I am in the middle of a fairly significant lifestyle change. As part of my plan to retire in ten years, one of the things I wanted to do was get myself back into shape. When I retire, I want to be healthy and active. Being in good mental and physical shape are big part of this. It means changing habits that I’ve had for many years, and in some cases, for decades and changing habits, for me at least, is always difficult. There are two aspects to this. A new habit can be doing something new. It can also be to stop doing something that I had been doing. So I thought it might be useful to talk about how I form new habits.
Writing about habits abstractly is never helpful to me, so I want to start with specifics. What habits was I looking to form? Brace yourself. The list is a bit daunting, at least to me.
- Give up sugared soft drinks
- Give up caffeine
- Start a daily meditation practice
- Start a healthy diet that will help me stay lean and full of energy
- Start exercising daily
- Write every day
Mapping habits to goals
I usually begin with goals. Before I am ready to begin forming new habits, I need a reason to change. What are those reasons? In my case, my mission statement was along the lines of “Retire in ten years and be able to write full time.” That’s what I began with. From there I asked myself a lot of questions about what it meant to retire, to write full time. For me, writing requires stamina. It is not like my day job where I stop thinking about it (usually) at the end of the day. I am constantly writing in my head, constantly wondering about things, and constantly reading to pique my interest in things that I want to write about. All that work can be exhausting. Then, too, I didn’t want to be someone who retired and settled into a sedentary routine. My routine is more sedentary today than I am comfortable with. So I took that mission statement and came up with some fairly abstract goals:
- Be in the best physical shape that I can manage so that I have the energy to do what I want to do.
- Find a good mental balance: especially, reducing my anxiety, being more empathetic, and open to new ideas.
- Be the best writer I can possibly be.
Now, these aren’t necessarily SMART goals, but they are good enough for my purposes for getting started. The next thing to do was figure out what I needed to do (or stop doing) to start down a road toward these goals. This is where the habits come in. Mapping them to the goals would look something like this:
|Be in the best physical shape I can manage||Give up sugared soft drinks|
Give up caffeine
Start a healthy diet
|Find a good mental balance||Start a daily meditation practice|
|Be the best writer I can be||Write every day|
Where to start: order of operations
I know from past experience that no matter how much I want to jump in and change everything at once, that is a recipe for failure. So I needed to pick a place to start. Having a long lead time helped me in this regard. After all, I’ve got ten years to retirement (3,755 days, if anyone besides me is counting). There is no need to rush things. Rather, I’d prefer to get this right and allow time for the inevitable adjustments. I ranked the habits I wanted to change from what I considered to be hardest to easiest. Here is the order I came up with:
- Giving up sugared soft drinks.
- Giving up caffeine.
- Starting a daily meditation practice
- Starting a healthy diet
- Exercising daily
- Writing every day
Let me talk about my rationale for this order. I’ve given up caffeine before. At one point, between 2003 and 2010 or so, I’d given up caffeine for 7 years. It was only when we had kids that I began using it again to give me that boost I needed after some sleepless nights with the babies. So I knew I could do it. Knowing that is half the battle, so I didn’t think it would be the most difficult change.
On the other hand, I’d been drinking Coca Cola all my life. I loved it, and still do. I’d hated the diet versions of soft drinks, and wondered why anyone drank them if they tasted so badly. Even when I gave up caffeine, I still drank Caffeine-Free Coke, or Sprite, or other non-diet soft drinks. I figured giving up the sugared soft drinks would be the most difficult for me.
Meditation was another tough sell for me. I couldn’t imagine taking time out of my day, every day, to sit and do nothing. Where was the value in that? I figured getting into that habit would be difficult.
The other three were all familiar to me. I’d worked with a trainer fifteen years ago, and gotten into good shape. I learned to eat better than I had been (although not great). And of course, I had at one point an 825-day consecutive writing streak, so I knew I could write every day.
The next step was to pick a habit and get started. But my mind doesn’t quite work like that.
Warming up to a habit
Whenever I am thinking about starting a new habit, I never just start it cold. It takes warming up. It is often this way for a story, too. I’ll think about it and think about it, but not feel ready. With writing stories, the key I’ve learned over the years is not to get started until I feel ready, until there is a click in my head that says, yeah, now it’s time. The same it true with starting a habit. I could go months thinking about the change I want to make (and often feeling guilty about not making it) but if I start and I haven’t warmed up to it, then I know it won’t last. I have dozens of examples of this in my own experience.
One day last spring, however, at the outside of the Pandemic, when things were looking particularly bleak, something in my head clicked and I was ready to start a daily meditation practice.
A few months later, feeling desperate to lose some weight, I finally felt ready to give up diet soft drinks. These are actually two useful examples because they illustrate the paths that different habits can take. After some experimentation, for instance, I found that I could tolerate Cherry Coke Zero, and once I realized I could do that, I simply gave up sugared soft drinks and started drinking Cherry Coke Zero instead. Within two months I lost something like 18 pounds without changing anything else. It was eye-opening.
It wasn’t quite as dramatic with the meditation, however. I managed to build a daily practice, but after a few months, I felt like I wasn’t seeing any real progress on my part, and I gave it up for a time. Eventually, I came back to it, and it was then that I began to notice some of the changes it brought about in me. I was calmer during the day, less anxious, more open. It was slow and subtle, but I could feel the changes. Feedback like losing weight or feeling the anxiety start to slip away after meditating is self-reinforcing. What I to learn was that not every habit works at the same speed. Sometimes I really have to keep at it before you start to notice a change, and during that time, I just have to believe that it is going to help, even if I don’t see changes right away.
