From 320 to 160 pounds: The First Step
In the last 2 years I’ve lost a significant amount of weight. At some point, the most I weighed was 320 pounds and I’ve recently hit 160 (though I’ve lost more since). Since I’ve lost over half my weight, people (total strangers and people I know) have been congratulating me and asking me how exactly I did it.
Each time they asked me, I could only give a generic answer of better diet and exercise. While the answer is directionally and materially true, it wasn’t as helpful as I wanted it to be. I wish I could have said more, but I couldn’t articulate what exactly I was acting out in my life. Because of that I’ve decided to write this essay about how I lost my weight, both as a way of articulating to myself what processes I used and hopefully to help someone else who happens to be reading this.
A note before I start diving into this question. I’m going to skip out on the actual mechanics of diet or exercise. There are plenty of good guides on the internet that cover both. Instead I’ll be focusing this essay on the first step of losing weight as I think it’s the most critical move anyone can do in trying to become healthy. To understand the first step, I broke it into three sections: When, Why, and How.
“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” — Lao Tzu
When I started this article, I had a hard time with the first sentence. More specifically I had a hard time figuring out exactly when I lost all of the weight. Objectively speaking, I lost it within the last 2 years. However when I looked at it from a psychological view, I only made two changes to my mental makeup that fundamentally altered my path to a point where I ended up losing 160 pounds.
The two things I changed was why I was losing weight and how I was losing weight. So in terms of length of time, it physically took me two+ years to lose all of that weight, but mentally the time it took me to lose that weight was whenever I finished the mental processes that put me on the path to take the first correct step.
Now, let’s look at the why. Most people logically understand why it’s a good thing to be healthy and physically fit. You are more likely to live longer, suffer less diseases, and could potentially save tens-to-hundreds of thousands of dollars (if you live in America anyway).
While logically that all makes sense, I don’t think logic alone is ever enough to move people. If logic and rationality alone was enough to move us, then all America would need to do to fix the obesity problem is to spread the information. People don’t follow rational or logical trains of thought. I’ve never met an obese person who didn’t know that losing weight was probably better for them and I’ve never met a smoker who didn’t recognize that they were increasing health risks with smoking.
These people weren’t irrational (at least the ones I’ve met) and they understood the trade they were making. A smoking friend for instance told me that he felt the social benefits and feelings generated by smoking outweighed whatever long-term effects smoking had in the long-term. He had a stressful job and smoking was a habit that let him deal with it. What’s more it created social bonds that he valued.
The reason I’m bringing this up is because a person needs the correct “why” to take action. In my case, I didn’t have any of the typical problems a morbidly obese person had. I wasn’t particularly depressed (as far as I could tell), social anxiety, or any of the typical internal conflicts that are associated with obesity. I tried using social pressure before, but I couldn’t generate enough angsty guilt or need of social acceptance to actually power anything. The only thing I could accept and acknowledge were the rational arguments of why I should lose weight, but it wasn’t relevant enough for me to take action.
In the end what motivated me to take action was a potential increase in mental stamina and clarity, which in turn could increase my ability to analyze esports games. Humans aren’t just flesh bags with minds inside of them, the mind and body are interconnected and affect each other on levels we can’t feel or control. At the time, I had pushed all the other mental bounds I could in increasing my ability to analyze and dissect esports games and this was one of the unexplored frontiers that could push my analysis to a higher level.
Essentially, for a person to take the first step towards losing weight, they need the correct why. Without that, their progress will be limited.
As a side note, I don’t know whether or not my mental stamina/clarity. While objectively, I know my analysis and physical stamina has gotten better, but I can’t tell if my mental stamina/clarity took any leaps forward as I was doing other things that could have helped push my thinking ahead (whether that was watching games or reading books). It could also have been a product of time and experience.
The why sets the essential aim and direction of your weight loss. I think the step of how is the most important. Many people can take a first step towards losing weight and a lot of them lose weight initially. However they eventually rebound and regain or add on pounds. The reason why is because they took the wrong first step.
As far as I can tell there are three ways you can take the first step towards a path. The first is to have social influences force you to take the first step, the second is to tyrannically force yourself to take it, and the third is to become a person who not only takes the first step, but habitually takes it each and every day.
Each has their uses in helping a person grow and learn, but I will examine each in the specific case of weight loss. In the first case, once the social influences lessen, the person will likely rebound. The second case will have the person burnout of energy as being your own tyrant is incredibly tiring. The third case is likely the best as it requires the least amount of raw tyrannical willpower and pulls energy from within a person rather than from social forces.
So the question is how does one take the correct first step? Beyond having a why (I don’t think you even need the correct why, so much as a why), for me it came down to two things: framing resources and negotiation.
When it comes to losing weight, we have to look at three resources: time, money, and energy. Time is the most limited resource, so we’ll start with. To correctly figure out time, you have to figure out what a general day looks like for you. After doing that for about a week to a month and make your schedule more efficient. I’d categorize time spent into mandatory time and free time. Mandatory time is the time you have to use for working, eating, sleeping, hygiene, and travel.
Mandatory time is fied as it is the infrastructure that makes the rest of the system possible. As for free time, you have to decide where and how to allot it. My general rule of thumb is to have 20–30% of my free time unscheduled. While it’s less efficient, it’s also less fragile and I can deal with sudden emergencies without having to worry about time. Because of that, I have a fairly fluid schedule and the only hard schedules I make are food and sleep as they create a baseline and structure that lets me create a consistent frame that lets me experiment with my life without too many variables coming into play.
Money is the second resource and that dictates the means and methods of how you exercise and diet.
