I recently Instagrammed a Pinterest quote. Most of those quotes are sickeningly sentimental or too vague to be useful – what the heck does “When life knocks you down, roll over and look at the stars” even mean? But this one stuck with me: Life is too short to spend another day at war with yourself.
I realized I spend every day fighting battles with myself. What I should do, and what I want to do are in constant contest.
I want to eat that, but I know I shouldn’t.
I don’t want to work out, but I know I should.
I want to buy that, but I know I shouldn’t.
I should get to work on that project, but I don’t want to.
If I choose the path of least resistance, I beat myself up. If I do what I know I should, I’m satisfied for the moment, but usually use my positive choice as an excuse to make a poor one later. The battle rages on.
I’m not unique. A litany of similarly-themed books have been published recently, all touting strategies for forming and sustaining healthy new habits. These books are very popular because the struggle between immediate gratification and future payoff is pretty universal.
As a self-proclaimed self-help addict, I’ve read more than a few of these books. Below are some strategies most of them seem to suggest. I’m trying them out. Hey, if they worked for those success stories who evolved from unhealthy, jobless and companion-less to happily married, marathon running, career women, surely they can work for me. I’m just trying to cut back on my hummus consumption. Seriously, it’s bordering on a medical issue.
Think About Last Time
By this point in your life, you’ve probably developed somewhat of a routine. This likely isn’t the first time you’ve had to decide between working out and Netflix binging. Think back on times when you’ve chosen both. Relive how accomplished you felt after pushing yourself through a difficult workout. And conversely, how disappointed and lethargic you felt after choosing to lounge all day. This will help you choose what you want most (improvement) over what you want now (indulgence).
According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, consistently rewarding yourself is what habit formation is all about. If you consistently receive a small reward after making a good decision, you’ll come to expect, even crave, it and making that decision will eventually become habit. A reward might be something definite, like a break after a period of focused work, or something more intangible, like the happy feeling produced by endorphins after you work out.
This idea seems obvious, but is surprisingly difficult in practice. The inclination is to start big, to do as much as possible in the beginning when your motivation is at its peak. When I start one of my (very cyclical) healthy eating kicks, it’s easy to severely restrict myself during the first few days. I’m happy to only eat copious amounts of kale. But that level of restriction isn’t sustainable. Inevitably, I fall off the wagon and eat an entire bowl of queso. So to develop a sustainable new habit, start small. For healthier eating habits, I should probably just try incorporating a few more fruits and veggies into my diet daily, then move to restricting the bad. To get up earlier (another of my goals), I should try setting my alarm 5 minutes earlier than normal until that becomes routine, then move it back in 5 minute increments until I’m getting up early enough to shower and eat.
Make It Easy
Making good, healthy choices is hard. Don’t make it even harder by tempting yourself. Do work away from your computer screen, or block specific sites, and you’ll be less tempted to procrastinate. Don’t buy a ton of junk at the grocery store; you’ll be less tempted to eat it if it’s not in the house. Have money automatically transferred from your paycheck to your savings account, and you’ll be less tempted to spend it. You get the idea.
Get Rid Of The All Or Nothing Mentality
One setback doesn’t have to derail your progress. Just because you ate a bagel (okay, a bagel and a cupcake) for lunch doesn’t mean the day is a wash – fix a healthy dinner. Just because you only ran 1 mile when your goal was to run 3 doesn’t mean your workout wasn’t beneficial. Just because you overspent this month doesn’t mean your entire budget is busted. I’m a big fan of the mantra “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Of course you should push yourself, but don’t beat yourself up, and don’t let a single failure keep you from trying in the future. You’re not perfect. You’ll never be perfect. But if you consistently make the effort, eventually you’ll be able to do more, have more, and be further along than where you started.
The war between what is best and what is easiest will probably never be won, but hopefully we can all learn to fight a bit smarter.