By mid spring of this year I’d been off sugared sodas for half a year, and I had a regular meditation practice. The next thing I began to think about was giving up caffeine.I knew this would be tough but I also knew I could do it. I just needed to warm up to it. And so over a period of weeks, I did that, telling myself it was time, but also telling myself that “this was my last caffeinated drink” quite a few times. (Looking back I see several journal entries from the day following such proclamations with things like, “Well, that didn’t work out too well.”) Finally, on April 16, I began to feel ready. I wrote this in my journal for that day:
On my walk today I began thinking that maybe I needed to give up caffeine again. I don’t know why I feel the need to give something up. Today I was thinking about it in terms of sleeping better. Maybe I’d sleep much better without the caffeine… if I do give it up it will have to be on Sunday because I feel like I am going to need caffeine to get through tomorrow.
This is typical for me in two ways. First, I’m usually ready when I write it down and give myself a deadline. I’d been thinking about giving up caffeine for some time, but it wasn’t until I wrote it down that I knew I was ready. Second, I always give myself a last hurrah, often hidden as an excuse to start the new habit at the beginning of the week. But on that Sunday, April 18, I started the day with orange juice instead of a caffeinated drink, and I haven’t had caffeine since.
So I’d tackled meditation, sugared soft drinks, and caffeine. I let those settle in for a while before I decided to tackle the next two items: a healthy diet and daily exercise. Typically, I need to make sure that a habit is set before moving onto the next. And I avoid trying to being more than one new habit at a time, but in this case, diet and exercise go hand in hand. I’d been warming up to both for some time and around the time I was writing my post on Project Sunrise, I knew I was ready. I’d done a bunch of research and decided to tackle the slow-carb diet. I started this a week ahead of exercise just to avoid too much at once.
There are two things I like about the slow-carb diet: first, I can be a few meals that I eat regularly and so in addition to losing weight and fat, and slimming down, I also have less decision fatigue. Second, cheat day! The first week went well, so on this past Sunday, I began to develop my exercise habit.
Habits themselves can be incremental. When I last worked out regularly, with a trainer, I was 15 years younger than I am today. What I did not want to do was injure myself at the outset. So I decided to be incremental about exercise. I would exercise 6 days a week (my cheat day would also be my day off). Rather than start with a mix of cardio and weights, I decided to begin exclusively with stretching. I researched videos I could watch and then on Sunday, I did my first 30 minute stretching workout. And wow, I felt as flexible as a steel bar when compared to the person leading the workout. But I kept reminding myself that it takes time, and for some habits, more time than others to see results. Every day makes a difference. And so I repeated my stretching exercise last night, and will do it again tonight.
My plan going forward is to continue the stretching routine 6 days away for the next two to three weeks. After that, I’ll layer in cardio 3 days a week, and after a few weeks of that, I’ll add in light strength training on the 3 days I’m not doing cardio.
What about writing? That’s a tricky one because it is so difficult to judge if I am improving. There are two things that I can do and that I have been doing pretty well at so far this year. First, I can write every day. I am writing this post on the 194th consecutive day that I have written this year, for instance. The second things I can do is get my writing in front of an audience and take what feedback I can manage to find. So far, in the first 194 days of 2021, I’ve published 213 posts totaling 128,000 words. I’d say that’s pretty good practice on both counts. I’m not sure there is more that I could do, except to keep it up.
One thing that helps me maintain my habits is tracking them. There is a benefit to this, as well as a cost for me. The benefit is in seeing the day-to-day progress, and patting myself on the back for a particular streak. An added benefit is looking closely at the data to see if there are things I can do to improve.
These days, I have a notebook that I use to log all of this. A typical page looks like this:
Along the way, I’ve been making little notes to myself about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve noted when I felt hungry or a craving, which workouts were tough and which too easy. I’m hoping that these notes will help me make informed adjustments along the way.
I used to track habits like this in a spreadsheet, so that I could see the unbroken streak (the Seinfeld method). But one thing I learned from my 825-day writing streak is that the streak itself becomes an end, and it weighs upon me. I’d rather focus on getting things right each day, and not worry so much about the streak or consecutive days. If I miss a day, it is a lot easier for me to recover when the streak doesn’t mean much, but the habit does.
Planning for the unexpected
I’ve found that habits work really well in regular, repeatable environments, but things can go sideways if something changes. What if I am traveling? What if we have plans one evening when I am supposed to do my workout? What if we go to a restaurant during the week? Or what if we go to a friend’s house for dinner and it isn’t my cheat day? In addition to settling into these new habits incrementally, I’ve also tried to think about these alternatives so that I don’t go into these situations cold. I have a plan, simple as it may be. One example of this is illustrated on my morning routine.
Then, too, as new situations arise, I made adjustments, note what works and what doesn’t and revise these plans. Just knowing that I have some idea of what to do in these common edge cases helps to take the edge off of them.
It has taken me nearly fifty years to get to the point where I understand how habits work for me. Maybe I am slow learner in this regard, and I certainly haven’t perfected this particular adventure. But I am trying to be honest about it this time. In my notebook I note my successes, but I also highlight my failures. For the latter, I try to learn from them and adjust.
The other thing I am constantly trying to keep in mind is that these habits build slowly. Some are faster than others (it took me about three weeks before I felt I no longer craved caffeine), but generally, the end goal comes slowly. Fortunately I’ve got time to improve and I’m hoping to use that time as best as I can.
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