It’s that time of year again. The time when you bury yourself in guilt and grief for all the bad habits you promised to displace from the year before, but somehow still cling to like a barnacle to a sunken ship. Rather than revel in your accomplishments you tend to steep in resentment and grief because you are not the person you wish you were. But a new year is coming, and there is hope that you can change for the better. And if health is one of your goals –and for most of us it is– you may have already used your Christmas money to buy new running shoes and a discounted gym membership, because this year, you are going to get in shape, make time for yourself, eat healthy…et al. You may have made this resolution before, many times even. High on your zeal of the opportunity of a “new you”, you start running 4 miles every other day or visit the gym 3 times a week. All of a sudden carbs are evil and you swear to your friends and family that it’s not a diet, it’s a “lifestyle change”. But somehow, your zeal doesn’t hold up and you won’t make it until 2015. Somewhere along the way you will fall flat on your face.
Willow is just learning to walk. When she first started, she would almost try to sprint into my arms and I would have to dive to keep her from all out face planting. But over time she has learned to slow down. It started with just one or two steps at a time. Then a few days later she could take three or four steps. Now she is walking halfway across the room without anyone there to cheer her on. And making drastic changes in your life, is a lot like that. It’s like learning to walk all over again. And, like learning to walk, making changes permanent is most successful with baby steps.
Now at this point you are rolling your eyes at the screen and smirking a little because all you can think about is Dr. Leo Marvin introducing the idea of “baby steps” to his obsessive compulsive and manipulative patient “Bobby” in the classic 90’s cult classic, “What About Bob?”. Imagining yourself walk around saying “baby steps onto the scale” is enough to make you want to throw the “baby steps” out with the bath water. Here, let me refresh you.
Every so often we discover this motivation from some dark, secret place in the universe and it propels us to change our lives in drastic ways –usually for the better– and then we go buck wild, much like my daughter Willow, flailing as fast as we can toward whichever goal we aspire. And maybe it works for a little while, but most of the time, something comes our way and throws us off course or we get burnt out or injured or just plain hungry. And this is my story, many times over.
But recently, I have taken a different approach to health. The practice of spiritual disciplines can be slow and mundane, seeing little to no results in the present, but one year later you look back and you realize that the act of small, simple rituals has made you a completely different person. This is how I view movement towards any kind of lifestyle change. I believe the small choices I make in the present will add up over time. I have taken it slow and have introduced healthy routines gradually.
Currently, I run 3 miles twice a week and workout with Nike Training Club twice a week, recently upping the intensity. But I didn’t start this way. I started with one walk, twice a week. Then I started doing Nike Training Club once a week for 6 weeks. When I could accomplish that without feeling like I was going to completely die, I added jogging every Saturday morning. And so on. Rather than making an abrupt diet change, I just started recording what I ate for every meal, everyday using MyFitnessPal. If I went over in calories, that was fine. What was important was the ritual of recording it daily. But that ritual made me aware of what I was putting in my body. Then slowly I made small changes in my diet in order to stay under my daily calorie allowance. Once I had been successful with that I started looking at the nutritional breakdown of what I was eating. I realized I was eating twice as much sugar as recommended and not nearly enough iron and potassium. But rather than doing this in a week, I spent several months tweaking my habits and choices.
Bobby is right, “baby steps” do work. But you don’t need a new year to take a small step towards a life full of health, you just need one ordinary day. Maybe now you can use your New Year’s resolution to love yourself better or get rid of all of the junk in your house or spend more time with your family or donate time or money to a fitting cause. And next year you will look back and wonder how you have become a changed person.
Keeping Willow by Stacy Feyer-Salo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.