Ask Noom’s Chief of Psychology: Why is it so much harder to stick to my health goals on the weekend?

by | Dec 3, 2021 | Last updated Jun 3, 2022

There’s something about the weekend that makes it feel like our responsibilities cease to exist. We usually have more time to do the things we want, to catch up with friends, or to just relax. A lot of the time, this means putting our health goals on the backburner. And while it’s normal (and expected) to have ebbs and flow in motivation and priorities, it can be really discouraging and difficult to refocus on your goals after a short time away.

So, we sat down with Dr. Andreas Michaelides, Noom’s Chief of Psychology, to demystify weekend slips and help us understand how we can move forward after them.

Q: What is it about the weekend that makes us put our goals on the backburner?

Dr. Andreas: It’s often harder to plan for the weekend. It’s easier to achieve our goals or try to change our habits during the week because it’s usually more predictable and structured. This allows you to plan for healthy behaviors and stick to them more easily. For example, you might plan to go to a spin class at 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after you finish work. For most people, the weekend has a lot more unstructured time, with different challenges from week to week that might be more difficult to plan for. For example, if you go to a party, there will likely be snacks and drinks. Since you don’t know what will be served, you’ll be faced with a lot of in-the-moment decisions. Fortunately, there are still ways to plan ahead amidst uncertainty, like deciding that you’ll have one small plate of food and your favorite cocktail at the party.

Q: What usually happens after we make decisions that aren’t aligned with our health goals?

Dr. Andreas: Typically, when we fail to follow through with a goal, the emotional response is guilt (“I did something bad”) and then shame (“I am bad”). In these instances, many people speak negatively to themselves, judging their character or putting down their ability to follow through. This negative self-talk lowers your sense of self-efficacy—at a very basic level, that’s the belief in your ability to succeed and reach your goals. I see this a lot after people have had a really structured week and made good progress toward their goals, but then, have a “bad” weekend. They typically tend to forget about their progress and focus on what went wrong.

Q: I’ve definitely been there. Can you share a bit more about thinking in terms of “good” and “bad?”

Dr. Andreas: Thinking about our behaviors or characteristics in terms of “good” and “bad” is a type of black-and-white thinking. Black-and-white thinking is a thought distortion where we see things as falling into one of two extremes: “I had a good day” or “I had a bad day,” or “I’m good” or “I’m bad.” A lot of people use these words to describe or label their weekend as it relates to their health goals. After a “bad” weekend, I see a lot of people follow up with an “I’ll be ‘good’ on Monday.” When Monday comes along, many people will become extra strict with their goals (think: no “treats” all week), which will lead them to also stray from their goals again the following weekend since extremes aren’t sustainable.

If we work to decrease the “good” and “bad” mentality and black-and-white thinking, we can lessen feelings of guilt and shame, and avoid waiting until a new day, week, or year to make different choices. As I like to say, every choice is an opportunity to do something different.

Q: How can we decrease that black-and-white thinking?

Dr. Andreas:

I like to tell people to imagine that they’re driving a bus and their thoughts are like passengers on the bus. One of your thoughts/passengers may stand up and say, “You had a ‘bad’ weekend—you should feel ashamed of yourself.” The idea isn’t to stop the bus and fight them, because that thought will only become louder. Instead, let them sit on the bus, come along for the ride, and let them get off when they’re ready. Remember: You’re driving the bus.

It takes a lot of practice to shift from fighting an internal battle to letting a thought be just that—a thought. The first step in moving away from our tendency to engage with thought distortions is to look for evidence against it. For example, if you go over your calorie goal on Sunday and tell yourself that you’ll never be able to reach your goals, a piece of evidence against it might be having hit your calorie goal from Monday through Saturday.

Q: Any other psych tricks that you can share to help Noomers stick to their goals on weekends?

Dr. Andreas: Plan for the slips ahead of time! Slips are inevitable. So, think about what you’ll do if you have a weekend where you make choices that don’t align with your health goals—whether that’s not eating as many greens as you’d hoped for or eating a lot more than you normally would. Then, ask yourself, “What will I do in-the-moment to respond to potential disappointment, or feelings of guilt and shame, so that I don’t abandon everything?” It’s important to plan when you’re in a positive mindset, so that you’re not trying to come up with a solution or plan when you’re in the thick of feeling upset about your choices. Here are three things you can do prior to (or after) a slip: 

  • Recruit an accountability partner. Whether it’s your Noom coach, a friend, a partner, or a sibling, having someone you can reach out to when you’re feeling down will help keep you accountable and get back to your goals.
  • Bring yourself back to your “why.” Why are you changing your habits and why did you want to achieve your goals in the first place? You might know this as YBP (or Your Big Picture). This will continue to be a big source of motivation and inspiration throughout your journey.
  • Commit to one small healthy habit. It can be tempting to want to get back to every part of your routine all at once. But, that isn’t sustainable long-term. Instead, pick one small change that you can easily commit to ahead of time. For example, after a challenging weekend, commit to starting your day week with a short walk on Monday morning. Having a plan that’s easy to achieve will prevent you from having to make more in-the-moment decisions and help you avoid extremes.

The biggest takeaway here is to approach weekends with curiosity rather than judgment, and to look at them as an opportunity to learn and build your resilience. Use your weekends as an opportunity to think about what went well and what didn’t, and what you could do better next time. Plan on having a lot of weekend slips—especially in the beginning of your journey and during times of uncertainty—and know that these will help you build up your “weekend muscle.” It won’t get easier, but you’ll become stronger.