Whether it’s because of a doctor’s warning, an important birthday, or just because you’re fed up, at some point you vow to lose weight. But by the time the rosy blush of good intentions wears off, your promise gets pushed aside. Not because you don’t still long to lose the pounds, but because you don’t know how to change.

You’re not alone--ninety percent of heart patients don’t stick to the lifestyle changes they need to live longer lives. Even faced with the dramatic choice to change or die, they can’t do it. I don’t believe they want to die. They just don’t know how to make the choice for life.

Part of the problem is that we’re flooded by bad advice. Right now, I’m staring at a women’s magazine that promises you can be 40 pounds slimmer in 28 days. Such irresponsible “advice” does a great deal of harm. Because it creates unrealistic expectations, it increases the probability we’ll give up before we get where we want to go.

You can lose weight or make another dream come true. Permanently. But it’s not easy, as anyone who has tried to change a habit knows. Armed with a few new attitudes and behaviors, you can create success.

First, to bring new behavior into being takes work. Our brains have enormous “plasticity,” meaning they can create new cells and pathways. But our brains create strong tendencies to do the same thing over and over. Here’s why: our neurons (brain cells) that fire together wire together. Meaning, they have a strong tendency to run the same program the next time.

That’s why lasting change takes lots of practice; you’ve got to create a pathway to the new options. (Six to nine months, say many brain scientists.) The process is not about getting rid of bad habits—the pathway to your current behavior is there for life, baby—but building new, more positive ones. Even stopping doing something, like not eating junk food, is really about creating a good new habit, eating healthily.

The Two Magic Keys
To truly change requires two crucial things: desire and persistence. Desire is important because it turns out we have two brains. We have our thinking brain that says, “I would be healthier and live longer if I take off the pounds. So I’m not going to eat anything bad for me and get up at 6am every day to go to the gym.” But we also have a feeling brain that we share with all mammals (think smart as a bunny, folks!). It only cares about pleasure and safety. So when the alarm goes off, our bunny brain says, “No fun,” turns off the alarm, and later heads for the donut shop on the way to work.

That’s why willpower doesn’t work, at least not in the long haul. To succeed, you’ve got to get the bunny on your side, which means having a FEELING reason why to take the weight off—to look great in a bathing suit, to dance at my daughter’s wedding, to be able to get the body back I used to have, whatever it is for you. Then keep that feeling alive day after day through a photo, a mantra, the dress hanging in the bathroom where you can see it….

You also need persistence, because you will not do it perfectly all the time. You’re learning! Unless you accept this, you turn slip ups into give ups, convinced that you are hopeless, weak, or unmotivated. Which makes you even more stuck—and binge prone. As one of my clients, eager to lose weight, puts it, “Once I eat the first cookie, I figure I might as well go through the whole box.” That’s also why it’s so important to be willing to start over no matter how often you blow it or get discouraged.

Our brain structure is also why you’ve got to put external reminders in place, at least in the beginning. Unless we have a trigger from the outside—a note, an email reminder, a friend who shows up at the door to go to the gym with you--it’s very likely you’ll keep defaulting to old behavior because it’s automatic.

Author's Bio: 

Change expert M. J. RYAN is the author of This Year I Will…How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution or Make a Dream Come True, Attitudes of Gratitude, The Power of Patience, The Happiness Makeover and many other titles. A popular speaker and workshop leader, she is currently the life coach columnist for Health, a contributing editor at Good Housekeeping and works over the phone with people all over the world as a member of Professional Thinking Partners. Her work is a combination of the wisdom traditions, positive psychology and brain science to help individuals create greater happiness, success and fulfillment.