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Tracking Progress without a Scale

Posted Sep 05 2012 12:00am

I have been talking a lot about self-determination theory and the importance of having autonomous control. If you don’t have independent control over your weight loss, that will affect your motivation to continue. Relying on a scale to measure your progress can therefore lead to a feeling of failure despite doing everything that you can to lose weight, which is the main reason so many people give up their efforts to diet. On the other hand, if you don’t rely on a scale to measure how you’re progressing, how can you tell if you’re reaching your goals?

You start by clarifying the meaning of the word  “goal” and then determining what your goals will be. For the purposes of clarification, I recommend distinguishing between goals and outcomes. The challenges that I help people with normally involve goals that are related to behavioral change, as opposed to something like, say, a fundraising goal. Therefore, I define the idea of a behavior change goal as something that, in addition to being measurable and attainable, like any goal, is a behavior that you control exclusively and directly. The result of implementing that control is the outcome.

When this is applied to weight loss, your behavior – what you eat and how many calories you burn – is the only thing that fits that description of exclusive and direct control. Weight loss is merely the eventual outcome of the choices you make when you engage in those behaviors. Of course, if you make better choices consistently over a period of time, weight loss is pretty much guaranteed. How much you lose, and how quickly it happens, however, is unpredictable. That’s why diet ads have so many disclaimers like “individual results may vary.” So aiming for a specific weight and a deadline to achieve it may be more like setting up for failure than setting a goal.

The implication of shifting your focus from weight to behavior is that it involves a corresponding change in attitude. While your emphasis on your behavior becomes more active, your approach to weight loss becomes more passive. You become more of an observer of your weight change than a controller of it. Rather than anticipating the number on the scale with dread, you observe it with interest. Your behavior, however, has a new and elevated status. It becomes the focus of your attention and the measure of your success.

So how do you measure behavior? One idea that I recommend is to choose three new behaviors to focus on, one from each of three categories: reducing caloric intake, increasing physical activity, and making a lifestyle change that doesn’t directly involve either of the first two categories, but is associated with weight loss. For example, the first could be reducing portion sizes or looking for acceptable lower calorie alternatives to foods you currently enjoy. The second could be, say, walking more as part of your daily commute and errands, or routinely taking the stairs instead of the elevator. The third could be keeping track of what you eat or having at least two main meals sitting at a table.  These are just examples of the types of behaviors that you can choose.

Then you can use a wall calendar or some other month-at-a-glance format to take the place of the scale. At the end of each day, write a number in the box for that day that indicates how many of those behavioral goals you have accomplished that day. Each day’s score will range from 0 to 3, and t the end of each week you can add up those numbers and track your progress. This new “behavioral scale” will have a weekly total between 0 and 21 and you can track the results over time. You can even get fancy and put it on a spreadsheet so you can graph it, if that helps. If you’re hitting the maximum or close to it pretty regularly, than redefine the goal by increasing the behaviors required to reach it or replacing an old behavior that has become routine. You can also just add a new behavior; the limit doesn’t have to be 21.

Now you will have a meaningful goal and a way to track your progress as you would track your weight except that it truly represents your efforts at behavior change. With the behavioral scale you control every aspect of it, and you should never be surprised by the results. Using terms of autonomous control, you have exclusive authority over choosing the behaviors and reaching your goals, and the responsibility to achieve them is entirely yours.

Then, after a while, go ahead and pull out the scale from under your bed to check in on that outcome. Just out of curiosity, of course.

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