Updated: Feb 25
I'm 5ft 10 (178 cm) and definitely middle-aged. Eighteen months ago, I stood on the scales in my bathroom and weighed in at 210 lbs (15 stone or 95.5 kg) with a 44" chest and 36" waist - bordering on obese, according to the UK NHS website. I cannot explain what happened at that moment, but my brain started shouting that this was NOT good.
Twelve months later and I weighed in at 165 lbs (11.8 stone or 75 kg), with a 38" chest and 30" waist, a weight I have maintained for the last six-months - a healthy weight, according to the NHS. I was able to lose 45 lbs or 20.5 kg and keep it off, by learning to manage my mind and unlearn poor habits.
This is my story, it won't work for everyone, but understanding how to manage your mind might bring you new opportunities that reframe your life for the better.
Labels, Priming & Anchors
Over time, I had come to label myself as fat, and I accepted it. I was working from home, and when I wasn't at home, I was frequently travelling overseas with my consulting practice. Time away led to comfort food, where I genuinely had no idea of the amount I was eating daily. For example, a typical travel day to the USA could bring me to consume circa 7000 calories, with little to no exercise:
08:00 GMT | Arrive at Heathrow in the early morning, grabbing a Full English breakfast in the lounge before the flight - circa 800 calories.
11:00 - 19:00 (14:00 EST) | I was a frequent flyer, which usually led to an upgrade from Premium Economy to Business Class - plane food has approximately 20-30% more sugar and salt than food on terra firma - snack, main meal & afternoon tea circa 3000 calories
16:00 EST | Waiting for connecting flight with a light snack in the lounge - circa 700 calories
20:00 EST | Arrive at the hotel, head down to Cheesecake Factory for dinner: Enchiladas and a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) before bed - circa 2500 calories
I would love to say that this was unusual. However, when travelling on my own, my emotions hijacked my thinking and I didn't care about calorie intake. I'm paid for my ability as a holistic, logical thinker. Surely, I could see what I was doing to myself? Wrong! Instead, I reinforced routines, wearing a well-trodden path every time I entered an airport that made me feel fake-happy.
I'll give you an idea of how bad it got. I would spend my four-hour drive to the airport priming myself for the routine. I would visualise my boarding pass, transforming it into an anchor* for the food-driven comfort and joy that I used to overcome the sadness I felt in leaving my wife and daughter at home.
My airport routine brought me comfort and enjoyment and made solo travel bearable. Looking back, I am really not sure how I limited my weight gain to 210 pounds.
* Note on the use of anchoring
Amy Brann in her book, Make your Brain Work, refers to cognitive decision influencers, such as my boarding pass, as anchors. However, this definition does not 'fit' with the psychology field's use of the term, where Brann's use of anchoring is more associated with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP has been widely challenged in the science community and arguably debunked, leading me to feel reticent about using their version of the term in this blog.
However, in my review of her book, I found Brann's supporting arguments to be well-considered, challenging the reader researcher to dig deeper and think different. Therefore, I'm using Brann's definition of anchoring here, as her approach feels more accessible to the layperson, and fits well with my experiences.
Working from home created equally poor routines, primers and anchors. Even though I share an office with my wife, who manages global clinical trials from her corner of the room, I often found myself deprived of a feeling of the meaning and belonging that comes from social interaction.
My teacup - it didn't matter which one - became a negative anchor for superficial sugar highs. Anytime I began to feel a little out of sort, which was frequent, I would go and make a cup of tea. At the same time I would graze on biscuits, chocolate, toast (with marmalade, of course), cake or just about anything else that I could get my hands on. My full teacup was anchored in the positive feeling of a sugar high, and my empty cup became the anchor for the adverse effects of the sugar low.
I live in a beautiful part of the world, but I couldn't see it. I didn't see the point of walking for exercise; walking was a functional trudge with the dog. I was trudging a physical and mental path of unhealthy, negative routines.
