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Change You Can Sustain: Talking With Author MJ Ryan

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:31pm

By Barbara Berkeley

MJ Ryan is one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling Random Acts of Kindness series and is the author of many other books. Her most recent book, This Year I Will…(Broadway Books), deals with the issue of change. How do we make change and how do we sustain that change once we’ve accomplished it?

MJ is the former CEO and Editorial Director of Conari Press, but for the past 8 years she has specialized in coaching high performance executives, entrepreneurs and leadership teams. She is a contributing editor to Health and Good Housekeeping and has appeared on “The Today Show”, CNN, and hundreds of radio programs.

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing MJ for the Refuse To Regain website. Since successful weight maintenance involves deep, drastic change, I wanted to get her take on the best way to sustain that change over the long haul.

MJ had a number of interesting observations. First, she pointed out that there are two types of people when it comes to making change. The first is goal driven and the second is not. If you are goal driven, you may have used defined landmarks to help you lose weight. You may have set goals that involved losing a certain amount of weight per week or fitting into a particular size by a set date. Since maintenance is about staying at the same weight, the lack of goal posts may make things difficult for a goal driven person. MJ suggests that this type of maintainer continue to set goals into the future. Train to walk a 5K, run the same race the following year, “Then train to climb Machu Picchu,” she said.

For those who are not goal driven, setting endpoints may be too anxiety provoking. This type of person should aim to make small changes to behavior and move slowly.

In counseling clients, MJ always distinguishes between the “feeling brain” and the part of the brain that thinks rationally.  The feeling part is primal and experiences life via pleasure and pain, danger and comfort.

“This part of the brain is common to all mammals,” she says. “I call it the ‘bunny brain’.”

In order to keep the feeling part of the brain from overruling the thinking part, MJ suggests that each person focus on the aspect of weight loss that really gives him or her pleasure. She then asks each person to create a symbol for that pleasure and to keep that symbol in view, particularly in situations that may be challenging. As an example, she told me about a woman who said that her greatest pleasure after losing weight was a feeling of lightness. She selected a feather as her symbol. She then placed feathers around her home, bought some feathered jewelry and some art which included feathers. She located these in places where she might be tempted by food.  For those who are motivated by the pleasure of staying at particular size, MJ recommends keeping a favorite, snug piece of clothing hung in the bathroom or somewhere else the makes it easily visible.

MJ also places emphasis on “choosing.” Be aware that it is you who are making the choices and don’t let any automatic reactions to take over. When you choose, according to MJ, you are putting less emphasis on willpower.

MJ Ryan’s website contains many more tips on making and sustaining change. If you’d like to learn more, visit her

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