Permission to make change slowly


In the past week or so, some variation of this question has dropped into my inbox from a few different folk:

I know the things I need to do to get fitter/eat healthier/be happier/achieve my goals – but I do those things for a few days and then fall away. Why is this?

I’ve seen this phenomenon play out so often in both my life – and that of those around me.

Here’s how it goes:

STEP 1: We reach the point of ‘Enough is enough! Something needs to change and it needs to change NOW!’

STEP 2: We make the commitment to clean up our diet, get fit, get organised and, in general, start winning at life. All in one fell swoop. And for the first two or three days, everything proceeds swimmingly.

STEP 3: Then day four and five rocks around and we haven’t lost any weight yet, we’re sore from working out four days in a row … and despite our best intentions and well-thought-out to-do lists, everything has somehow gone to shit.

STEP 4: We give up. Because maybe this is not the time to be making changes. Maybe there is just a bit too much going on.

Here’s the thing: There is never a ‘good time’ to make changes in our lives. Which means ‘now’ is always as good a time as ever.

The key to making change at any time, but especially during ‘hard’ times, is being willing to make change slowly.

When we’re highly motivated, and we attempt to make wholesale changes en masse, things will proceed swimmingly right up to the point where we’re put under pressure. That’s when we fall in a heap, and decide to chuck the whole ‘change’ thing in.

That’s where I found myself five-ish years ago. Then I read this Zen Habits post on The Single-Changing Method.

Leo said:

It’s very hard to make changes that stick, especially if you’re trying to focus on more than one. In my experiments, I’ve found very consistently that changing multiple things at once doesn’t work very well. Your focus gets spread thin, and in the long run you end up failing to stick to any of the changes. If you’ve tried and failed at multiple changes at once before, you’ll know what I mean.

So do one change at a time, for at least a month. Six weeks is better.

So that’s what I did.

At the time my mental health was terrible from the sheer amount of stress in my life, my previously daily exercise habit had lapsed after falling pregnant four times in 18 months (and losing all four babies), and my diet was off the rails because every time I felt a bit sad, I headed for the fridge.

Where to start?

I decided diet was as good a place as any. Sarah Wilson, who I’d been following online for a few years had just released her first I Quit Sugar program in the form of an e-book. I’d been keen to cut back on the sheer volume of sugar I was consuming for a while so I figured that was a good place to start when it came to re-shaping my diet. I spent eight weeks working my way through the IQS program and I didn’t try to make any other big life changes in that time.

Once I was done with that and the good JERFing habits the program instilled were now part of my everyday life, I turned to exercise. As mentioned before, I used to be a daily exerciser. But the four pregnancies were all dicey and anything beyond gentle walking was banned in an effort to make them stick. (At that time in my life I didn’t consider a gentle walk to be ‘exercise’ and thus saw little difference between getting out for a walk … and doing nothing at all. Given how much I  had on my plate at the time, ‘doing nothing at all’ tended to win that battle.)

So for my next ‘challenge’ I mandated to myself that for the next month I had to do some kind of physical activity for at least 20 minutes a day. Run, walk, swim, ride my bike – just something. Quite often I’d get to the end of the day and find that I still hadn’t done my 20 minutes … but the fact it was the one thing I was asking of myself/challenging myself with at the time, I always found a way to squeeze it in. And by the end of that month I was finding I suddenly had to get out for at least a walk every day. My body and mind had gotten used to the endorphins and if I didn’t do it, I felt very agitated.

The daily exercise thing helped with my mental health immeasurably. The quitting sugar thing got my eating habits back on track. And finally I was getting to the point where I was ready to try again for having our second child. But there was one small catch. I’d said to my husband that our next shot would be our last. (Every miscarriage affected my mental state so badly I knew if I had a fifth miscarriage, that was it for any more trying.)

So I wanted to be in optimum physical and mental shape before that ‘last shot’. Which meant the final piece of the puzzle was to ‘get fit again’. My benchmark for being ‘fit’ was being able to comfortably run 21km (the half-marathon distance). This may seem a little extreme, but I’ve been a runner my whole life and running 21km is no big deal for me when I’m fit.

I pinpointed a half-marathon race that was eight weeks away, and started slowly building up my running. There was no way I could have done this without the base laid down by first changing my diet and then spending a month re-prioritising exercise back into my life. At the end of that eight weeks I ran a half-marathon race very comfortably (and in not too bad a time either!). I was so thrilled.

Three-ish months later I was pregnant and despite some early challenges to that pregnancy, once we hit the 12 week mark, it was all plain sailing. Finally, in April of 2013, Mia was born safe and sound.

I have no doubt whatsoever that if I hadn’t taken the slow and steady, one-change-at-a-time approach that I did, then we wouldn’t have a Mia today. The changes I’ve detailed above have stuck with me for years – they don’t go out the window the second life gets busy or challenging.

The beauty of making changes slowly lies in the fact that for something to stick, it needs to become habit. And it’s very hard to form more than one new habit at a time. But once that habit sticks, it becomes very easy to maintain, and quite often, you will find that habit also supports the next one in a very real way.

So the ultimate message here is this:

Given we don’t snap our fingers and suddenly find ourselves in an undesirable place, it’s not reasonable to expect we can snap our fingers to get ourselves out of it either. It took me five months to:

  • Get my diet back on track
  • Get my mental health back on track
  • Get my fitness back on track
  • And effectively get my life back on track.

Five months would have seemed an interminably long time back when I was on Day Zero looking ahead. But looking back from here, where I am now, I (and I’m sure you) can see it’s not a very long time at all.