Motivation to Lose Weight: The 6 Best Scientific Methods

Have you ever tried any of the following to get motivation to lose weight:

  • Visualised your ideal body?
  • Used a motivational wallpaper?
  • Written out your goals?
  • Beaten yourself up after binging?
  • Tried improving your willpower?
  • Obsessed over the right diet?

If you have, you’re not alone.

Mainstream self-help dieting books endorse these types of behaviours.

The problem is –  there’s a growing body of scientific research showing that some of these methods are not just pointless but WORSEN our weight loss attempts.

Below I’ve chosen the six most popular motivational techniques promoted by weight loss gurus to see if they work, and if not – what we can do instead.

After you read this article, my aims are that you’ll never have to worry about getting motivation for weight loss again.

Let’s begin…

1. Visualising how fabulous you’ll look after losing weight

We’ve all heard of the self-help technique of visualising yourself as the ideal person you wish to become. The theory goes if you do this enough, eventually, your behaviour aligns with the image in your mind.

It’s a beautiful idea…. But does it work?

To find out, Gabriele Oettingen and Thomas Waden from the University of Pennsylvania tracked a group of obese women taking part in a weight loss program.

During the program, each overweight participant was asked to fantasise about four hypothetical situations. Two about themselves losing weight and two about tempting food related scenarios they might find themselves. The researchers measured their answers on a positivity scale.

Contradictory to what most might assume, those with the negative fantasies had lost on average 12 kilos more than those with positive fantasies.

Researchers postulate that the reason for this is because people who fantasise about how great the future may be, are poorly equipped to handle the inevitable setbacks and give up at the first hurdle.

Imagining your ideal self, undermines your motivation to lose weight.

The right way to visualise for weight loss

After seeing these results, Oettingen speculated that the most effective state of mind for achieving  a goal is to be both optimistic about what is possible but realistic about the setbacks that might occur.

To put this theory to the test, she developed a study utilising a procedure she named doublethink – the name of a mind control technique George Orwell first coined in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. 

She asked participants to spend a few moments fantasising about obtaining their goal, and note the top two benefits that would come from it. She then asked them to fantasise about the two biggest obstacles that may lie in the way of attaining it.

From there she encouraged the participants to hold both the top benefit and the top set back in their mind as one visualisation and then afterwards to think of the second biggest benefit and setback, in the same way. Hence the name doublethink.

This sentence would be an example of doublethink for weight loss: “I am going to look so good in that outfit when I lose weight. When someone offers me a biscuit in work, I always struggle to say no.”

Doublethink got tested on a variety of goal types, and it always came out better than visualising either the advantages or the obstacles in isolation1)Oettingen G, Pak H, Schnetter K. Self-regulation of goal setting: turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2001 May;80(5):736-53. PubMed PMID: 11374746..

To put this into practice, from now on when you visualise the future think about the benefits, but also think about the realistic obstacles that may prevent you from getting them.

Realism isn’t flashy or entertaining, but it give us the much needed long term motivation to lose weight.

2. Relying on willpower to lose weight

Roy Baumeister, a scientist at Florida State University, after conducting many intensive studies on self-control and willpower, now believes that willpower is a lot like a muscle.

In Kelly McGonigal’s book ‘The Willpower Instinct’ she sums up his theory:

People who use their willpower seem to run out of it. Smokers who go without a cigarette for twenty-four hours are more likely to binge on ice cream. Drinkers who resist their favourite cocktail become physically weaker on a test of endurance. Perhaps most disturbingly, people who are on a diet are more likely to cheat on their spouse. It’s as if there’s only so much willpower to go around. Once exhausted, you are left defenceless against temptation – or at least disadvantaged.

Using pure willpower to achieve weight loss is a tricky balancing act.

What if you get into an argument or lose some sleep? Nearly anything that requires effort (even tidying)  significantly depletes your willpower.

Although some willpower is essential for any diet or fitness regime, it should not be the sole motivator.

In order to truly get the most out of your weight loss efforts, you should try and jump over the whole need for willpower.

For example, if all your loved ones were going to get killed if you didn’t lose weight, I’m guessing you wouldn’t need any willpower…

…Now, that’s an extreme example but there are other ways of bypassing our reliance on willpower.

Here’s my favourite:

Make a public commitment

There is a growing body of evidence showing that people who make a public commitment (tell their friends and family) are much more likely to follow through with their goals.

The support from friends is a great help but so too is the embarrassment of failing in front of them.

