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Create the Habits of Staying Lean and not Fat

Create the Habits of Staying Lean and not Fat

This post originally appeared in Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits.

People want to lose weight really fast (myself included). We fantasize about having a flat stomach, a leaner body, in just weeks. Two weeks would be ideal.

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Search for “weight loss” in Amazon and you’ll find books that will show you how to “lose weight fast” or in a certain number of weeks, like 8 weeks, 4 weeks, even 2 weeks.

Of course, that’s bunk.

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Let’s take a closer look at what it would take to lose weight in 4 weeks:

  • About 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese, and have more than 20 lbs. to lose. If you’re trying to lose 20 lbs. in 4 weeks, that’s 5 lbs. a week. But for most people, it’s much better to lose 1-2 lbs. per week than 3-5 lbs.
  • A big drop in weight (like 10 lbs. in the first two weeks) often happens if you drastically change your diet. Most of this is water weight — only a few of those 10 lbs. will be actual fat. This water weight is deceiving, because 1) it’s unsustainable, because after the first couple weeks you won’t lose much water weight and your rate of weight loss will drop to a more sustainable 1-2 lbs. per week, which will be disappointing if you hoped to keep losing weight that fast, and 2) the water weight comes back on really quickly if you change your diet back later.
  • What you’re really doing is going on a short-term drastic diet (and probably some intense exercise) but in your mind, you’re only doing it for 4 weeks, and you think you just need to get through this short-term suffering in order to achieve the weight loss. This is wrong. You’ll lose weight, then go back to your old habits, and then gain the weight back and more.

So losing a lot of weight in 4 weeks is possible, but it’s more sustainable to lose it slowly, and to build long-term habits, and much of the weight you lose is water weight that will come right back on when you return to old habits.
And so, losing weight fast is a bad idea.
What’s a better way? Changing your actual eating and exercise habits, which is much harder than most people realize. Let’s take a look at me as a case study.

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Leo’s 7-Year Weight Loss Story

Calling it my “weight loss story” is deceiving, because this story really isn’t about weight. It’s about changing old habits.
I started off about 60 lbs. heavier than I am now, and I had years of bad eating and exercise habits. I ate lots of meat, junk food, sweets, fast food, party food, and drank soda, beer, fatty coffee drinks and more. And I almost never did active stuff. But that’s just the start of my health habits, as it turns out.
Here’s what happened:

  1. I started by quitting smoking. This taught me a lot about habits, and got the ball rolling down the road to becoming healthier.
  2. I started running to relieve stress. If you relieve stress by smoking, drinking, or eating unhealthy food, you’ll need to find a healthier stress coping habit. Running became that habit for me, though now I have others: meditation, socializing in a healthy way, drinking tea, and various thinking habits.
  3. I could barely run, and so I started small and progressed gradually.
  4. I learned that quitting smoking and running made me feel healthy and great, but eating junk food made me feel worse. So I started trying to eat healthier food, which meant learning to eat vegetables. I didn’t like it much at first, but I learned to like veggies, and now I love them. This taught me that by gradually introducing healthy foods, I could train my tastebuds and learn to like things I didn’t like at first. I’ve now done this with dozens of foods.
  5. I became vegetarian. This cut out a ton of unhealthy fatty meats that I was eating, and I ate more vegetables instead. I missed the meats at first, but soon learned that I didn’t need them anymore. I started losing a good amount of weight at this point — maybe 30 lbs. in my first year.
  6. I ran a marathon. This took a year of building up my mileage. I was still overweight at this point, but definitely lighter.
  7. I started eating fewer sweets. This is a weak point for me, as I love sweets and still indulge now and then. It’s been a long road of learning why I eat sweets, and eating other things instead (fruits, especially berries, and a little dark chocolate are my favorites — also some raisins or dried cranberries).
  8. I learned to eat healthier snacks. Fruits and nuts, veggies and hummus, salads.
  9. I started to learn other ways to be active, like riding bikes, swimming, playing sports, lifting weights. One at a time.
  10. I learned that doing activities with others, like my wife, kids, sister, friends, was more fun and motivating. I learned about using challenges to keep myself motivated and to make active-ness more fun.
  11. I developed social coping skills so I could be a vegetarian in the midst of meat eaters and unhealthy friends/relatives.
  12. I learned to watch myself eating when I was eating socially. This is still something I’m working on, as it’s not a habit you face every day.
  13. I learned to eat healthier at restaurants.
  14. In the 2nd year of fitness, I did a couple of short triathlons (I was just a beginner really). In my 3rd year I did a couple more marathons.
  15. I became vegan, gradually. I’ve only been 100% vegan for about 5 months now, but was 95% vegan for a couple years.
  16. I learned to eat fewer processed grains, fewer convenience foods, less sugar.
  17. Last year I finally dropped sugar from my coffee.
  18. I started building a little muscle, slowly, in the last few years, through weights.
  19. I backtracked a bunch of times, overeating during travel or social occasions, gaining fat. Then I’d set a little challenge for myself and lose fat again.

