What is the approach most people take? And what is wrong with it?
Most intentional efforts to change take what we call “the New Year’s resolution approach” or “the dieter’s approach.” That’s an approach where the person has a very clear, pretty reasonable goal. People then come up with very principled plans for changing those behaviors. But the reality is for most people, a diet doesn’t work. I have asked this question to audiences, “How many of you have ever gone on a diet?” 90 percent of the people raise their hands. So then I ask the next question, “How many of you have ever lost weight on a diet?” And I’d say about 85 percent of the hands go up. And then I ask people, “How many of the people who just raised their hand gained the weight back?” And everybody raises their hand. And that is quite consistent with what the studies show, that the average dieter gains 107 percent of the weight that they lost.
From our perspective, what has happened is people in the dieter’s approach or the New Year’s resolution approach are just going directly at trying to change their behaviors. For the majority of people, those 85 percent of the people who are going to raise their hand again, it is just not going to work because it is not fundamentally a behavior problem: It is a mindset problem. The mindset is the thing that has to change in order to alter the behavior. And that is really the biggest insight that we’ve come to in this work.
What do you mean by "mindset problem"?
If you cannot change the behavior in a long-term way by going at the behavior change directly, it is almost always because those behaviors are serving some other very important purpose. Some way, they are protecting you from something. So in the weight loss example, someone has a goal to lose weight, but they also have a goal to never be deprived. And they don’t realize that their goal to never be deprived is actually keeping them in a place where they are never are going to be able to sustain restricting what they eat because they are actually wanting to not be deprived. So their behaviors of overeating and not exercising enough are helping them to not be deprived.
When people do not succeed in making change it’s because they’ve got something that is going on inside of them. They have another goal that they are trying to accomplish at the same time they are trying to accomplish the more apparent goal of, for example, losing weight. So of course, ultimately, the behavior does need to change.
So how do you change, then?
The approach is to understand. First of all, the thing we have just been talking about is this thing we call the immune system. Right now your immune system is taking over in a way that is a mistake. It’s mistaking something that you need or that would help you and it is making a problem out of it. So you have one foot on the gas saying, “Yes, I want to lose weight” and one foot on the brake at the exact same time that is saying, “Oh no, no way, I never want to lose control” or “I never want to be depriving myself.”