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
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:
- Having an epiphany
- Changing our environment
- 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.