This is just the broad strokes overview, actually. Learning what habits I’d developed over the years was the big part, and then slowly changing them one by one, has been the main process. Again, I’ve backtracked a number of times, but watching myself do that has been a learning process, and learning to get back on track with healthy habits even after I slipped up has been a great skill to learn.
It hasn’t been a linear progression. I’ve gone up and down, learned a lot along the way, and am still changing my habits. Today I am happy with my body, and fairly lean for my age. I don’t look like an underwear model, but I don’t feel like I need to, and am really happy with my healthy habits. This is where I should be, and if I keep an eye on my habits, I’m likely to stay this way for years.

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So You Want to Form Lean Habits

Give up the idea of quick weight loss, and focus on building sustainable habits. Yes, it will take longer, but it will also last longer. Yes, it will take some work, but it’s fun, and you learn a lot about yourself in the process.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Start with a really easy habit. Just a small step, like drinking more water or eating a fruit a day or going for a short walk (or walk/run if that’s too easy) or doing a few pushups. You’ll learn about forming habits as you do so.
  • Stick with easy habits for awhile, and if you’re successful at them, then you can gradually progress. You’ll be amazed at how much you can progress — I couldn’t exercise for 10 minutes when I started, but in 2011 I completed the GoRuck Challenge, which was 13 hours of hard exercise.
  • Watch yourself as you eat. Why are you eating? What need are you fulfilling? Can you find a healthier replacement habit?
  • Change your tastebuds. Most people think things like, “I can’t give up meat” or “I hate vegetables” or “I could never give up ____” (cheese, sweets, chocolate, pizza, etc.). I’m not asking you to give it up, but if you really want to learn the habits of being lean, change your tastebuds to healthier things. Eat a vegetable every day — before long, you’ll like it. Try brown rice instead of white, or whole grains instead of white flour, or fruits instead of sweets, or tempeh instead of meat, or quinoa or kale or dark chocolate or chard. They’re all delicious, if you give them a chance.
  • Make activity a social thing. Do something fun with other people. Join a running club. Walk with your spouse. Get your coworkers to join a challenge. Be accountable to each other.
  • Sign up for a race or other fitness challenge.
  • Learn to socialize without eating unhealthy things.
  • Learn healthy strategies for when you go to a social gathering or restaurant or travel.
  • When you fail, forgive yourself, and learn. Get better. Keep doing it.
  • Be proud of little progress. Enjoy the journey. I mean every single step — don’t keep your eye on the end goal, but on where you are, and how amazing it is.

That should get you started. If you do those things for a few years, you’ll know what else you need to do by then.
Good luck, my friends. This journey might be longer than a sprint, but that’s what makes it worthwhile. If you set yourself down this path, you are one of the courageous, the joyous, the lucky.

More by this author

Leo Babauta

Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

The Best Way to Create a Vision for the Life You Want

Creating a vision for your life might seem like a frivolous, fantastical waste of time, but it’s not: creating a compelling vision of the life you want is actually one of the most effective strategies for achieving the life of your dreams. Perhaps the best way to look at the concept of a life vision is as a compass to help guide you to take the best actions and make the right choices that help propel you toward your best life.

your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have

    Why You Need a Vision

    Experts and life success stories support the idea that with a vision in mind, you are more likely to succeed far beyond what you could otherwise achieve without a clear vision. Think of crafting your life vision as mapping a path to your personal and professional dreams. Life satisfaction and personal happiness are within reach. The harsh reality is that if you don’t develop your own vision, you’ll allow other people and circumstances to direct the course of your life.

