Why do we make promises to ourselves for new behavior in the beginning of a new year? We have the hope of benefits that come with changes like improvements in blood lab results or melting away any extra pounds. We may also be looking for increasing clarity of thought, building resilience to infections, experiencing less painful, or all sorts of things.
The hope is to be happy. And I hope that for you, too! Maybe something in this post will help you achieve your goal. I’ll start off with a personal real-life example from just a few weeks ago…
I found a book…
I found a book on home exercise that made a big claim for strengthening your core in 6 minutes (6-Minute Core Strength, Simple Exercises to Improve Posture, Build Balance, and Relieve Back Pain, by Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT). I review a lot of books on health topics and picked this one because I thought “yeah, right”.
Intrigued, I started with his initial recommendation of just learning how to breathe into my core. I was curious but resistant. I don’t know why it seemed so difficult to lie on my back and breathe. After 3 days of faltering attempts, I finally settled down. Now I was entering into the phase of actual exercise. There were only 3 exercises that would take no more than 6 minutes at this phase. So far so good. I could begin to feel the results with long-dormant muscles waking up. Over about 2 weeks (including my rocky, inconsistent start) I began to regularly practice and even looked forward to my little 6 minutes. Since Dr. Su allowed the practice to expand, if wanted, I picked up the intensity a bit with practice twice a day, morning and evening. Then this expanded by adding another 3 exercises for specific weaknesses and, wow. I’m hooked. See how this works?
First up, changes need to be made in increments.
Habits are formed when using small increment progressions, or baby steps. It has been well documented that new habits must initially be developed gradually. This is the way they successfully become default actions – teeny little changes, one at a time.
I used to teach health improvements by itemizing behavioral changes that pinpointed the client’s concerns. I would even write down my suggestions as a to do list. I expected my clients would respond, and big results would follow. I made this mistake all the time. I would “simplify” a client’s needed actions into just 3 or 4 things to do. “OK, here’s what you have to do, #1_______, #2______, etc.
Simple, I thought. Wrong.
Let me give an example of how I go about dispensing homework -now.
Before you change anything, choose ONE thing
Choose just one behavior you need to avoid or want to add – anything you want to change but don’t change anything yet. Write it down. Then make a notation (just hash marks to keep it simple) each time it happens. For instance, if you want to remember to take your vitamins, make a hashmark on a calendar every time you take a vitamin. No minimum or maximum number expected. This is just a daily real-time record of what you are doing. It gives you a starting point so you can know if there’s improvement. Incidentally, it has the added advantage of being a gentle reminder to take your vitamins.
This exercise isn’t requiring any change of behavior at this point. Don’t worry if you skew the record because now, you’re thinking about it. The goal will be counting, not judging or catching yourself in bad behavior.
These are the important points of the Teeny Tiny approach:
- Understand your starting point so improvements can be appreciated.
- Tiny improvements over time stick better than gobs of effort that are easy to disregard.
- Going slow (as in exercising and many other healthy habits) feeds subtle awareness and leads to conversion.
Another example: You may want (or need) to reduce your carbohydrates. You may be someone who wants to know the rules and hacks for doing it from day one. “I want to get this started today!”
I applaud your enthusiasm
I understand and applaud your enthusiasm, but I ask you to use this excitement to ensure you start in good form by accurately building your base of knowledge. We just want to improve your perception of what you actually do, before making adjustments and adding new steps. (Building a foundation takes time and although it is hard to see progress, it is an essential step.)
My recommendation – don’t try to reduce your carb count yet. Wait until you know, for sure, how much you are eating before you try to change anything. Just write down the number of carbs in that half package of chocolate chip cookies. No judgement, just a number. You don’t even have to identify the source of the carbs in your little notebook – it could be from a smoothie, a piece of pizza and 6 breadsticks, a bowl of breakfast cereal, or a half package of cookies. We don’t care. If you forget to note something, it’s OK. Just try to note your next snack or grab out of the fridge. And over a week or two expand the recording to everything you eat.
And just to make it easier: don’t even add them up. A total of carbs at this point is not helpful because that’s not what we are trying to accomplish. What are we trying to accomplish? Awareness. Do not expect that you will catch everything initially. Just begin and allow yourself to be imperfect, but continue.
At the end of 2 weeks
At the end of 2 weeks, you will have already started to get an idea of your “carb reality”. That’s an extremely useful step up from where you were. It will be worth a gold star if you are still attempting to record this information at the end of 2 weeks.
See what I mean? A long list of “to do’s” and “to not do’s” are just lists. My interest, and yours, should be in the end, “accomplishment”.
When that happens, stars are irrelevant because the joys of feeling better, energetic, and safe from avoidable illnesses become your rewards. Sure, it takes a while, but baby-stepping is the way truly valuable change occurs. I think you can do it. The rapid-rabbit style is for the flim-flam tricksters. Trust the slow and steady turtle approach.
I hope you can appreciate this basic principle – reduce your goal to a really simple first step. And then, do that thing for a while until it becomes automatic. Dovetail into a next simple step. Before you know it, you will be automatically maintaining the habits that make you better. Mission accomplished!