Start telling people about your weight loss efforts and make Facebook or Twitter statuses telling everyone about your goals. In one study on quitting smoking, researchers found that smokers who were part of a ‘giving up smoking’ twitter group improved their success rate at kicking the habit2)Cornelia Pechmann, Li Pan, Kevin Delucchi, Cynthia M Lakon, Judith J Prochaska. Development of a Twitter-Based Intervention for Smoking Cessation that Encourages High-Quality Social Media Interactions via Automessages. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 2015; 17 (2): e50 DOI:10.2196/jmir.3772.

If you’re feeling extra confident and want to up the stakes, use the website StickK, created by a Professor of Economics at Yale. StickK allows you design a goal, input your bank account details and choose a friend to hold you financially accountable to your progress.

Either you’ll lose weight or your wallet will. I’ve used it a few times — it’s an excellent tool.

Here’s my ultimate fat loss resource page with all my the best books and articles on losing weight for learning how to set up your diet.

3. Using role models for weight loss motivation

A few years ago the renowned British psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted a large-scale experiment on the psychology of weight loss motivation.

He tracked over 5,000 people who wanted to achieve a particular goal such as losing weight, quitting smoking, getting new qualifications, or starting a relationship.

One-half he followed for a year, the other for six months. At the end of the study, a mere 10% of the 5,000 participants had achieved what they initially set out to accomplish.

By studying all the data Wiseman was able to pinpoint what actually gave the participants motivation to lose weight, and what didn’t.
Wiseman summarises his role model research in his book ’59 Seconds’ as:

…those who adopted a celebrity role model, perhaps putting a picture of Elle Macpherson on their fridge door, did not tend to drop that all-important clothing size…

This concept runs counter to what every weight loss motivation article out there recommends.
And what’s so strange is that it seems like it would work… whenever I put a bodybuilder I admire as my wallpaper I always feel motivated.

But according to Wiseman that’s precisely the problem with this and most other weight loss motivational techniques. We often confuse what makes us feel good in the short term with what motivates us in the long term.

Simply choosing a picture of perfection you’d love to look like and slapping them on your fridge freezer will not help you. When you’re 2 months into a diet, hungry and the weighing scales haven’t budged in a week, you might not even want abs.

In fact, in those circumstances, seeing Elle Macpherson provides just the right motivation you need to say to yourself “oh well, I guess she has got good genetics!” before diving straight into the cookie jar…

…that said, with a few clever tweaks, role models CAN help us succeed in losing weight.

The correct way to use role models for motivation to lose weight

Firstly, you need to realise that a wallpaper isn’t a role model. A wallpaper is just a photograph, and we see so many photographs every day that they lose their emotive power far too quickly to create any long term motivation for weight loss.

A good role model is a person with a story that you can relate too.

You need to get their autobiography or read their blog or watch their interviews on youtube or get in touch with them and ask questions if you happen to know them.

Secondly, you choose a role model based on their decisions in life, not on their genetics. So any picture of them should serve only as a reminder of the decisions they represent.

In 2002, a study was conducted on ‘Motivation by Positive or Negative Role Models‘ which aimed to find out whether some people are more inspired and motivated by examples of failure than examples of success.

The scientists divided their groups into two categories: those who wanted to succeed (promotional) and those who wanted to avoid failure (preventional).

What they found was that if either group adopted a role model that was congruent with their motivational strategy type they would gain motivation, but if it was incongruent they would lose motivation3)Lockwood P, Jordan CH, Kunda Z. Motivation by positive or negative rolemodels: regulatory focus determines who will best inspire us. J Pers Soc Psychol.2002 Oct;83(4):854-64. PubMed PMID: 12374440..

In layman’s terms, if the anxiety of not losing weight or even gaining more weight drives you towards your goals, having a slim role model will not help. And if the thought of  having the hottest body in town motivates you, examples of failed dieters will not provide you with motivation to lose weight you need either.

So to put this research to use, the first thing you need ask yourself is:

What are you MOST focused on: avoiding failure or achieving greatness?

Preventional Weight Loss Role Models

An obese person who is worried about their health will typically use a prevention weight loss motivation strategy. They need to stop themselves from continuing down the unhealthy road they’re on to prevent further damage.

The study states:

For prevention-focused individuals, who are bent on avoiding failure, a suggestion that they might succeed may undermine their preferred avoidance strategy.

So for these people, choosing a role model with a midsection that looks photoshopped is not a smart move. What the preventional strategy people need is a negative role model who illustrates the potential perils of failure. 

Furthermore, they shouldn’t be a celebrity or an extreme case like the world’s fattest man. The negative role model you choose needs to be in a position that you could realistically find yourself in the future if you happened to fail. You need to be able to relate to their story as I’ve previously mentioned.

