Weight Loss and Habit Forming

How I convince myself to form a habit, and what I've found helpful.
Posted on Feb 29, 2020

I should probably preface this by saying that I recognise that some people cannot or do not want to lose weight for a variety of reasons. I don’t claim that losing weight is universally beneficial or possible, and what I’ve written here is a retrospective on what was, for me, an important process.

I had problems with my body image for a lot of my childhood. I wasn’t satisfied with my weight and had a made a couple of half-hearted attempts to lose some, which of course never worked. I can barely remember the structure of those attempts, but I remember why many of them failed: it would start with my thinking I was doing better than I actually was; I’d convince myself that I was on the right track and had ingrained lasting habits; then either I’d realise that I wasn’t actually doing very well and give up in frustration, or I’d think that everything would sort itself out and stop thinking about it, whereupon I obviously fell back in to the habits of eating badly and not exercising enough.

One night at the beginning of October 2017, I’d finally had enough. I’d eaten far too much food that day and felt quite bloated. I lay in bed and resolved to sort my weight out, but of course it’s all to easy to set goals at night when you know you won’t follow them through in the morning.

So I did something which I believe, in hindsight, to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Before I went to bed, I bought an electronic weighing scale on Amazon.

The next day, when it arrived, I weighed myself at 85.5kg. In terms of BMI this is about 28 (roughly in the middle of “overweight”). I looked up what a reasonable weight would be for my height, and settled on finishing somewhere between 60kg and 65kg, depending on how I felt at the time (but resolving not to go below 60). I had no time goal in mind, and I didn’t much care how quickly it happened. A kilo a month would even have been fine, if it were observable and clearly outside a margin of error. Progress would be progress.

I don’t know why I’d never done this before, although part of the reason must surely have been a fear of accountability. I quite like data and trend lines, and buying a scale finally let me track what I was doing. The three stages of “falling off the wagon” that I described above just didn’t happen for me anymore, because I didn’t let myself believe that I was doing better than I was.

Some people advise that if you’re losing weight, you shouldn’t weigh yourself too regularly or else you’ll get obsessive about it. I did not follow this advice; I weighed myself daily. However I reminded myself constantly of two things. Firstly, that weight fluctuates (quite a bit actually), and that the trend, rather then the day’s weighing, was the important thing. Secondly, that even if the trend did slow (or reverse), the point of measurement is not judgement (i.e. I wasn’t “doing badly” or “failing” in some way), but measurement for data collection’s sake. Identifying that a trend has begun to reverse is absolutely critical if you want to course correct. Did I become obsessive? I don’t think so. I didn’t think about the number on the scale very much outside of the times when I weighed myself.

I hit my goal, which nearer the time I’d decided would be 63-64kg, on the day of an important presentation as a part of my degree, in early March 2018. The euphoric finality of having achieved my goal weight really gave me a glow of confidence on what was quite a nerve-racking day. I’ve stayed within 62-67kg ever since, and I’m coming up to the two year anniversary of finishing. I still weight myself too, albeit less regularly, just to keep an eye on things. The recidivism for weight loss is extremely high, and it’s worth being careful.

So what were the lessons learned for me? Well, I’ve learned that tricks I can employ to form habits are:

  • Collect a lot of data, every day if possible
  • Periodically look at the data and course correct if necessary
  • Remember that the data is just a measure of reality, not a judgement of ability or character

(Again it’s worth bearing in mind that I am a data nerd and numbers seem to actually motivate me. Your mileage may, and probably does, vary.)

With that in mind, I formed another habit recently. After reading the brilliant, but terrifying panegyric, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, I realised that I was not sleeping enough. Probably for the last five or six years, I had been sleeping about six hours a night. Sometimes more, sometimes less. This, it turns out, is extremely unhealthy. So I started tracking it, and resolved to sleep for a bare minimum of seven and a half hours a night.

This was about a month ago, and (aside from a weekend right at the start where I was running an event which required weird sleep hours) I have slept for more than seven and a half hours a night, every night. I feel a lot better, more present and less perpetually tired, and my attention span has lengthened.

If you’re interested in doing the same, and own an Android device, I cannot recommend the brilliant app Sleep for Android enough. I’ve paid £10 for the Pro version and I cannot recommend it enough. It comes with functionality to track sleep, help you recover if you fall into a deficit, and a “smart alarm” that detects when you’re at the REM stage of a sleep cycle so that it doesn’t disturb you from deep sleep. I’m looking forward to introducing more healthy habits for myself in the future, and think I’ve figured out how.