Full Life Reflections

Striving for happiness, peace, and fulfillment in a chaotic world

When we want to make changes in an area of our lives, we often think we need to take big, significant steps. At the beginning of every year, it’s common for people to make New Year’s resolutions. In fact, as many as 45% of Americans resolve to make at least one major change each year, with the most common resolutions being to lose weight, start exercising, or quit smoking. Sadly, however, over half of these people give up on their goals by the end of June, and many quit much sooner.

Although there are many reasons why people abandon their resolutions, I believe a common explanation is that they over-commit and attempt to take on more than they can handle. For example, a person who wants to start exercising joins a gym the first week in January and starts going to daily boot camp classes. Another individual who wants to lose weight shifts from eating carbs all day long to consuming an ultra-low-carb diet consisting of mostly meat and vegetables. It’s no big surprise that such people struggle to maintain such difficult regimens and ultimately end up abandoning them. Of course, some can and do keep up with their lofty plans, but it’s a recipe for failure for most of us.

“Baby Steps” Can Lead to Big Changes

power of small steps

As I mentioned several posts ago, I didn’t set any New Year’s resolutions for 2018. Instead, I just chose a single word – essential – as my guiding intention for the year. That doesn’t mean I don’t have specific changes I want to make in my life, however. There are actually quite a few shifts I’d like to see happen in various aspects of my existence, but I’ve learned that small steps are the best way for me to successfully make and maintain change in my life. What follows are two such examples of how taking “baby steps” has led to meaningful shifts in terms of my health.

Those of you who read “Recovering Shopaholic” know that I’ve been struggling with multiple health conditions for quite some time. Although I don’t typically share a lot of details about my health, mostly because “it’s complicated” and not really the focus on my writing, this is still the key area of my life that I’m working to improve upon at present. It’s not easy and basically feels like a tangled spider’s web of symptoms, tests, dead ends, and disappointment, but I have to keep pushing forward and doing what I can to enhance my quality of life. One area of my health I can control surrounds the substances I put into my body, including caffeine.

Example One – Weaning Off of Caffeine

In late 2015, I shared an essay I had written two years prior about my love/hate relationship with caffeine. In April 2013, I made a commitment to conquer my long-standing caffeine addiction. To help prevent myself from backsliding, I documented the myriad ways in which caffeine was negatively impacting my life. I wanted to better ensure that I wouldn’t adopt the coffee habit again, as it took me months to withdraw from it back then due to my extreme caffeine sensitivity and severe and frequent migraine headaches.

I thought I made a compelling case for never consuming caffeine again, but sadly I feel off the wagon less than three years later and was back to drinking coffee and taking Excedrin once again. After remembering how much caffeine is a double-edged sword for me, I started trying to cut down my consumption last year. I didn’t make much progress, though, and close to a year later I was still drinking coffee three times per day. Every time I’d make a bit of headway, I would get a migraine and have to use caffeine as a prophylactic once again, as I’m no longer able to take prescription painkillers and preventatives due to side effects. It was like two steps forward and one step back – or even two steps forward and three steps back. I wasn’t making any advancements and felt like a hamster on a wheel.

While I was attempting to wean myself off of caffeine slowly, it wasn’t slow enough to keep the withdrawal headaches at bay. I was extremely frustrated and unsure what to do, but my wise engineer husband came up with a simple but cunning plan several months ago. He suggested that I reduce my coffee consumption in very small increments every few days. This plan is taking a long time, but it’s actually working where nothing else did. I’ve managed to reduce my caffeine intake by about two thirds at this point – without a significant increase in my migraine headaches. I feel like I’m proceeding at a snail’s pace, but I feel confident that I will accomplish my goal. As the old saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race.”

