The Nuts and Bolts of Making Change Sustainable
In the last post I gave an example of how the extreme pendulum of perfection moved aggressively in the way I exercised. It took me years to find a way that made it sustainable for me. This second principle, Tiny Steps, helped me do just that. In this post I’ll share how I came upon this principle and how I applied it.
The First Step
The first habit I approached with the intention of making it a long term part of my life was drinking 1.5 liters of water first thing in the morning. There is a great article on the benefits of more water intake at one of my favorite websites at Developgoodhabits.com. This habit included drinking it at room temperature as fast as I could and then waiting 35-45 minutes before I consumed anything else. This was like taking an internal shower in that all my insides were flushed by the high pressure, cascade of water. This new habit came with the logical consequence of having the sudden urge, within 35-45 minutes, to go to the bathroom. I pity the souls that crossed my path on the way to the bathroom!
To not have this awkwardly urgent situation happen when I was out and about in the world meant that I had to wake up at least 45 minutes earlier to be able to go through this process in the privacy of my home. Ouch! From not doing anything for myself in the mornings to waking up 45 minutes earlier was a big bullet for me to bite.
Life Gets in the Way
Things would come up as they eventually do, I’d sleep late the night before, forget to set the alarm or I just plain didn’t want to get up that early hence… the habit would be skipped. The perfectionist in me would rear its ugly head and an emotional and physical hangover would ensue. Emotional hangover in that the harshly critical voice of perfection would be in the back of my mind of all day, nit picking on me as to why I once again couldn’t see something through. The nitpicking voice was louder when I was alone and not busy. I’d have a physical hangover in that I’d experience a nosedive in energy and in the clarity of my thoughts.
Self Sabotage Domino Effect
In stopping this one morning activity, an insidious domino effect of more bad choices would arise. My brain would justify,”Well you didn’t drink your water and already feel like crap so what the heck have that frosted cupcake!” or “You’re already in the hole, call up that friend that’s so much fun to hang out with, so what if you know their trouble. Cmon, you’ll feel better”.
The Struggle is Real
A few weeks of snowballing choices like that and I’d find myself dangerously close to feeling hopeless and full of self hate. This was a red flag for me as I had struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies as a teen. (That is for a later post.) In fear of that and anger that I let myself get so far, I’d gather the nerve to try again.
Being in that low point emotionally, mentally and physically for weeks, followed by drinking the water for the first time created a sharp and memorable contrast. I was sublimely refreshed thinking “What the heck was I doing all those weeks?! I wasted so much time!”. It then became crystal clear to what extent I walked around every day lethargic, foggy brained and dehydrated and how one small change can change everything. I became committed to finding a way to make it doable.
Getting Small to Get Real
I decided that on the days I woke up late, I would drink at least one cup of water first thing. That was doable, still refreshing and without the awkward consequence I had to manage while out and about.
This small change helped curb the guilt from not drinking at all and cut out the time gap of stopping to return to it again. This is the principle of Tiny Steps where you take something that seems overwhelming and break it down into smaller parts to make it doable according to your situation. There are periods where I spent weeks drinking less than 1.5 liters of water to varying degrees, just because I didn’t want to wake up that early to do it. In so doing I was able to keep up the habit even if it was fractionally and skip the slippery slope of guilt and shame that set me back so far.
Other Tiny Steps
One day in waking up only 15 minutes earlier, I drank the cup of water with the thought “If I’m up already and doing something healthy, why not do another healthy thing with the little bit of time I have?” I played with writing streams of consciousness. I ended up liking it so much that it motivated me to wake up earlier the next day. Having that to look forward to helped me in the span of a few weeks to gradually work up to waking up 45 minutes earlier so I could drink the full amount of water.
The first tiny step held up my esteem and gave me the energy to think of another tiny step. Till today, it’s been 15 years that I have been able to do the water habit with gaps in spans of only a day or two, never again in weeks.
Limits Are Our Friends
I had to get brutally honest about my limits and work with them as opposed to force myself to follow my own made up standard of where I SHOULD be. I was not the cold turkey type of person that had a will of iron and made big changes easily and permanently. I had to work at it at a pace that worked for me. An important lesson I learned was that
when I got an idea for a tiny step, tried it and didn’t get results, that was feedback that I just needed to break it down into even smaller steps. That’s it. I was not an uttermost failure in life, it was just not that serious.
One Tiny Enjoyable Step
The process of one tiny enjoyable step after another snowballed. Once I had a few months under my belt of having done one small thing every day, it gave me the confidence to add another small thing, until I had the confidence to take on successfully, habits that were harder for me like exercising regularly.
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, says in this talk to Google (17 minutes into it) that in her research the length of time was measured for those people who were down on themselves for not keeping up a new good habit and those who forgave themselves and moved on. Those that beat themselves up took longer to try again. Those that forgave themselves tried again in less time and progressed farther in their new habit
Every Choice Takes Energy
Every decision we make takes energy especially those decisions that are new to us. There is a great article in the New York Times about the research behind decision fatigue. If you haven’t heard of this concept I highly recommend you check it out. The research behind decision fatigue helped me to understand better how making change takes energy, the bigger the change, the more energy is needed. Like a muscle there are some of us, like myself, that need to grow our capacity for change.
When we are trying to habituate new positive choices we need all the energy we can get. Listening to the voice of perfection derails us and sabotages our efforts.
It’s admirable to watch those people that just decide to do something difficult like give up an addiction and never slip again, like Russell Simmons. He gave up heroin in one go forever, no rehab needed. It’s brought up in this interview at the Inside Quest show. (8:12 minutes into it) . For those of us that just aren’t made like that there are tools.
In the next post I will share with you the 2nd principle that has helped me on this journey to make positive and permanent change I call the Safety Net.
Until then, how have you used tiny steps in your life? Do you bite off more than you can chew?