The third and the part I’ll focus on the most is willpower. I consider willpower to be a renewable, but limited resource. For me, it was the biggest limiter. Willpower is hard to quantify so I just arbitrarily made up three categories: spiritual, mental, and physical. What’s more I arbitrarily started to categorize the amounts of types of willpower I needed for each action I did per day.
Spiritual willpower is the willpower needed to ignore the screaming in your soul that you are doing something that is boring and/or meaningless. Mental willpower is the amount of mental focus you use to break down a particular problem or action. Physical willpower is how tired/exhausted you are physically.
Each category of willpower has knock-on effects on the others. If the job you are doing is spiritually meaningless, you’ll find it harder to mentally focus, which in turn requires more mental energy. The more mental energy you use, the more you will feel physically drained despite not having done any kind of physical exertion.
In my own life, expending spiritual willpower (i.e. doing meaningless work) affects both mental and physical willpower. If something is spiritually low in resources (high in meaning), but still requires high levels of mental focus (like writing esports articles), it still ends up leaving me exhausted even if I haven’t done any exercise. On the flipside of that equation, working out used to leave me bored and I ended up spending a lot of spiritual and mental resources forcing myself to workout.
So once I figured out how to workout without spending spiritual and mental resources, I was essentially on my way to becoming physically fit. As I’ve noted before, these categories were arbitrarily and while it has no real world basis (as far as I’m aware), it’s practical enough for this purpose.
Habit formation is at the very core of how a person loses weight. Once it becomes a habit, they no longer need to expend as much willpower to force themselves to eat a certain way or exercise a certain amount.
However breaking and/or creating new habits is a fundamentally hard thing to do. Each time you’re breaking a habit, you’re technically saying that an entire axiom or way of life you’ve lived up to this point has been wrong. It’s painful to admit that and so people would rather live in a blank fog and let their life play them out as if they were characters driven to and fro by Greek Gods.
So how do we break habits and create new ones? First we need to understand how and why we form habits. As far as I know, the system essentially works on three levels: your character, your process, and your action. Your character informs how you do things (process) and that in turn informs what actions you take. As for why, it makes life easier. There is an insane amount of information that we have to process, filter, and act upon every day. Habits let the world become manageable and because they are so crucial to everyday life, habits become much harder to break as they are some of our best tools to deal with life.
Earlier, I mentioned how one of the ways people make the first step is to tyrannically force yourself to do something. That’s someone working at the process or action level. While that works for a limited amount of time, most people can’t sustain the willpower long enough to enforce a fundamental change at the character level. For real change to happen, you need to change who you are and that will naturally change the process and action, which in turn requires less overall units of willpower needed to do something each day. As Herclitus once wrote, “Your character is your fate.”
So how exactly does one go about changing their character?
So what makes up our character? Freud thought it was the id, ego, and superego. The Japanese have a saying that a man wears three faces: one you show the world, one you show to your family and friends, and one you never show anyone. There isn’t a single answer or rather there are too many relevant answers.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll stick to a practical understanding of what I understand of character. Character is who you are across all dimensions across time. What I mean by that is that people have different faces and modes of thinking that they inhabit and balance throughout their lives. The basic dimensions that people live across are generally: biological, spiritual, rational, social, and chronological.
So in order to change your character you need to figure out exactly how many different dimensions you live across and that are relevant to you. After you’ve figured that out, in order to change your character you have to enter into a negotiation with each plane of existence you live on and see what you are willing to sacrifice in order to change your diet and/or exercise routine.
So when you start off, figure out a general overarching goal in mind (how much you want to lose). Then enter negotiations.
Let’s say for instance you are doing no exercise right now. Ask the various iterations of you how much time you are willing to give up to exercise. One hour per day at the outset may be too much, but what about 30 minutes? 15? 5? Just five minutes per day will equal an extra thirty five per week that you didn’t do previously. Once you’ve set that in motion, you can re-enter the negotiation table and figure out how much more your other selves are willing to do.
You can even leverage certain identities to motivate you to work. More sociable people have used online forums and social networks to keep themselves accountable for maintaining diet and exercise and find meaning in that communal bond. Each time they post a picture or status report, they are rewarding themselves for achieving something. This is a great mechanism to use if you’re a social person.
If on the other hand you’re more of a loner, you’ll have to figure out other ways of negotiation. You need to have an open mind and constantly investigate new avenues of approach. For instance, I wasn’t willing to give up eating sweet things so in order to improve my diet. One day though, I saw Dekay post something about Halo Top Ice cream and since it was less calories, I gave it a shot and liked it. Thus I improved my overall diet without sacrificing much of anything.
When it came to exercise, I always found it boring. I used to be able to do spurts of exercise when I was running through esports ideas in my head, but it wasn’t a consistent method and it mentally drained at the end of each workout. So instead I started to expand my musical taste and look up bands or albums to listen to while I worked out. Eventually I moved on to podcasts.
An important thing to remember about negotiation is that each term you make isn’t a short-term action, but rather one you are willing to do for the foreseeable future. After setting up successful negotiations, you should set up a system of punishments and rewards. The punishment is easy as most people get a feeling of failure/shame/guilt from not following through with what they said they would do. As for rewards, you want to give yourself a cheat day or something else similar to that. The cheat day creates another avenue of negotiation and the cheat day rewards you for the good behavior for the rest of the days where you did follow through.
To sum up, you need to figure out who you are, set a goal, create a framework of resources you’re working from, enter into negotiations, and create a system of punishments/rewards. Then rinse and repeat (after the first loop, it becomes easier and easier to do). Once you’ve done that long enough, the feedback loop will sustain itself and you’ll have created a habit.
That is how I think I made the first correct step in losing weight.
Postscript: On Honesty
I didn’t go into this in the article itself, but the most important value you need to have in this entire process is honesty with yourself. If you lie to yourself about yourself, then goals and negotiations are fruitless.