Example Two – Adopting a Strict Therapeutic Diet

My second example involves dramatically changing my diet to try to reduce inflammation (I have several conditions related to chronic inflammation) and heal my body. Over the past few years, I’ve tried many different ways of eating – plant-based, full vegan, gluten-free, paleo, elimination diets, etc. – in the hopes that I might feel better. Some of the shifts I’ve made have been somewhat beneficial, but nothing has been all that effective thus far. Since most doctors and health professionals don’t provide much guidance on what to eat, I recently began consulting with a registered dietitian around utilizing diet to help me feel better and drop the excess weight I’ve gained as a result of menopause (which isn’t a lot but feels like it to me). After sharing my health history and doing an intake session, it was suggested that I try a ketogenic diet for several months.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ketogenic diet, here’s a brief overview. Basically, it’s a high-fat, moderate protein, and very low carbohydrate diet. Whereas most people consume over 200 grams of carbohydrates per day, those following a ketogenic diet aim for around 20-30 grams (net carbs, which is total carbs minus fiber). When this diet was first recommended for me, I found it daunting, especially since I grew up during an era when fat was demonized and fat-free was all the rage. Even though I had gradually shifted toward including more healthy fats in my diet, my daily percentage of fat intake wasn’t anywhere close to the 70-75 percent range that is advocated for keto.

Fortunately, my dietitian didn’t tell me to “go keto” immediately. Rather, she suggested that I steadily reduce my carb intake while simultaneously increasing the amount of healthy fats I consume. We discussed some of the shifts I could make and I agreed to fully make the switch within about a month’s time, which sounded both reasonable and doable. What I did was find lower-carb versions of many of the things I liked to eat. I discovered numerous recipes online and ordered a simple and straightforward ketogenic diet cookbook. Every time I was hungry, I asked myself what keto-friendly meal or snack I could eat.

In a matter of weeks, I shifted what I ate toward lower-carb options. The fact that I didn’t force myself to make the switch right away made it much easier for me. It still wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it was far less overwhelming than it might have been. The jury is still out as to whether the ketogenic diet will be beneficial for me, as I’ve only been doing it fully for just over two weeks at this point. I’m going to give it about three months and then decide whether to continue with that eating style or pursue plan B (or probably more like plan J is more like it!).

The Bottom Line

This isn’t really a blog about health and I’m not here to advocate the advantages or disadvantages of consuming caffeine or carbs, but I shared my recent examples to help illustrate the value of making changes slowly and in very small increments. There has been a lot of research that supports my points, too. Stanford researcher B.J. Fogg has been studying human behavior for twenty years and has learned that only three things will really change our regular actions over the long-term:

  1. Having an epiphany
  2. Changing our environment
  3. Taking “baby steps”

While we can’t generally orchestrate having an epiphany, we’re all capable of making environmental shifts and enacting small changes. I’m living proof of that with my caffeine reduction plan and recently adopted ketogenic diet. For the latter, I’ve definitely done a lot in the way of environmental changes in that I’ve purchased many different foods from what I used to eat and I ensure that my refrigerator and cabinets are well-stocked with things I’m allowed to eat on my keto plan. I also take care to pack a small selection of snacks in my purse whenever I know I’ll be away from home for more than an hour or two. Additionally, I will pack my afternoon caffeine allotment in a small thermos when there’s a chance I’ll be out when I start to feel the “pinch” of caffeine withdrawal (yes, I’m that sensitive…). It just takes a few minutes of preparation to keep me on track with my plan.

To Learn More & Your Feedback

If you’d like to learn more about B.J. Fogg’s “tiny habits” philosophies, check out his website and popular Tedx Talk. He starts up a free 5-day Tiny Habits session each week, which you can sign up for here. Participation includes guidance from a Certified Tiny Habits Coach, who will check in with you during the experiment to see how you’re doing. I think I’m going to give it a go for another change I’ve long wanted to make in my life, which is going to bed earlier. I’ve managed to edge my bedtime up here and there, but I always seem to backslide, so maybe I’m not being gradual enough with my changes. I will report back and let you know how I fare with B.J. Fogg’s approach. If you decide to try it out, too, I’d love to learn how it goes for you. I also welcome your input on how you’ve best been able to enact and sustain change in key areas of your life.

