Baby steps

So I’ve now publicly confessed that I’ve become somewhat more relaxed about sticking to some of the healthy life choices I’d been succeeding with, and have had a good hard look at why it might be a good idea to make some changes to get things back on track (she writes with a glass of wine in one hand).

Good. Recognising that there’s something not right and, very importantly, identifying why I need to fix it is a good first step. But now I actually have to do the hard work, decide what I’m going to do and (shudder) do it!

But where to start?

There are loads of areas I would like to have better habits in, but I know if I try to change everything at once, I’m not going to succeed. It will be too much in too short a time. There’s some reason out there in brain research world about why this is. It’s something to do with our caveman brain getting very agitated if things change too fast, and sabotaging our efforts because Change = Danger. So, the theories go, we have to trick caveman brain into thinking it’s safe by making only very tiny changes that don’t register with it.

If this is right, the baby steps approach is in order. And absolutely no stepping on the cracks, because caveman brain would notice that kind of dangerous behaviour and step in to try and keep me away from danger.

A concept I’ve read about in several places when you’re contemplating trying to make a change is, rather than looking at what you want to do, to ask yourself who you want to be, and then ask yourself what that person would do.

Gretchen Rubin refers to this in her book Better Than Before as “the Strategy of Identity”. The basic idea is that: “Your habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity”.

Ms Rubin gives an example of a way she changed her own thinking:

For years I thought of myself as someone who “hates exercise”, but at some point I realised that I hate sports . . .  I don’t mind exercise .  . .  Thinking of myself as someone who “enjoys exercise” allowed me to change the way I viewed my nature, and that helped me to become a regular exerciser.

Neat hey.

I looked at the main habits that are causing me concern – the afternoon snacking, the extra glass or two of wine every night, and the late nights – and I considered who I wanted to be in relation to those habits. This is what I came up with:

  • I am someone who doesn’t regularly eat food with refined sugar.
  • I am someone who doesn’t drink alcohol at home during the week.
  • I am someone who gets 6-7 hours of sleep a night.

Oooh! Dotpoints! This is serious.

I think that if I tried to become that person in one big swoop, caveman brain would notice and would strongly resist, and I’d fail. Again. So I’ve decided to be that person on Mondays. The rest of the week, caveman brain can stay safe with the familiar.

(Maybe I need a name for caveman brain, which is looking out for my best interests and keeping me safe by making change so damn hard, so that we can become friends. I know it’s just doing what it was programmed to do and thinks it’s acting in my best interests. I mean if I was suddenly jumpscared by a tiger, caveman brain would be right there trying to save me.)

So now, what would dotpoint person do on a Monday?

She would make sure she has a nice healthy snack on hand so that when she gets the after lunch craving, she has something else available. (*Puts almonds on shopping list.*)

She might also think about taking all the cash out of her wallet when she goes out, so it’s slightly more difficult to buy the item in question. (She has a reluctance to EFTPOS small amounts, which might turn out to be a useful thing for this situation.) She also might decide not to walk past any tempting shops when she goes out at lunch time (including a certain clothes store).

James Clear refers to the practice of setting up your environment in a way that will support your desired (healthier) habits as “choice architecture“.

Having succeeded at not indulging in the afternoon, our hero would feel pretty good when she got home. (OK, hero might be overstating things a bit. She resisted eating cake. She didn’t save someone’s life.)

Yep, today she’s someone who doesn’t eat refined sugar. The same someone also doesn’t drink on a school night, but by the time Monday evening comes around, she’s tired and would quite like to relax with an alcoholic beverage. However, she knows that one leads to two leads to three leads to staying up late and being exhausted in the morning.

Knowing the flow-on effect of one drink on her ability to be someone who gets 6-7 hours of sleep, she also has to be someone who doesn’t drink. She has learned about choice architecture, and so she thoughtfully set up her teapot, tea and cup near the kettle, which she filled up before she went to work in the morning. They’re all there, making it easier for her to make the choice to drink tea rather than beer.


She sits with her tea and writes in her journal.

And when her 9.30 pack up alarm* goes off, she doesn’t have half a glass of wine left that inevitably seems to get refilled, or the decreased will power that alcohol appears to inflict on her, and she actually packs up and gets to bed by 10pm.

A successful mission.

These are the smallest of baby steps. In isolation, this is no big achievement. It will only benefit me if I keep being this person every Monday. I’ve already noticed how much better I feel on a Tuesday when I’ve had more sleep than I get on other nights. Wednesday morning me wants to be like Tuesday me, so Tuesday me will have to have almonds instead of cake and herbal tea instead of beer, and will have to go to bed on time. And within a few weeks, I’ll be that person I want to be without caveman brain Betty having noticed.

It sounds easy. I’m sure it won’t be. So, in the spirit of trying new things out, this is an experiment to find out if thinking about who I want to be rather than what I want to do is an effective way to change a habit.

If you think this might be a helpful strategy for a habit you want to change, tell me about it in the comments, and we can cheer each other on.

Who do you want to be?

* The packup alarm is supposed to remind you that you need to be getting up in 6/7/8 hours, and that it’s time to pack up, turn your screens off and go to bed. I have several of them. I ignore every single one and carry on. (Bedtime alarms really is a thing. Google “bedtime alarm”.)

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