Many of us know that we should make some health related changes in our lives but the days past and nothing happens. Or maybe we even state the intention but somehow our intent fizzles out with the stress and overwhelm of our day to day living. And there is no doubt about it, making healthy changes in our lifestyle involves tradeoffs. We will have to give up some short term gains, some instant gratification for some future benefits that are nebulous at best. It is hard to give away our instant gratifications for benefits that may not come to fruition for years. But it can be done. And not through anything called willpower or self discipline. I’m suggesting we make little shifts in our lives, little baby steps that will create a ripple effect and gradually lead us where we want to go.
You’ve heard of the ripple effect, haven’t you? You throw a pebble into a pool of calm water and ripples occur around the pebble as it sinks. Those ripples continue from where the pebble sank until they reach the shore. There may even be some unintended consequences from the pebble being thrown and the ripples occurring. A turtle sunning himself on a log may have ripples wash up against his log and spook him into diving into the water.
Our daily habits, our behaviors, our choices are ripples in our pool of life. They go on and on beyond the pebble of our behavior and sometimes even have unintended consequences. For this reason, we need to spend a little time considered these habits, behaviors, choices. The words habits, behaviors, and choices used here are different words but they essentially mean the same thing.
So the next time something happens that gives you the idea of making a healthy lifestyle change, catch that thought and consider it. Make a list of what you think will probably happen if you keep your habits and behaviors exactly like they are right now. How will your life be 5, 10, 20, or 30 years from now if you continue doing exactly what you are doing now in this area of your life? If you were able to change your current habits and behaviors in this area to healthier habits and behaviors, what benefits do you think you will see 5, 10, 20, or 30 years down the road? Write the benefits down in detail. Then make a list of what you would have to give up in your life to make the change you are considering. Consider the pros and cons and be sure making the change is worth it before you put forth the effort.
Now let’s consider a small shift or baby step in the direction of the healthy lifestyle change we really want to make. Perhaps you need to lose weight because you have sleep apnea or high blood pressure. Your goal is to lose weight but the idea may be so overwhelming you can’t even consider it. But could you perhaps write down everything you eat for 3 days? At the end of the 3 days you could take a small amount of time to look over your food diary. What do you see that could be easily changed? Are you doing a lot of mindless eating right out of the snack bag? And before you realize it, the entire bag of chips or whatever is gone? Did you enjoy eating the bag of chips or did it disappear without you even realizing what you were eating? Do you down multiple sodas throughout the day? If you switched to unsweetened ice tea or water with a slice or two of lemon or lime in it, would you actually feel all that deprived? You may see multiple areas that you could change to be healthier but just pick one action for now. For instance, you may consider giving up sodas or having only one hamburger when you go through the fast food drive-thru instead of your usual 2 or 3. Choose that one step and make a commitment to yourself. Set up a calendar or a spreadsheet where you can keep track of your successes and failures in this area for three weeks. Why three weeks? Because it takes at least 21 days to create a new habit. Review your list of pros and cons frequently while you are creating your new habit. It doesn’t have to be a major overhaul, just a small step in the direction you want your life to be moving toward.
After you decide on your action, you need to consider what needs to be put in place to make this shift, this step, this action easier for you. If you are in the habit of going to the vending machine multiple times during the day for a soda, you will need to have a substitute chosen and in place. Is there bottled water in the vending machine as well as soda? Or do you need to buy a bottle you can fill at home and carry back and forth to work? Or do you need to buy a case of bottled water and put it in your locker at work? Identify ahead of time where you are going to have difficulty and come up with a contingency plan to make things easy for yourself. Plan something special for yourself as a reward when you succeed with your action.
Once you have successfully changed this one small area, you are ready to pick another small area to work on. Again, use your calendar or spreadsheet to keep track of your day by day successes and failures. After you have created a few small healthy changes the ripple effect from these changes will make it easier for you to make more and bigger changes.