9 thoughts on “The Power of Small Steps

  1. dlsm62 says:

    It’s easy to feel that in order to make a change we need to follow the axiom “out with the old, in with the new.” So many of us procrastinate in making decisions and choices that we know would be beneficial that by the time we actually do something it feels like it needs to be dramatic, noticeable, intense! Slower and smaller steps are healthier mentally and physically for most of us. I am hoping that by charting out my decluttering/home improvements/yard improvements I will get a handle on 1) how much there is to do, and 2) stop freaking out that I should have everything done already.

    1. debbier says:

      You’re so right about procrastination and wanting to make big sweeping changes. I tend to get overwhelmed by how much there is to do, and I know I have far less to do than a lot of people. I’m tired of beating myself up about that, though, so I’m just trying to identify what’s most important each day and do that. It’s still hard not to try to push myself to do “all the things,” but I’ve found that I’m happier when I require less of myself and am able to celebrate wins rather than lament what I didn’t do.

  2. Vivien says:

    Debbie, your experiences with caffeine and therapeutic diet are empowering. With the diet, I admire that you’re not seeing things in black and white: maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but it’s not locked in like that. I’m doing my best to think more like that.

    For me, the power of small steps hasn’t really been in one big thing, so to speak. I’m actually drawing a huge blank. I literally spent an hour thinking and typing about how small steps are powerful in terms of how I see consistency, uncertainty, rapid changes and epiphanies and then realised that there’s no one specific situation where I have applied it (like caffeine and diet for you) because I’m an all or nothing person. Maybe it’s small steps in overall personal growth?

    1. debbier says:

      It’s hard for me not to be black and white, Vivien, but I’m working on it. I’m working on taking things one day at a time, especially with things that are as daunting as my health can be. I think that small steps when applied to personal growth can be very valuable. I don’t think you need to KNOW right now how this philosophy best applies to your life. Sometimes I learn concepts and they are just that for a while until I have an aha moment about how to best apply them. I get it about being an all or nothing person. I can still be that way, too, but I’m finding I’m happier when I can see shades of gray more often.

  3. Claire says:

    The power of small steps is a lovely companion to another favorite of mine, “everything counts”. It’s crossed my mind that folx with chronic health issues probably end up learning these techniques out of necessity eventually. That said, being able to wield them in our type of culture really is a power, a superpower in fact.

    Speaking of migraines, my amazing new neurologist also ended up diagnosing me with migraine without aura, separate to my other issues, which floored me! I had no idea that the dizziness, vertigo and motion sickness I’ve had forever was related to those horrendous “sinus headaches” I’ve had forever (not to mention the neck and shoulder pain). Using tiny doses of meds has helped so much, including judicious caffeine use as well as meclizine, which is basically just non-drowsy dramamine! I can’t believe how much I’ve endured and suffered when just bits of these OTC substances would have made such a significant difference in my quality of life.

    Anyway I know that’s different than your issue Debbie, which brings me to something else she mentioned… a headband device for migraines called Cefaly, have you heard of it? Also, I will be getting treatment at a bio/neurofeedback clinic this year, and I know they have a device called Alpha-stim for migraines. So far I’ve had good luck with the medication management, probably because I had never tried it and I have a pathological level of nerve sensitivity that can make it possible for me to use very small amounts of medication effectively… but I wonder if these non-pharma modalities could be an option for you? I wanted to mention it at least, since these recommendations came from what I would consider quality sources. xo

    1. Claire says:

      Ok, this popped up when googling Cefaly:

      “Cefaly is an external cranial neurostimulator indicated for the treatment and prevention of migraine and tension headaches. Cefaly is intended for patients who suffer from frequent severe migraines or headaches, especially when drugs consumption is to be reduced. The Cefaly technology can also be used in order to produce a sedative effect.”

      And this is from some info the clinic sent me about Alpha-stim:

      “Alpha-stim is an FDA-regulated electroceutical. Over 100 scientific studies, spanning nearly four decades, document its efficacy. It uses a sub-sensory micro-current for fast, painless results that last about a day. It is designed to use daily, so it serves as a ready rescue and an effective preventative—and the effects are cumulative. Its unique, patented wave-form prevents your body from building up a tolerance; this means if it works for you on day 3, it will still work for you on day 333.”