Search the web for a failed dieter who makes excuses, keeps giving up or whatever reason you find most pathetic, and keep reminding yourself of them throughout your weight loss journey. They are now your role model for what not to do.

The only trap prevention types tend to fall into is when they start to achieve mild success, as the study states:

It has been shown that when people’s preferred achievement strategies are disrupted, their achievement motivation is undercut; the performance of defensive pessimists, who are motivated to avoid failure, is undermined when they are told that they might succeed.

It’s important for the prevention types to stay away from success stories, and keep finding examples of people who have lost weight only to put it all back on afterwards (this is common).

Promotional Weight Loss Role Models

On the other end of the spectrum are people who aren’t terribly dissatisfied with their body, don’t have any major health issues but want to look extra good for the summer. These would be classed as promotional types.

For people embarking on the promotional strategy, there are a few key elements to keep in mind.

The most important of which is that you choose someone who you can realistically emulate.

Friends or family that have lost weight are great for this reason; world class models aren’t so much. But it ultimately depends on where you are at the start of your weight loss journey.

…participants showed improved performance after observing a moderately superior model, whose achievements likely seemed attainable, but not after observing a highly superior model whose extraordinary achievements likely seemed unattainable.

One of my promotional role models is Nathan Hewitt. He’s been my best friend for the last decade and is one of the few people out there who has not only lost over 140 pounds but has managed to keep it off. 

Another SUPER important tip for promotional types is the avoidance of all failure models.

…for promotion-focused individuals, who are bent on achieving success, the notion that they may fail may undermine their success pursuing strategies

Spend you energy focusing on successful role models what they did to succeed. Leave the models of failure to the prevention types.

Note: the prevention and promotion model of motivation applies specifically to the use of role models. With techniques such as visualisation and goal setting the strict boundaries between preventional and promotional motivation strategies break down and lose power.

4. How to set your weight loss goals

As previously stated, in Richard Wiseman’s study on the psychology of motivation, all 5,000 participants had a goal but only 10% were successful in achieving it.

Upon analysing the data, Wiseman discovered that how you set your goals makes all the difference:

Successful participants broke their overall goal into a series of sub-goals, and thereby created a step-by-step process that helped relieve the fear and hesitation often associated with trying to achieve a major life change. These plans were especially powerful when the sub-goals were concrete, measurable and time-based.

Merely wanting to lose weight and writing that you want to lose weight isn’t enough. You must break up the task into measurable sub-goals. You must say what your goal is and HOW you’re going to achieve it.

For weight loss this could sound something like:

‘My goal is to workout every Monday and Wednesday. I’m also going to eat a salad for lunch every day and switch from regular soda to diet soda. I’m also going to weigh myself three times per week, take photos of my progress every fortnight and adjust my  diet and exercise regime until I’m losing a consistent 1-2 lbs per week.’

I get emails all the time asking for my top resources on losing weight so I’ve compiled a list you can read here.

5. Beating yourself up for not losing weight

The “what-the-hell effect” was coined by the dieting researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman.

Kelly McGonigal summarises the phenomenon in her book  The Willpower Instinct:

It’s been observed in smokers trying to quit, alcoholics trying to stay sober, shoppers trying to stick to a budget, and even child molesters trying to control their sexual impulses. Whatever the willpower challenge the pattern is the same. Giving in makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better.

All dieters have experienced the ‘what-the-hell effect’ at some point. We stick to a diet perfectly then for whatever reason we indulge in one wrong thing and the next thing we know we’ve eaten half the fridge.

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the next time you indulge… don’t beat yourself up about it!

You’re eating it in the first place to feel good, so feel good, have a small treat… then get straight back on track.

Guilt equals binge eating and binge eating equals guilt. Try not to binge eat, but if you do try not to feel guilt!

Beating yourself up rapidly depletes your motivation to lose weight4)Getting a bigger slice of the pie. Effects on eating and emotion in restrained and unrestrained eaters Original Research Article Appetite, Volume 55, Issue 3, December 2010, Pages 426-430 Janet Polivy, C. Peter Herman, Rajbir Deo..

That said, under the right circumstances, guilt does have it’s uses.

The correct way to use regret

Charles Abraham and Paschal Sheeran have shown in a study on the motivational powers of regret that just by thinking about how much you’ll regret NOT going to the gym, you’ll often gain the motivation needed to go.

It’s totally fine to beat yourself up before the action you wish to take, but never after it.

The next time your mind starts flooding you with sophisticated excuses not to get up and go to the gym just start thinking of how much you’ll regret not going later on when those excuses don’t sound as believable.

