Change. Life’s great constant. Humans possess a remarkable ability to shape their circumstances in life. While there is no doubt that there exists a great many factors in life over which people have no control—circumstances of birth, the past, what others think, life and death, catching up with the Joneses—there also exists a good many things in life over which they can exert some degree of control—personal associations, health and wellness, treatment of others, diet and exercise, a daily routine. In fact change so preoccupies daily routines that entire industries have been built around it: “lose thirty pounds in thirty days”, “be more productive tomorrow”, “become a better you now”, “make perfect caramelized onions in five minutes”. However, instant panaceas don’t work; attempting to change everything all at once or too quickly will almost certainly lead to failure. Think of all the unused gym memberships and failed resolutions after the “January high” wears off: “I’m going to eat right, go to the gym, lose that weight, be more productive, make those onions, and I’m going to do it all today.” Sure. See you back at the pub for “wing-ding Wednesdays” February 1st. Yet, there are those that manage to make permanent changes to their lifestyles. They do this not by buying into and sticking to the “change now” mentality, but by realizing that significant, meaningful change only happens over time. Success = Small changes + persisting in them + adding more only when achieving success in small things + repeating the process. She persisted; and over time became a radically new person and inspired others.
In an October, 2016 Freakonomics podcast, “In Praise of Incrementalism”, host Steven Dubner points to some interesting yet not-so-obvious parallels in history:
What do Renaissance painting, civil-rights movements, and Olympic cycling have in common? In each case, huge breakthroughs came from taking tiny steps. In a world where everyone is looking for the next moonshot, we shouldn’t ignore the power of incrementalism.
Dubner uses Team Sky, the British Cycling team, as one example to make his point. It wasn’t about training two or three extra hours a day or finding some new technique that made riders stronger or faster—yes, we’re all aware of the doping scandal in cycling—it was all about minor alteration: sending in a team ahead of the cyclists to disinfect the room: bringing their own mattresses and pillows for comfort and cleanliness: going to bed and waking the same time every day: washing their hands. The thinking behind this was not that all this would win a Tour de France or an Olympic medal in and of itself, rather, the thinking was that if the team could stay healthy, avoiding something as simple and ordinary as a common cold or the flu, they would have an edge over other teams who may be more illness-prone due to travel fatigue and a foreign environment. And guess what? It worked. In the team’s first five years of existence it won two Tours. Applying the philosophy of incrementalism to the things that lie within our power to change, to everyday routines, leads to a healthier, happier, more productive lifestyle.
Establish a routine with variety
Perhaps a quick word about what this does not mean. Establishing a routine does not necessarily mean that a body must perform the same tasks at the same time every day, and besides, busy or hectic schedules might not allow for that. Although, a sleep schedule might be the one exception to this—more on that later. Instead, incorporate variety into the daily routine. Happiness studies reveal that variety is indeed the spice of life: take the long way to work on Monday, and a different route on Wednesday: try going left on your favorite hiking trail instead of right: hike or walk in the evening instead of the morning: try something new at your favorite lunch spot: try a new lunch spot. Change is, quite literally, the rhythm of life, so go with it. C.S. Lewis, in his Screwtape Letters, writes about the rhythm of change:
And since [people] need change, [God] … has made change pleasurable to them … He gives them the seasons, each season is different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.
For the present author, God might just as well be Nature (capital “N”). But Lewis’ point has less to do with God than it does with the suggestion of an integral relationship between constancy and change. Find the rhythm of the whole in the undulation of the parts, he seems to say. It’s not about throwing everything out and seeking a new climate, but finding pleasure, joy, passion, in the weather of today and of each season.
Change has the additional benefit of slowing life down. Have you ever noticed that going someplace new always takes longer than coming home? One theory posed by neuroscience suggests that the brain processes old, familiar information much more quickly than information it encounters for the first time. In other words, it doesn’t have to work as hard to interpret old info. Language is a pretty good example. Consider the time it takes to use context clues to figure out the meaning of a new phrase in a text, or how everything stops upon hearing a new phrase in a conversation, such as philoerection—when the hairs on your arms stand up. (Lack of exposure to new language can be quite detrimental; in fact, such a deficiency dramatically effects developing brains of young children to such a degree that by the age of five, children born to less affluent parents will be exposed to 30,000,000 fewer words, yes, 30 million, than their more affluent peers. For details, check out this study by Brookings.) Learning new things, throwing variety into the same old same old, and doing so regularly, establishes the undulatory pattern of variety and sameness so essential for a happy, healthy life. So, add variety, slow down, and relish each moment. Life is way too short not to.