      Just wanted to give you the info, and sorry if it’s old news to you! I certainly hope this doesn’t come across as overwhelming or trying to help “fix” your medical problems – I know how annoying it is when people make suggestions having only a superficial understanding and no background on one’s particular health profile! Let me know if i have crossed into that territory with you, no offense will be taken and I certainly don’t want to add to your frustrations 🙂

      1. debbie roes says:

        I love the saying “everything counts,” Claire, and I agree that those of us with chronic health issues do need to celebrate our small wins and just focus on doing the best that we can. It is definitely hard to accept doing less in this super achievement oriented culture, though…

        I’m so glad you have found a new neurologist who was able to diagnose and treat you properly. I have had migraine without aura since age 18, but also developed migraine associated vertigo (MAV) in recent years. Fortunately, it hasn’t been as horrible lately, but I know that dizziness and vertigo can be very crippling. It’s wonderful that you have found an effective treatment!

        I have not tried Cefaly yet, but it’s on my radar screen, especially if the ketogenic diet doesn’t help my migraines. It’s supposed to help migraines and other issues, but we’ll see… I also haven’t tried alpha-stim and hadn’t heard of it before you posted about it! I’m wondering if it’s similar to the type of electric stimulation used during acupuncture? I need to find a good neurologist like the one you have. It’s so hard to find the right doctor, as I’m sure you know all too well!

        I appreciate your sharing these options with me. Yes, it can be overwhelming when people try to fix our medical problems, especially when we get the same suggestions over and over again, but I know that it’s most often coming from a good and caring place. I’m glad you shared these resources with me. Cefaly will likely be my next step, but I will keep the alpha-stim in mind as well. Thank you.

  4. Claire says:

    Debbie, if you end up trying the Cefaly I would love to know how it goes. Just because I can tolerate the meds now doesn’t mean I always will! You know, I *know* you’re right about sometimes all those suggestions are coming from a good/caring place. But I think often it’s also coming from plain ignorance, ableism, and quick-fix health idealism culture, which is so very damaging. Here’s an excellent article that delves into some of the nuances if you have the time/inclination to read:
    http://www.themilitantbaker.com/2017/09/fck-health-by-melissa-fabello.html

    Regarding the A-stim, I’m not sure if it’s similar to acupuncture electrostimulation, but I know the clinic prefers non-invasive methods so i don’t think there are any needles involved. If there are, I am out, because I had a very bad reaction the couple times I tried acupuncture – my neurologist said she wasn’t surprised and would not recommend it for me. Yeah, I was so freakin’ lucky to find her! My last neurologists have not been great, and I had to go through quite a process to get in to see the current one. My pcp had to submit my case for review to see if they would even accept me, and even after that it took months to get in. They have an excellent reputation, I think they only take some of the most serious/puzzling of cases. Which is good and bad for me, I guess 🙂

    1. debbie roes says:

      Good points, Claire… I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but you’re right that some comments definitely do not come from a caring place. I think that even the unintentionally hurtful comments (often rooted in ignorance and/or the belief that doctors and healthcare can “fix” most things that are wrong with us besides the “big baddies”) have caused me to be a lot more closed off in what I communicate regarding my health. I am even less open with doctors because of the “blame the patient” mentality that exists in so many of them when they can’t explain our symptoms or fix us with a pill. I finally got around to reading the article you posted (it’s the last day of the month, so I’m reading the February articles I really want to read) and I found it interesting and informative. I wanted to click on some of those “read more” links but I hesitated because of my already existing information overload. I can find them later if I end up thinking about them.

      I have had both good and bad experiences with acupuncture, but much of it seemed pretty benign to me. I didn’t like when they used electrostim with acupuncture a few times, so I asked them not to use it with me. That said, I won’t rule out A-stim as a modality, especially since it’s different.

      I hope you continue to have a positive experience with your neurologist. I’m sad that you join me in the serious/puzzling case category, but I’m happy for you that you found someone who seems to be helping you. I hope the same will be true for me soon as well…

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