If you happen to keep putting off the gym or starting your new diet plan, this article on procrastination tells you how to get around that problem too.

6. Choosing the perfect weight loss diet

Overeating makes us fat and nearly everyone would agree that if any overweight person avoided processed crap, ate whole foods consisting of  lean proteins, fruit and vegetables and did some exercise now and then, they’d probably lose weight.

Let’s face it, nearly every mainstream diet out there works if you have the motivation to stick to it.

Research conducted by the Kasier Permanente’s Center for Health Research has shown that people who keep a food journal lose TWICE as much weight as those who don’t5)Hollis JF, Gullion CM, Stevens VJ, et al. Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial. American journal of preventive medicine. 2008;35(2):118-126. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2008.04.013..

Write what you eat in your phone, on a post in note or download a fancy food tracking app (that’s what I did).

Distracted people tend to eat more, so by placing more attention on what you’re eating, you’ll eat less. It’s like magic.

…If you’d like to take it to the next step and learn the nuts and bolts of nutrition, check out my roadmap to nutrition where I explain the stuff food is actually made up of and the overarching principles that make all effective diets work.

*Before we look at the summary of the article I want to inform you that I’m working on a free ebook that teaches you everything you’d ever want to know about losing weight in a step by step manner. I’ll show you how to set up the perfect diet, the exact exercises you need, etc. I’m only going to send it to my subscribers, so if this interests you at all, hop on to my email list now.

How to actually get the motivation to lose weight

1) Don’t indulge in positive or negative future fantasies. Indulge in BOTH. Remember to Doublethink.

2) Understand that your willpower will eventually run out. Tell people about your goals for support and increased stakes of failing.

3) Choose the right role model. If failure scares you choose a failure model, if success inspires you choose a success model. And their story is what counts.

4) Don’t just choose a goal, choose the subgoals that go with it. Knowing what you want to do is the first step, knowing HOW you’re going to achieve it is the second.

5) Don’t beat yourself up for eating bad food. Use the power of regret BEFORE you indulge or fail to take action, never after.

6) Keep a food journal. Make a note of what you eat. Learn about nutrition basics but understand that it’s your mindset that ultimately determines weight loss.

7) And finally, realize none of these techniques are magic pills… you have to actually want  it. But if you do want to lose weight, these techniques will make it easier.

References   [ + ]

1. Oettingen G, Pak H, Schnetter K. Self-regulation of goal setting: turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2001 May;80(5):736-53. PubMed PMID: 11374746.
2. Cornelia Pechmann, Li Pan, Kevin Delucchi, Cynthia M Lakon, Judith J Prochaska. Development of a Twitter-Based Intervention for Smoking Cessation that Encourages High-Quality Social Media Interactions via Automessages. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 2015; 17 (2): e50 DOI:10.2196/jmir.3772
3. Lockwood P, Jordan CH, Kunda Z. Motivation by positive or negative rolemodels: regulatory focus determines who will best inspire us. J Pers Soc Psychol.2002 Oct;83(4):854-64. PubMed PMID: 12374440.
4. Getting a bigger slice of the pie. Effects on eating and emotion in restrained and unrestrained eaters Original Research Article Appetite, Volume 55, Issue 3, December 2010, Pages 426-430 Janet Polivy, C. Peter Herman, Rajbir Deo.
5. Hollis JF, Gullion CM, Stevens VJ, et al. Weight Loss During the Intensive Intervention Phase of the Weight-Loss Maintenance Trial. American journal of preventive medicine. 2008;35(2):118-126. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2008.04.013.

Meet the Creator

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the author of ComfortPit and the co-creator of HighExistence and 30 Challenges to Enlightenment, the ultimate self-improvement obstacle course. He researches the practical ways art, science, psychology, technology, history, and philosophy can help us live more skillfully.

43 comments… add one
  • Sebastian Feb 27, 2014, 2:12 pm

    Jon, I used all of those and I got pretty fat but I agree with you. I see the logic. I have no idea why it worked for me.

    But them, I had a really strong reason to do it so that triumphed over all the mistakes. And yea, I made a lot.

    I had this quote in my mirror. It said, “Every day when I look at myself in the mirror, I’m disgusted. As soon as I like what I see, I’ve lost the battle.”

    • Jon Brooks Feb 27, 2014, 4:25 pm

      Most people unfortunately do use the myths I debunked in this article, which is why they either give up or fail!

  • Wesley Chiles Oct 8, 2014, 9:09 am

    Awesome article, thank you!

  • Kanta Dec 24, 2014, 4:46 am

    Thanks Jon! I believe this is gonna work out for me and many others.