Being productive by establishing a routine does require setting a schedule. Try waking up and going to bed at roughly the same time each day—preferably early. Personally, I set my alarm for 4:05 a.m. and have my head on the pillow by nine each night. Those extra five minutes please me psychologically, in the same manner that keeping the lights off in the summer makes the room cooler. I’m a little lazy too, and rising any time before 4:05 seems a little absurd. Also, I don’t role out of bed right away because waking up is hard. I figure, by the time I rise, put on my slippers, shuffle down the hall and make my coffee, it’ll be close to 4:15 or 4:30. Whatever time I sit down to write, though, I know that I’ve already accomplished my first task of the day, and that gets me motivated to do more, such as take a quick walk and say hello to my friends down the street, perhaps. We have turkeys that roost in the trees about a quarter mile from here. I like listening to them speak and watching them glide down through the branches in the dawn light. Make the bed: brush the teeth: shower before starting any chores or leaving the house: pop a quick load of laundry in the wash: do all the things, and stuff—I heard at least some of that in a commencement speech I think. Kurt Vonnegut maybe. Perhaps that sounds like some ridiculous advice coming from a grown ass man, but really, it’s part of the process, and the more items I can check off my list in quick succession the more accomplished I feel. The more you do, the more you’ll do, as they say—I don’t know who they are, but that’s what they say. Also, rising early allows for more free time later in the day. If I can get an hour or two of writing in, take my walk, respond to emails and do one or two other work-related items before seven, when I usually wake up the kids to get them ready for school, I have more time throughout the rest of the day to pleasure myself. By which I mean, for pleasure-related activities such as hiking or climbing—naturally.
Purchase a small notebook or journal, something that can fit in a shirt or pants pocket and use it to make lists and/or write little notes and reminders to yourself. The temptation exists in our modern world to go digital with everything, but in this case a hand-written list is preferable to a digital one. The brain remembers more when the body performs mental and physical tasks together. This is true for reading too, and physical books beat e-readers in terms of brain performance. You literally use more of your brain when reading a traditional book or writing something down by hand. Ever tried to recall a recent passage from a book and thought, “yeah, it’s about half way through the book, on the left facing page about three quarters of the way down”? The brain’s temporal lobe works to make sense of space, but that type of temporal space does not exist in infinite-scroll layout. Also, creating lists, no matter how short, no matter how seemingly insignificant the items are (making your bed, for instance), allows you to set goals for the day, and checking them off allows you to see the progress you are making which will inspire you. Making lists literally increases brain function and makes you smarter—incrementally.
Do mundane, necessary chores more frequently
From step one, you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done before the sun rises if you’re willing to set your alarm that early. While step two allows you to measure your little successes. Remember, it’s all about the little successes, not the moonshots. Time management experts often point to starting early and tracking progress as markers of productivity. They also recommend cutting out, or down on, distractions in the workplace. For example: don’t plan unnecessary meetings, cut out the digital disruptions, and use time blocks to meet and manage productivity goals. But what about the minutiae of life outside the office?
The so-called productivity experts frequently neglect shopping in their list of items to cut back or down on: grocery shopping, specifically. The average consumer in the U.S. spends a little over forty minutes in the store and makes 1.5 trips to the market per week. Add in the time spent driving to and from the store and putting those groceries away and on average people are spending well over one week per year of their life in the market. Therefore, make smaller, more frequent trips to the market. Shopping three or four times a week has two major benefits.
First, shopping frequently saves money. It ensures that consumers only buy what they need when they need it, or, at the very least, keeps impulse buying to a minimum. Corporations spend millions researching ways to get shoppers to purchase more items. For instance, have you ever noticed the maze-like organization of IKEA’s aisles? That’s purposeful. IKEA has discovered that cutomers make impulse purchases at higher rates when they feel confused or lost. Or how about the slow music in grocery stores? Slower music has the effect of making you slow down, taking more time in the store, thus increasing the likelihood of consumers spending more of their cash. That being said, returning every couple of days, rather than once a week, and purchasing only those items written down in that little notebook that has been so astutely purchased, means shoppers are less likely to make purchases that aren’t a real necessity.
Shopping at shorter intervals also means less waste. Buying less not only includes a greater likelihood of consuming everything purchased, but also less of a likelihood of throwing something out due to spoilage, because the hamburg for the meat loaf purchased on Saturday isn’t being cooked on Thursday.
Second, shopping more frequently saves time. Saturday and Sunday shoppers spend more time in the store because that’s when everyone shops. Moreover, and as mentioned, waiting all week means a longer list, which also means a greater likelihood of forgetting something or buying on impulse. Those who shop more frequently spend less time in the store and have fewer groceries in their cart, which will translate to less time putting groceries in the car and fewer trips with those groceries from the car to the house. Additionally, frequent shoppers spend a fraction of the time putting those groceries away. Those minutes add up. The market in my hometown offers its customers the option of taking groceries home in the empty cardboard boxes from unloading their stock. Bang! One shot from the store to the car to the house and no plastic bags—or is that three shots? Recycle the box and your helping the environment as well. By my own estimates I rarely spend more than fifteen minutes in the market, and never more than five or ten minutes putting those groceries away. So much time for activities!
