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Losing Weight and Keeping It Off

Posted in Self-Management

Although I usually write about leadership, change and resilience, today I want to address weight loss. I know it seems unrelated to the preceding topics, but there’s actually a connection, which we’ll get to in a minute. My main reason for writing this post is to respond to all of my clients and colleagues who have asked me how I lost weight and kept it off. Here are the details you’re looking for:

For most of my adult life I’ve been active, and have followed a pretty healthy diet. But over time, bad habits gradually took over and I gained over 90 pounds over my normal weight. Lots of miles on the road, big meals at various events, long schedules with little time for exercise–it all added up over time and I just wasn’t paying attention. By the time I got determined to do something about it, losing weight seemed like an impossible task. I tried various things, but could never really figure out how to make any headway. This was very frustrating and unpleasant, but it just felt like it was beyond my control.

It’s not my nature to give in. I have a very tenacious side to me, and I was determined to find a way to get back to my trim self. In 2008, two events influenced me. First, my parents were both starting to decline in health, and their fragile mortality served to remind me more vividly of my own. More significantly, my sister, who lives on the opposite side of the country, and whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a year, came East for the holidays and it was obvious that she had lost a lot of weight. That was a wake-up call to me–the combination of “possibility”–if it’s possible for her, then it’s possible for me–coupled with musings about mortality plus a little healthy sibling rivalry, led me to re-focus my attention on my own health. But focus alone is not enough. I needed a plan.

By happenstance, I was browsing in a bookstore the weekend after my sister’s visit when I stumbled upon a book by Judith Beck which outlined a system for weight loss and weight management based not on a “diet” in the traditional sense but rather on a well established psychological model called “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy” or CBT whose main premise is that you can regulate the behaviors that influence your weight by regulating your thinking patterns. Dr. Beck is a Ph.D. psychologist (http://www.beckdietsolution.com) and one of the leading experts in CBT. Her father, Aaron Beck, invented the technique over 40 years ago to treat depression. One of his insights, and a key principle underlying the method for both treating both depression and weight is that emotions drive behavior, but thinking drives emotions. In other words, when you change how you think, it changes how you feel. Thinking and feeling are not “opposites”, as we often are told, but rather they are complementary functions that work together in the brain.

What does this have to do with weight loss? There are many elements to Dr. Judith Beck’s system, but for me the key element has been the importance of tuning into what she calls “sabotaging thoughts” that precede the unhelpful choices that I make. For example, if I am at a client dinner and the server places an appealing dessert in front of me, I used to eat it without even giving it a second thought. Dr. Beck will tell you that before the fork hits the chocolate cake, your brain first serves up some type of internal statement–some “self-talk”–that basically justifies or even goads you into tucking into the tasty treat. Here are some of the key steps that I learned and put into action:

  • First, set really clear goals about losing weight or staying trim and to connect them to larger, more personal values and desires about the kind of life that is important to me, and to read my goals every single morning, rain or shine.
  • Next, tune into that internal voice and become aware of and stay mindful about what the voice is saying. We all have such a voice, but many of us don’t hear it or we hear it and don’t pay attention to it. Anyone can learn to tune into that voice and become mindful of what statements it’s making in your head right before you commit an unhelpful behavior. So “awareness” is the first step–easy to say, but for some, not so easy to do.
  • Next, create an “antidote” statement for each such sabotaging statement. Every time I hear my brain saying, “Oh great–I love chocolate cake”, or “I know I shouldn’t have this, but I’ve worked really hard today and I deserve it”, I have a ready answer that I deliver to my own brain. In other words, you fight fire with fire–talk back to your brain. As lawyers, this part should come easy–it’s what we’re trained to do. You basically have to fight back against your “inner opposing counsel.” (Thanks Paula Davis-Laack for the great metaphor.)

There are many other steps involved, but the preceding three are the main ones that helped me start and, more importantly, stick with, my plan. Since 2008, I’ve lost 98 pounds and kept 93 of them off. In the process, In addition, I’ve created new habits around eating and exercise because habits are much more successful in weight management than willpower can ever be.

I hope this brief story, and the Beck website (and her latest book, The Complete Beck Diet For Life ( http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Beck-Diet-Life-Five-Stage/dp/084873274X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1356824871&sr=1-1&keywords=complete+beck+diet+for+life ) will inspire those of you looking to manage your own health, and will further provide the details about how I did it. Bear in mind that weight loss is a very individual process, and it seems to work differently for every person. This method succeeded for me; it may not succeed for you. But for those who are unaware of the method, I hope that by providing this information, you at least can give it a try. Please note also that when I began my efforts, I both consulted with my physician, and I engaged a nurse to call me once a week so I could tell her my weight, blood pressure, and other vital signs as I progressed The weekly progress call was also a motivator and a reinforcer. I recommend you do the same if you go down this path.

So how does this all connect with leadership, change and resilience? In at least two ways–the cognitive model I’ve been referring to can be useful both as a tool for being more effective in leading and inluencing others, and as a tool for leaders to manage themselves.

Leading others: The law firm leaders I work with almost always want to influence others in some way. There are many ways to help them do that, and almost all of them can become even more powerful by understanding the principle noted above–that “emotions drive behavior, but thinking drives emotions”. By doing so, a leader is better equipped to pay attention to the most important levers of change, and to understand how and why those levers work. It’s a very powerful principle.

Self-Management: In addition, leaders need to both take care of themselves and be role models for others. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, in their excellent book The Power of Full Engagement, make the case that people in general, and leaders in particular, need to be fully “engaged” physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The approach to weight management that I have described here actually combines all four types of engagement. I think that you’ll only really understand what I’m trying to say if you use this CBT approach yourself to master one of your own personal goals–it works not just for losing weight and alleviating depression, but for a range of other self-management tasks. Give it a try.

As usual, if you have comments or questions, please post a reply.

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