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    How to Create Your Life Vision

    Don’t expect a clear and well-defined vision overnight—envisioning your life and determining the course you will follow requires time, and reflection. You need to cultivate vision and perspective, and you also need to apply logic and planning for the practical application of your vision. Your best vision blossoms from your dreams, hopes, and aspirations. It will resonate with your values and ideals, and will generate energy and enthusiasm to help strengthen your commitment to explore the possibilities of your life.

    What Do You Want?

    The question sounds deceptively simple, but it’s often the most difficult to answer. Allowing yourself to explore your deepest desires can be very frightening. You may also not think you have the time to consider something as fanciful as what you want out of life, but it’s important to remind yourself that a life of fulfillment does not usually happen by chance, but by design.

    It’s helpful to ask some thought-provoking questions to help you discover the possibilities of what you want out of life. Consider every aspect of your life, personal and professional, tangible and intangible. Contemplate all the important areas, family and friends, career and success, health and quality of life, spiritual connection and personal growth, and don’t forget about fun and enjoyment.

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    Some tips to guide you:

    • Remember to ask why you want certain things
    • Think about what you want, not on what you don’t want.
    • Give yourself permission to dream.
    • Be creative. Consider ideas that you never thought possible.
    • Focus on your wishes, not what others expect of you.

    Some questions to start your exploration:

    • What really matters to you in life? Not what should matter, what does matter.
    • What would you like to have more of in your life?
    • Set aside money for a moment; what do you want in your career?
    • What are your secret passions and dreams?
    • What would bring more joy and happiness into your life?
    • What do you want your relationships to be like?
    • What qualities would you like to develop?
    • What are your values? What issues do you care about?
    • What are your talents? What’s special about you?
    • What would you most like to accomplish?
    • What would legacy would you like to leave behind?

    It may be helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal or creative vision board if you’re the creative type. Add your own questions, and ask others what they want out of life. Relax and make this exercise fun. You may want to set your answers aside for a while and come back to them later to see if any have changed or if you have anything to add.

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    What Would Your Best Life Look Like?

    Describe your ideal life in detail. Allow yourself to dream and imagine, and create a vivid picture. If you can’t visualize a picture, focus on how your best life would feel. If you find it difficult to envision your life 20 or 30 years from now, start with five years—even a few years into the future will give you a place to start. What you see may surprise you. Set aside preconceived notions. This is your chance to dream and fantasize.

    A few prompts to get you started:

    • What will you have accomplished already?
    • How will you feel about yourself?
    • What kind of people are in your life? How do you feel about them?
    • What does your ideal day look like?
    • Where are you? Where do you live? Think specifics, what city, state, or country, type of community, house or an apartment, style and atmosphere.
    • What would you be doing?
    • Are you with another person, a group of people, or are you by yourself?
    • How are you dressed?
    • What’s your state of mind? Happy or sad? Contented or frustrated?
    • What does your physical body look like? How do you feel about that?
    • Does your best life make you smile and make your heart sing? If it doesn’t, dig deeper, dream bigger.

    It’s important to focus on the result, or at least a way-point in your life. Don’t think about the process for getting there yet—that’s the next stepGive yourself permission to revisit this vision every day, even if only for a few minutes. Keep your vision alive and in the front of your mind.

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    Plan Backwards

    It may sound counter-intuitive to plan backwards rather than forwards, but when you’re planning your life from the end result, it’s often more useful to consider the last step and work your way back to the first. This is actually a valuable and practical strategy for making your vision a reality.

    • What’s the last thing that would’ve had to happen to achieve your best life?
    • What’s the most important choice you would’ve had to make?
    • What would you have needed to learn along the way?
    • What important actions would you have had to take?
    • What beliefs would you have needed to change?
    • What habits or behaviors would you have had to cultivate?
    • What type of support would you have had to enlist?
    • How long will it have taken you to realize your best life?
    • What steps or milestones would you have needed to reach along the way?

    Now it’s time to think about your first step, and the next step after that. Ponder the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. It may seem impossible, but it’s quite achievable if you take it step-by-step.

    It’s important to revisit this vision from time to time. Don’t be surprised if your answers to the questions, your technicolor vision, and the resulting plans change. That can actually be a very good thing; as you change in unforeseeable ways, the best life you envision will change as well. For now, it’s important to use the process, create your vision, and take the first step towards making that vision a reality.

    Featured photo credit: Matt Noble via unsplash.com

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