In April 2012, I held my breath and sucked in my stomach as my mom tried to zip my wedding dress.
A year earlier, the dress was practically a perfect fit. But with five months left before the wedding, it was a tad too small. One too many late-night frozen pizzas and Polar Pops had taken their toll.
Over the next five months, I committed to losing the weight I had gained. By the time I donned the dress on my wedding day, the zipper moved as easily as a knife through warm butter.
Success is a tricky word to apply in this weight loss episode, though.
Sure, I set and met a weight goal, but after I shed my wedding gown, I stopped shedding pounds. In fact, the opposite happened.
Without the obligation of fitting into my dress overshadowing every meal, I gained back all of the weight — and then some. And then some more.
In the 5 1/2 years since, I’ve started and quit a countless numbers of weight loss efforts, usually lasting three to five days.
The No. 1 reason every one of those efforts failed is no mystery. I never found the elusive M factor: Motivation.
The first time I stuck to a weight plan, I had a clear and tangible reason steering my food choices and exercise routines: Fitting into the wedding gown. The down side to that reason is its expiration date. Once the wedding was past, the motivation’s shelf life ended.
And when motivation isn’t there, neither is success.
New reason, new goal
In 2015, I learned I have polycystic ovarian syndrome. As far as day-to-day life goes, it’s a relatively invisible and disregardable condition.
Unfortunately, one of the common side effects is infertility. In consulting my doctor about family planning options, he noted obesity can exacerbate the condition, as well as lead to other reproductive issues. Losing weight was among his recommendations to improve chances of pregnancy.
I didn’t hop on the stationary bike and start burning calories right away. Losing weight sounded like the hardest option. Other possibilities — such as charting menstrual cycles and starting a prescription of an estrogen-modulating drug — sounded more manageable.
Two years of no results and gaining an extra 30 pounds made me realize the hardest option was the most necessary. I had to make a choice: Did I want to give up on my chances of expanding our family or give up on late-night frozen pizzas?
The M factor finally arrived.
In my experience, motivation to successfully meet weight goals breaks down into two equal parts: the big-picture reason you want to lose weight, and the daily mechanisms used to keep you on task.
Think of them as your M&Ms: motivation and motivators.
Motivation. This is the driving force behind your weight loss. This answers the big question: Why do you want to manage your weight?
My theory: The weaker the reason why, the weaker the resolve to follow through.
A person’s reason can be anything. Whether it’s directly linked to a health issue or just wanting to feel more confident in your own skin, the key is to be honest with yourself. What makes you want to modify your weight? How important is that reason to you?
The more your motivation is rooted in something you value or desire, the better chance it has to carry you to the end.
Motivators. These are anything that serve to remind you and inspire you on a daily level. Essentially, these are tools to help a person achieve goals.
Motivators are important. In the daily grind of watching what you eat or sweating through a workout, it’s all too easy to fall into a slump. Particularly when the results are sluggish to show on the scale or in a waist measurement, it’s easy to start second-guessing your main motivation and wondering if it’s actually worth it.
Motivators are reminders and task-drivers. They’re the small-picture, day-to-day reminders and boosters. If motivation is the general, motivators are the foot soldiers.
Finding the right motivator
Even though the big-picture motivation is the primary force driving toward success, finding the motivators to use on the daily level can lend a much-needed boost toward meeting weight goals.
Below are five motivators I’ve used or witnessed others using on weight loss journeys:
1. Competition. Some people thrive off of their competitive spirit and perform best when measuring against someone or something else.
My husband’s side of the family recently conducted a weight loss challenge in which everyone who participated contributed money to a prize pot. Whoever lost the most weight won the cash.
If you’re a competitive spirit, creating a weight loss game or challenge among family and friends could keep you on task.
2. Accountability partner. When willpower is low, accountability partners can recharge your batteries.
An accountability partner is simply a support person. This is a friend or family member tasked to hold you accountable to your plan. Sometimes this is as minimal as reminding you not to eat that slice of cheesecake after a big meal. Other times an accountability partner becomes a workout partner and fellow diet manager.
3. Logs. The act of recording foods eaten, calories consumed and exercise hours logged can be a major motivator for the organizationally inclined mind.
Journals and logs are basically the introvert’s version of an accountability partner. Instead of being held accountable by another person, you hold yourself accountable in writing.
4. Visual reminders. Visual cues can serve as powerful reminders. Maybe it’s an inspiring quote you keep posted in your workout area. It could be an item of clothing you aspire to fit into. If you keep a weight management journal, the journal itself could serve the extra purpose of being a visual cue to stick to the plan.
5. Reward system. Who doesn’t like rewards? A reward system can be implemented based on short-term goals on the way to achieving the long-term goal.
For example, a person aiming to lose 50 pounds could set five short-term goals of losing 10 pounds. For each 10 pounds lost, the person can cash in on a self-imposed reward, such as buying a new item of clothing or treating themselves to a banana split.
Julie Barichello is an assistant editor at The Times documenting her weight management and health improvement journey. To share your own weight management story, contact her at 815-431-4072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.