    • Jon Brooks Dec 24, 2014, 7:12 pm

      Thank you Kanta! Don’t hesitate to email me with any weight loss or motivation questions in the ‘contact’ area at the top of the page!

  • Ashley Mar 31, 2015, 10:52 pm

    Some good stuff here, especially the role models I really think you may have given me a light bulb moment here. Thanks.

    • Jon Brooks Apr 1, 2015, 2:27 am

      Thanks Ashley! Happy to provide you with an Aha Moment. 🙂

      If you ever want to discuss anything regarding weight loss, feel free to do so.

    • Helen Apr 9, 2016, 11:26 pm

      I agree with Ashley 100% thanks so much Jon!!

      • Jon Brooks Apr 10, 2016, 3:41 am

        No problem, Helen. Glad you found it useful! 🙂

  • Allison Apr 26, 2015, 12:32 am

    Wow, fantastically in-depth article Jon. I really love the idea of a negative role model. Personally, I’ve encountered so much misinformation out there that I just rely on a weight loss strategy which addresses the things that most influence of my overall health, including diet and strength training.I’m definitely going to be using some of the advice you’ve posted!

  • Ben Menton Aug 24, 2015, 8:16 am

    I agree that willpower should not be the sole motivator when dieting or starting a fitness regime! Awesome article!

    • Jon Brooks Aug 24, 2015, 4:54 pm

      Thanks Ben! Yeah, willpower is great but it’s limited.

  • Morgan Clevenger Sep 27, 2015, 12:28 am

    None of this works. Sigh. Discouraged. And not motivated.

    • Jon Brooks Oct 17, 2015, 10:51 pm

      Morgan, it sounds like you expect too much from an article. TRY it out and then report back! Best ~ Jon.

    • Surfdancer Jul 29, 2016, 10:09 pm

      Morgan, the antidote to discouragement is ACTION. Even if it’s 10 minutes a day.
      To motivate yourself, pinpoint “WHY” you want to do want this.
      To be more mobile for kids? grandkids? other loved one?
      To just feel better in your own skin? More energy, feel better in clothes, walk longer, able to touch toes or tie your shoes easier?
      To improve a chronic condition?
      To improve other health issues?
      To feel good about ‘keeping your word’ with yourself?

      Main thing is to keep trying.

  • Andy Nov 11, 2015, 8:32 am

    Great article!!

  • Scott Dec 20, 2015, 8:10 pm

    Uplifting article for a person like me who’s gained a lot of weight, lost a lot of weight, then gained it back and more, then lost it again, then gained it back, then lost a whole lot then gained about half of it back.

    Tedious I know. But the usual motivational, educational and inspirational articles didn’t really get me in the right frame of mind anymore.

    This article, however has helped tremendously. The visualization of both the goal and usual setbacks helped me avoid getting a pint of my favorite ice cream last night and it helped me short circuit what I call “anxious-empty” eating where I eat because something is bothering me or I feel bored.
    I appreciate your article and I am grateful for the work you put into it.

  • Terry Jan 20, 2016, 12:30 am

    The most important for me would be visualization. If we practised it first thing in the morning it would make such a huge difference to our lives. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

  • Rhianna Feb 25, 2016, 1:30 am

    Thank you for this article! I have been struggling to lose weight mainly due to motivation/willpower. I know what to do, what to eat/not eat, but keeping it up and making a habit of it is the difficult part. My boyfriend motivates me, to not lose weight/look skinnier, but to become a healthier me and to be happier in my own skin.
    But after reading this article, it actually makes sense why I have lost motivation. I have been doing it all wrong, constantly kicking myself over having too much sugary foods/soda and binge eating my feelings. Instead I just need to remind myself of how I will feel after, and it also works for when you are at work as well during a hard day!
    Thanks again!

  • Dimi Sapountzoglou Mar 16, 2016, 11:09 pm

    Hi Jon,
    Great Article, Thank you for your top resources List- Very helpful. I really liked your recommendations for actually getting the motivation to lose weight, Point 4) Don’t just choose a goal, choose the subgoals that go with it. Knowing what you want to do is the first step, knowing HOW you’re going to achieve it is the second”
    If you have a moment you may wish to visit and like my facebook page:
    Thanks again!

    • Jon Brooks Mar 16, 2016, 11:27 pm

      Hey, Dimi!

      That’s great to hear! Should keep you busy for a while 🙂

  • Lesley M Apr 10, 2016, 12:39 am

    You read my mind

  • Azad Aug 17, 2016, 10:27 pm

    Hey Jon ! I’ve been stuck with reawakening my ‘desire’. This article has helped me a lot. Looking forward to reading more of your enlightening posts.

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