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Evolution works against your weight loss

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Evolution works against your weight loss

Scott Miker

Trying to lose weight is a common goal. We set out to shed the extra pounds we picked up or finally get back to our desired weight.

But most of the techniques that we use are flawed. They work to get us to lose a few pounds but many times are setting us up for future failure.

The reason is that our body wants to add weight, not remove it. Evolution has promoted the ability to add extra fat so that we can survive during times of famine. Those who have been able to add this extra fat have been better equipped to survive.

In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney the authors say, “Evolution favored people who could survive famines, so once a body has gone through the experience of not getting enough to eat, it reacts by fighting to keep all the pounds it has. When you diet, your body assumes there’s a famine and hangs on to every fat cell it can. The ability to lose weight through a drastic change in diet ought to be conserved as a precious, one-time capability. Perhaps you’ll need it late in life, when your health or your survival will depend on being able to lose weight.”

With evolution working against your weight loss goals, it may seem as though it is impossible to lose weight and keep it off. But the key is to slowly change your lifestyle habits. Over time you incorporate new habits that will help you continue to eat healthier options and stay active.

Baumeister and Tierney go on to say, “Instead of going for a quick weight loss today, you’re better off using your self-control to make gradual changes that will produce lasting effects.”

That line summarizes the systems and habits approach to improvement. We start out incredibly small, so we don’t run up against the full force of our current habits.

Then we focus more on consistency than on effort. Instead of going to the gym for 2 hours, we might only go for 2 minutes. This makes it easier to stay consistent. And if we stay consistent with that small amount for long enough, we will start to do it automatically, without any effort at all.

But now we have built a new positive habit that can be leveraged to provide great benefit. Most people say the hardest part of consistently working out is having the motivation to go there. They say, “I’m fine once I get started but just can’t get the motivation to keep going.”

So attack that. Start with the challenge and put everything in place to make it easier to succeed there. If we eliminate the long workout initially, we can build the habit of going to the gym.

In fact we can break this down even more if we want to. If going to the gym for 2 minutes is still too difficult, we can start to exercise at home for 2 minutes. We can commit to doing 2 minutes of stretching every day.

It may seem pointless to do something so small, but it isn’t. As long as we are incredibly consistent in doing it, it will turn into a habit that we do without much thought or effort.

Then, we can slowly start to add more and more and more. Gradually we can build it up and turn it into a 2-hour workout every day. But trying to that out of the gate will lead to failure for most of us.

The key in consistency is to make sure you aren’t just trying to do it every day. Do it the same way every time. Start with the same exercise. Follow the same routine. Pick exactly the same time. The more that is consistent, the more likely it will shift from requiring great effort to only relying on habit.

Most people see the obvious flaws in this approach. It means that we won’t see drastic improvement all at once. It will happen over a very long time. It takes time to build up habit and more time to keep adding more to those habits.

We have to be willing to sacrifice a quick fix for this longer-term approach. Because in 5 years it will be obvious which path one took. One will have you on the road to success and the other will force you to keep starting over.