Is Distraction Sabotaging Your Weight Loss?

I could hear the disappointment and frustration in my client Stephanie's voice as she told me about her daily afternoon candy and cookie habit that was sabotaging her weight-loss program. For the past few weeks, she had been setting goals to eat a healthy lunch every workday. However, distractions had derailed her plan to stop working at 1 PM and eat a proper meal. As a result, she was raiding the office vending machine by 4 PM, too famished to think straight.

Stephanie recounted a story I had heard over and again from her and many other clients. Here's how it usually goes: She breaks away to go get something for lunch, but first chooses to quickly check her email before heading out the door. Of course, there is always one that has to be handled immediately. Then sometimes, the phone rings, and she'll find herself helping a customer with a problem that takes over an hour. While on the phone, her boss might send her a text asking that she stop by his office. And on, and on, and on. Goodbye lunch hour.

Jim, another client of mine, had a goal of getting to the gym each morning before work. In his words, he was ''a complete failure'' at following through with that goal. When we explored what was different about the one morning he actually succeeded, it became quite apparent. That day, he hadn’t gone on the computer before heading out the door. Every other morning, checking emails or Facebook had eaten up so much of his time that the gym was sacrificed in order to get to the office on time.

Endless emails, phone calls that take too long, faxes that need to be handled immediately to avoid disaster… we are all dealing with so many work-related distractions on a daily basis. It makes it difficult to focus and stay on target with our non-work goals, weight-loss goals included.

In the book Organize Your Brain, Organize Your Life, authors Paul Hammerness, M.D. and Margaret Moore talk about how the ''distraction epidemic'' is on par with the ''obesity epidemic'' in our country. But what if all that distraction is contributing to obesity?

We are living in a world of information overload, and technology allows us to be accessible 24/7. It seems everything and everyone is calling for our attention every minute of every day. We are bombarded by so many stimuli throughout the day that we end up living in a distracted, unfocused world. The result is a frenzied, hectic, overwhelmed and exhausted population.

Living this way is stressful. It puts our bodies into a constant state of ''fight or flight,'' which leads to an increase in the stress hormones adrenaline, corticotrophin and cortisol. We are chronically flooded with these hormones that have been shown to increase appetite and lead to weight gain. Often, eating becomes a coping mechanism for such an emotionally overwhelming lifestyle, and most people will reach for chocolate or ice cream, not apples or carrots. Plus, if you’re watching TV or responding to text messages instead of focusing on the food on your plate, you could easily end up mindlessly overeating.

Distraction can also lead to a lack of sleep, which makes it even more difficult to lose weight. How often do you skimp on sleep in an effort to get one more thing crossed off your to-do list? Or, are you losing sleep because you are catching up on Facebook, surfing the web, or playing one more game of Candy Crush?

It might seem harmless, but those lost hours of sleep will cost you. Even a single night of poor shut-eye can cause a marked decrease in analytical thinking and focus the next day, leading you to become more lax with your healthy intentions. Plus, research shows that sleep deprivation leads to an increase in the hormone ghrelin (that’s the one that signals we are hungry) and a decrease in leptin (the hormone that tells us we’ve had enough and are satiated).

So how can you be successful at weight loss and avoid being a statistic of the obesity epidemic in today's distracted world? First, learn how to avoid being sucked into the distraction epidemic. Here are some suggestions that helped Stephanie, Jim, and dozens of other clients. Not only will reducing daily distractions help with your weight-loss goals, but it will lead to calmer, more productive, fulfilling and happier days.
  1. Plan out your day the evening before or first thing in the morning. Block out specific times for exercise and meals and stick to them as if they were business appointments.
  2. Stop checking your phone and turning on your computer first thing in the morning. Adopt the habit of first having a healthy breakfast, getting in your workout and planning the day ahead.
  3. Stop multi-tasking. Schedule important tasks on your calendar and see them out to completion before beginning other tasks. Do whatever needs to be done to minimize distractions. Close your office door, shut off mobile and email notifications, and let the answering machine take messages on your landline.
  4. Ban technology during meals. Use this time to savor your food, relax and rejuvenate, and enjoy company and conversation when sharing meals with others.
  5. Make sleep a priority in your life rather than an afterthought. Shut down all technology at least one hour before bedtime, and keep your cell phone and devices out of your bedroom.
  6. Use technology to your advantage. Set alerts on your phone to remind yourself to stop and eat meals or to go to the gym. There are also plenty of programs out there that can temporarily block your Internet browser from opening sites like Facebook, which eliminates the temptation to distract yourself. You can also download one of the many apps that sets up alarms signaling intervals of work times and break times to help you focus.
  7. Learn stress-management techniques and use them to calm down when feeling distracted or overwhelmed. Sometimes a few minutes of time-out, some deep cleansing breaths, or a brief walk outside is all you need to relax, refocus and regain sight of your important goals. When you feel in control, your chances of following through on your weight-loss program will improve.

When you're planning out a well-balanced weight-loss program, make sure you're also considering ways to reduce the daily distractions in your life that could potentially hold you back from reaching your goals. It might be the missing piece that’s been holding you back!