Failure is the key to success


“Diets don’t work.”

Google this phrase and you’ll find all kinds of people espousing the “wisdom” that diets are just wasted effort because they only work in the short term and ultimately lead to greater weight gained once the person inevitably rebounds. This statement is both true and maddeningly ignorant at the same time.

As someone who has personally lost and regained hundreds of pounds in my lifetime, I understand how all that effort can feel futile when you finally realize the scale is back to where you started oh so long ago. Your body does try to regain weight after a sudden weight loss (like from an illness) for the sake of survival, but you can prevent this if you maintain healthy practices after the diet ends. Losing weight is hard, but maintaining your healthy new weight won’t be nearly as difficult. For instance, I once calculated that to reach my goal weight in a prescribed timeframe I needed to eat 1500 less calories a day, but to maintain that new weight, I only needed to eat 200 calories a day less than I did at the start of my program.

I’ve successfully kept off 60 pounds for about 10 years now, so I (like many people) am proof that it can be done. Millions of people fail on their diets every day, just as millions fail at quitting smoking, stopping drinking, giving up drugs, and changing all manner of bad habits. In sticking with the “diets don’t work” theme then, if so many people fail at changing these habits, I guess the lesson is ultimately “change is impossible.” Since this is obviously not true, I wanted to focus on how the cycle of failure is actually an important key to ultimately succeeding.

The hardest habit to break

I’ve said many times before that losing weight is hard. I consider it far more difficult than quitting smoking or even giving up heroin. You don’t need frequent amounts of heroin throughout your day to survive. You don’t have to hang out with your friends and family while they do heroin and you are forced to rely on willpower. You don’t have to watch heroin ads on TV and billboards or drive by hundreds of fast, convenient heroin dispensaries. Quitting a vice is also far more socially acceptable than trying to quit the very foods that everyone you know is still eating. No one is going to give you grief for quitting heroin (if they do, kick them out of your life immediately), but you’ll run into dozens of people a day that are frustrated to witness you display willpower they themselves are unable to muster. They won’t admit that out loud of course, they’ll simply try to tempt you to let your focus lapse just this once.

You have to fail to know how to succeed

In order to have long-term success, you need to figure out all the external and internal triggers that will derail you from sticking to your plan, and the only way to figure out what they are is to pay attention to them when they cause you to falter. How will you know if skipping breakfast causes you to bing later if it hasn’t happened yet. Or that you can eat healthy in one restaurant but tend to go nuts in another. Each failure teaches you a new personal trigger to look out for. Once you know the problem, you can work on solutions. Like I’ve mentioned before, willpower has it’s limits, and the more you can limit the amount of willpower tests you’re forced to endure each day, the more likely you are to reach the end of the day without any missteps.

It’ll finally stick when you’re ready

Whether it’s quitting smoking or losing weight, there is one quality that the people that successfully changed all had in common, they were ready. I’m sure you’ve experienced the feeling of saying you’re on a diet but when it came right down to it, you didn’t really care. You were just kind of going through the motions with the hopes that maybe the scale moves or that your motivation might fire up. When you’re in this phase, your willpower is low and you’re quick to throw in the towel. This is perfectly fine. It’s still an important step towards success. Use this halfhearted attempt to figure out some more of your problem triggers, but never think of these halfhearted attempts as what you’re capable of. It doesn’t mean you can never succeed, it just means you didn’t care much at the time.

When you’re really ready, you’ll just know it. Everything will just be easier and the weight will just come off. Each drop on the scale will just feed that ready feeling and keep you motivated. I wish I had advice on how to get to the point where your finally “ready” (as do thousands of behavioral therapists and drug counselors). Everyone has a different trigger to motivate this state of mind, but don’t worry about that. Just keep laying the ground work for success by learning from your failures. Every attempt will teach you more and more about what works for you.

Sorry but you can’t just go back to your old habits

This is where the truth of diets don’t work comes in. People that think they can knuckle down for a limited amount of time and then go back to their old habits after the weight is lost will never succeed. Long-term success requires long-term changes. You don’t have to give up your favorite fattening foods forever, but you’re going to need to make it a much smaller part of your diet. This is why I try to teach people to focus on healthy foods they enjoy. You have to figure out something you can live with for the rest of your life. I still enjoy many of my old trigger foods from time to time, but the time between them is spread out significantly. I’ve also learned to enjoy many of the healthier replacements I’ve added to my diet. I don’t mean I tolerate them, I enjoy them. You need to figure out what can silence many of your old trigger foods to ensure that you can become another example of how “diets don’t work” is a lie.

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