Step 4: Exercise and diet (sadly, a necessity)
Again, baby steps. Remember that gym membership going to waste? Don’t set ridiculous goals or make foolish purchases, such as running five miles a day or buying a treadmill; instead, start by getting outside once a day, for any length of time, even five minutes. Find a green space; those are best for both mental and physical health. In the highly unlikely circumstance that a green space can’t be found, consider other options. Remember, little things such as parking a little farther from the front door of the super-tore or taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator add up over the course of an entire day. Do not join a gym. Get outside. Nature is good for you, free, and you’ll save yourself both time and money in the process. Use an app on your smart phone—it’s okay to use tech here—to set daily goals and track your progress. Increase that goal over time as you begin to see yourself hitting the goal more and more frequently. If you’re just starting out aim for thirty minutes to an hour a day over the whole day: don’t worry about doing it all at once, you can always step it up later. Once you master getting out every day and find yourself gaining in the desire and ability to do more, only then increase the rigor and frequency of your routine.
In terms of food, stick to that hearty breakfast—for now. However, consider cutting back slightly on the ingredients. For omelet lovers switch to one egg instead of two, or two instead of three; it all depends on current daily intake. Cut back to one piece of toast. The same goes for any breakfast meats. Use peanut butter on a bagel instead of cream cheese. Add fresh fruit to waffles instead of chocolate chips. Baby steps.
Presumably, everyone knows that fast food should be cut out altogether. We know that, right? Right? That one might be the hardest. Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with fast food. Instead of “I’m lovin’ it”, McDonald’s motto ought to be, “I’m regrettin’ it”. For those who find themselves eating lunch on the run, grabbing something from the fast food joint two or three times a week, try going only once or twice, and order from the dollar menu instead of getting a full-sized meal. This does mean packing a lunch from home more regularly, which will require planning and time. Hey, remember that notebook and all that extra time from shopping more frequently rather than less? You did remember the fresh fruit, right? Use some of that time to cut up fruit and store it in air tight containers. Especially more “labor intensive” fruits such as kiwis, melons, or strawberries. In other words, fruits that involve more than simply peeling a skin such as a banana or an orange. Avoid canned fruits in light or heavy syrups. We know that, right? Right? Pick at those fruits while cooking breakfast or prepping lunch—this will put fresh and healthy food in your belly, meaning it will take less of that lumberjack breakfast (is lumber jack one word or two?) to get full. This will also give you a source of much needed fiber. Some studies suggest that as many as 95% of Americans don’t get enough fiber. Your poops will be amazing—trust me, you’ll thank me later. For those on the run, throw some of these already prepared fruits into a smaller to-go container and take them with to munch in the car. Also, keep some food in the car. Seriously. A small bag of trail mix with chocolates, raisins, and mixed nuts really helps with cravings and will help you make it home without having to stop for a snack at a fast food joint. Plus, nuts are an excellent source of healthy fats (and fiber—I like to poop), particularly almonds. Incorporating these habits in small doses ensures a higher likelihood of success in the long run.
According to SAMHSA (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) there are eight dimensions of wellness. They are: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, spiritual. In no way has this essay attempted to encompass all eight dimensions. This “guide” suggests a way to begin thinking about how to effectively maintain positive change and implies that small and persistent changes made over time will lead to long term, larger, more significant changes: getting outside to exercise leads to a connection with the Earth (spiritual health): improving physical health leads to emotional health: slowing down means learning new things (intellectual health): saving a few bucks and a little time shopping leads to a healthier financial state: achieving small goals in life outside of work transfers to work itself (occupational health); and starting out on the road to wellness may lead to a healthy and supportive community by seeking out and finding others of like mindedness (social health). It can happen, and it will, given time. But it takes a long-term commitment. There is no thirty-day solution. Falling down will be part of the process. “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Yeah, I just quoted Rocky bitch!
Change can’t be stopped, so why fight it? Roll with it. But incorporate that change slowly, a little at a time, incrementally. People often fail at a lifestyle change because they try to do too much, or too little; in part because capitalism sells us a vision of change now: “Thirty days to a better body”, “Be more productive tomorrow”, “The ten-day diet”, “Pay off your mortgage in five years”: and it’s all a complete pile of horseshit. Fundamental change, real change, takes time and years of effort; but one must start somewhere.
What little (or big) things do you struggle with? How have you overcome them? And remember to get out there.