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Weight Loss: A Time Management Challenge

(Draft excerpt from Hillary Rettig's forthcoming book How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss and Other Important Goals. (c)2014 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments and feedback via email, Facebook, or Twitter.)

One of the most important revelations I had during my weight loss journey was that it takes time to lose weight.

I don't mean it takes weeks for the pounds to come off, although of course it does. One or two pounds a week is considered a good rate of loss for most people.

I mean it takes hours of effort each week to lose that weight.

One of my favorite chefs, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
One of my favorite chefs, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

It takes hours to eat healthily: to educate yourself on nutrition, plan meals, shop, prepare meals, keep a food diary (if that's your choice), etc. Even the eating itself usually takes longer when you're eating real meals, versus fast food.

It takes hours to exercise: First, to research local gyms and other venues, and also to research the type of exercise you're doing to make sure that you do it safely and effectively. It also usually takes more hours to shop for the right clothing, shoes, and equipment. And then, finally, it takes hours each week to actually do the exercise, as well as, of course, hours of prep time (e.g., dressing and showers) and travel time.

And it takes hours to research therapy, meetings, and other support options in your community, and try them out. And then, ideally you'll be attending some kind of support group at least twice a week—and don't forget to count driving time!

Contrast all this with how much time it takes to stay fat—almost none:

It takes very little time to shop for and prepare fast foods or packaged foods.
It takes no time “not to exercise.”
Ditto for “not going to meetings.”

A fundamental difference between people who successfully lose weight and those who don't, therefore, turns out to be that the former invest lots of time in that goal.

Moreover, they prioritize weight loss, which means they sacrifice other activities and commitments for it. Because of this, their schedules tend to look very different from those of overweight people.

Most people who lose weight probably invest at least twenty hours a week on healthy eating, exercise, and community support—and many invest a lot more. A conservative weekly time budget might be:


Nutrition Research and Meal Planning: .5 hour
Shopping: 2 hours
Food Prep (1.5 hours x 7 days): 10.5 hours
Eating (extra ½ hour a day for real, versus fast, foods): 3.5 hours
Total: 16.5 hours


3 exercise sessions (1 hour each): 3 hours
Prep (½ hour before and after each session): 3 hours
Travel (½ hour each way per session): 3 hours
Total:    9 hours


Two support meetings a week (1.5 hours each, including travel): 3 hours
One therapy session a week (including travel): 2 hours
Total:  5 hours

Total: 30.5 hours/week

Many people actually invest a lot more time than that in staying thin and healthy.

Woodrow Murphy hiking the Appalachian Trail
Woodrow Murphy hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In Thin for Life, Anne Fletcher reports that a full third of weight loss masters exercise five or six times a week, and some exercise nearly every day. Many celebrities approach fitness and appearance essentially as a part-time or even full-time job—an important fact to remember if you've got a habit of comparing yourself to them.

My favorite weight loss story, however, is that of Woodrow Murphy, who hiked the Appalachian Trail—all 2,100 rugged miles—to lose weight. Now that's a time commitment!

To lose weight, you have to devote lots of time and attention to that goal on a weekly basis.

Whether you devote that time or not may, in fact, be the key factor determining whether you do lose weight. Weight loss is simply too difficult and complex a goal to be “squeezed in” around all your other life priorities. Not to mention, if you're living a typically rushed and stressed life, that, all by itself, is likely to trigger overeating.

What we're really talking here – let's not mince words – is a lifestyle change. Right now you're living like a fat person, and to lose weight you've got to live like a thin one. And most thin people devote hours each week to staying thin.

Now the idea of a lifestyle change might seem scary—and there is no doubt that it takes some work. Keep in mind, however, that:

  • It's doable. Many people adapt their lifestyles to pursue important goals, and probably all successful people do, even if they're not consciously aware they're doing it. Anyone who has had a baby or returned to school or started a business has done it, as has anyone who has taken on a significant caretaking responsibility, or a big community or volunteer project. (Please think of episodes in your life where you have done it.)
  • The goals you're striving for—not just thinness, but strength, health, pride—are totally worth it. In fact, a primary reason most would-be dieters struggle is because they significantly underestimate that benefit they get from a healthier lifestyle.
  • You probably won't have to give up anything truly important. I'm not talking about you becoming a monomaniacal gym bunny; only someone who allocates two or three hours a day, out of the sixteen or seventeen you're awake, differently than you do now—and mostly by giving up commitments you don't care so much about. (If your schedule is so crowded that you can't imagine making this change, time management can help you come up with a solution for that, too.)
  • Look around, and you'll probably see people with roughly the same schedule and commitments that you have who are also managing to stay thin. Those are people you can use as role models and mentors.
  • It gets (much) easier. Right now, it might be challenging to alter your schedule and embrace new habits. You'll have to do some juggling and re-juggling to get the mix right. And you'll probably make mistakes, some of which will be annoying or inconvenient. But eventually, you'll figure out your mix of activities, and then things should go more smoothly and efficiently.
  • It gets fun. Plenty of people actually enjoy their healthy eating and workouts—and there's no reason you shouldn't be one of them. This might not happen immediately, however,  so you need to be patient, lower your expectations, and look toward future rewards while also trying to appreciate the present.
  • It's way easier, and more effective, than sitting around, hoping and praying for some kind of magical increase in willpower. If hoping and praying worked, you'd be thin by now.

Our main tool for achieving lifestyle change is time management, which is also our main tool for creating peace, success, joy and impact.

It's one of the key tools that every successful person uses, and you can think of it as an alternative to the unsuccessful technique you've used to date: hoping and praying for a magical increase in willpower that will allow you to stay thin.

So, let's get managin'.


Note from Hillary: How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss will include an entire section on time management. Those who wish the information as soon as possible should sign up for my mailing list (lilac box in right column), or get The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, which discusses the same principles, although in a different context (writing and work).

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