what will work for you is just make sure you always have an eye, not on a strategy that sounds clever or exciting and new, but on what really plugs the gap that’s preventing you from succeeding. And then I think you’ll go far.
S9: It it’s interesting, a year ago, I put down a list of so what’s holding me back from losing weight and I never did. The second question was which was answering the questions, what actions would eliminate those things that are holding me back? And I think this plays right into it. So I want to review those and take a look at that commitment device.
S1: So when I get down to those first 10 pounds to stay focused on the next 10 and I got to say, John, if I had to put five hundred dollars either to my favorite candidate or the candidate I hate on whether you’re going to lose this weight, I would make that bet. I think I think you’re going to do it.
S9: I absolutely know I can.
S4: Thank you so much to John for sharing his story with us and to Kitty Milkman for all of our fantastic advice, if you like this kind of stuff, you should definitely listen to our podcast, which is called Choice OLogy. And as a quick update, John recently sent us this voicemail.
S10: Hi, Charles. I talked with my wife and she at first was a little defensive and after we talked, really came back with some great suggestions. The first thing that happened is the jar of peanut Eminem’s disappeared. I don’t know where they are and I don’t want to know. And secondly, she says, how about we planned dinners for the week? So thanks again. I really appreciate your taking on my challenge. And check back with me in a month or two and see how I’m doing. Good luck, Judd.
S4: Are you struggling with something and you’re wondering if you could find a creative solution? If so, you should send us a note on how to insulate dotcom, or you can also leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. And we might have you on the show. How TOS executive producer is there, John, Rachel Allen and Rosemarie Bellson produced the show and Marc Jacobs, our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannis Brown, June Thomas as senior managing producer, and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director of Audio. I’m Charles Duhigg. Thanks for listening. And avoid the cookies.