4 Steps to Lasting Behavioral Change

Although the basic concept of weight loss (eat fewer calories than you burn) is remarkably simple, putting it into practice is not. Whether you're learning how to figure out how many calories you are actually eating and burning up; trying to discover why you have such a hard time doing the things you know you should; or simply looking for that motivation you had yesterday but can’t find this morning, your weight-loss journey is going to be an ongoing experiment. It requires constant learning and the skillful application of what you learn in order to adjust your goals, strategies, and behaviors.

Some of this will be "book" learning—the facts, figures and concepts, such as those that you've likely read before. But the most important learning you need to do involves learning from your own experience. This takes a whole different set of skills than those involved in absorbing what other people can tell you.

The ancient Greeks had a word for this other form of learning: praxis. Praxis is a four-stage process of:
  1. Observing your own actions and their effects
  2. Analyzing what you observe
  3. Strategizing an action plan
  4. Taking action
Then you start over at the beginning again, observing the effects of your new actions. Each of these four stages in the praxis process has its own core learning skill.

In the observation stage, the core skills are self-awareness and self-monitoring. A simple way to understand these skills is viewing them as the exact opposite of depending on the scale to tell you how you are doing. There, you are focusing on something external (the scale and its number), rather than something internal (your feelings about yourself and your efforts, your physical and emotional reactions to your new eating and exercise behaviors).

Shifting your focus to internal factors is the only way to get the information you need to make necessary adjustments. The scale can’t tell you anything about whether you’re doing your best or just making a halfhearted attempt. It can’t tell you whether your cravings are real hunger, emotional eating, or simply appetite; nor can it tell you whether you’re really pushing yourself to get your heart rate up where it needs to be during your cardio sessions, or just coasting. But these are exactly the things you need to know in order to make your program work, and the only way to get the answers is through honest and thorough self-monitoring.

In the analysis stage, the core skill is critical thinking about yourself and your behavior. This requires that you adopt a certain attitude towards yourself, one that's similar to the attitude a scientist has towards the experiment she is conducting. That attitude must be open in the sense that you are willing to see whatever is there—not what you want to see to confirm your pre-existing assumptions. And it must be non-judgmental. The purpose isn’t to catch yourself doing something "wrong" so you can reprimand or scold yourself. Your purpose is to find out what might be going on underneath the surface. And just as you wouldn’t reveal your real thoughts and feelings to someone who is going to jump all over you for having them, those inner thoughts won’t be revealed to you if you treat yourself that way.

In the strategy stage, the core skill is creative thinking. If you decide that something needs to change, the most effective way to determine what kind of change will work is to imagine what things will be like after you have made the changes. Work backwards from there to figure out the particular steps you need to take in order to get from where you were to this new imagined place. Think of it as a creative form of reverse engineering.

In the action stage, the core skill is process thinking, an often-neglected aspect of effective problem solving. You are probably used to solving problems by thinking in terms of different outcomes: burning x number of calories instead of y; increasing your exercise heart rate from 60% to 70%; staying at the low end of your calorie range instead of the middle or high end, and so on. But deciding that a particular change is what needs to happen isn’t the same thing as successfully making that change. To follow through may require knowing how to find the extra time needed, digging a little deeper to find the motivation and perseverance to get through the discomforts, and changing your priorities and values, if necessary. Process thinking is about becoming your own best motivator, coach, cheerleader and fan, all rolled into one. And that means getting to know yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t.

One good way to begin working on all these skills is by keeping a certain kind of journal, where you focus on simply observing your own reactions to, and the results you get from, different behaviors and strategies.