Mood swings. Binge eating. Depression. Anxiety. Procrastination. I experienced it all from my home office.
"As a single footstep will not make a path on the Earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives"
(Peterson, ‘The Art of Living, Day by Day: Three Hundred and Sixty-five Thoughts, Ideas, Ideals, Experiences, Adventures, Inspirations, to Enrich Your Life’ p. 77).
Motivation & Decision-Making
Those scales in my bathroom changed my life. Little did I realise they would soon become a positive anchor for the person I am today.
However, before I could listen to my brain, screaming at me to change, I needed motivation. You see, self-determination, the intrinsic powered drive that energises you, needs a purpose. Enter my daughter.
I was 42 when my daughter was born and, more than anything, I want to be part of her life journey for as long as possible.
Understanding the anchors would allow me to manage my mind and challenge myself to think about what I was thinking (meta-cognition). First, I needed to build my confidence in my ability, to actually take on the challenge of weight loss.
I researched the multitude of diets that are hurled at you the moment you Google weight loss or diet programmes. None of them appealed. I'm an analyst who is used to dealing with complex systems and marginal gains, so I managed myself as I would an advisory project.
The recommended calorie intake for a male is 2500 per day. I decided to challenge myself to cut my consumption to 1500 calories per day:
Snacks x 2: 200
I committed to eating what I wanted to eat, with an emphasis on healthier portions and healthier options - no more finishing off the extra serving of my wife's spaghetti bolognese.
In analysing my routines, and, for example, my access to high-sugar treats, I switched to healthy snacks (e.g. seeds, cereals and nuts). I don't drink sugary drinks, and I don't take sugar in tea or coffee, so that was a good start. I split my snacks into smaller chunks so that I could ease my unlearning of the old routine. I also allowed myself chocolate, but I moved to dark chocolate, allowing myself one square at a time, and eating each square in small nibbles.
I closely monitored my lunch and dinner intake, moving, for example, from sandwiches to peppered smoked salmon and Ryvita Thins.
If I successfully hit my target Sunday through Thursday, I rewarded myself on a Friday and Saturday with an additional 500 calories for wine, Gin & Slimline Tonic, a low-calorie beer or a sweet treat.
I upped my exercise, introducing 2 x 30-minute brisk walks per day - the dog didn't know what to make of it all at first.
I also started monitoring my weight, stripping down and getting on the scales every morning (after the morning pee). I understood that there would be fluctuation and allowed myself a 2 pounds tolerance in monitoring my progress. I was prepared only to become concerned if my weight showed a sustained increase over any given three-day period (this didn't happen).
To get the most out of my new routines and mindset, I listened to the science and adopted a few key principles to help get the best from this new version of me.
No caffeine after 4pm (six hours before bed)
Bed for 22:30 and up for 06:30, focusing on getting eight hours of sleep a night
Avoid alcohol prior to a workday
The first time on the scales
I stepped on the scales for the first time after seven days. I had lost five pounds. I cannot convey the pure joy I felt from seeing the drop from 210 to 205 pounds.
Within another ten days, I achieved my first goal of dropping to under 200 pounds for the first time in seven years.
Next was to get to 180 pounds, my weight playing rugby aged 20. I told my wife that this was my ultimate goal, but I felt so good that I decided to keep going.
Twelve stone (168 pounds) was my final target, a healthy weight for a man of my size.
I did it!
It wasn't all easy. There were weeks when my weight plateaued, which drove me up the wall. Then, with no change to my approach, the dam would break, and a few more pounds suddenly dropped off.
My bathroom scales are a reminder of my journey and a source of daily smiles. My mood swings have disappeared. I feel better, both mentally and physically, and I have more energy. I love a Good Walk and hope you will join me for a themed walk or even our Big Walk!
There's a lovely story about suddenly realising you need a new wardrobe when your suits look two sizes too big for you, but I'll save that for another time :-)
I hope you found my story useful. You too can manage your mind and learn to unlearn. Drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you what any further information.
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