How to Make a Lifestyle Change Last
There’s all kinds of talk these days about making “lifestyle changes”. Usually, they are healthy changes, done through a diet or health program. Things like changing meal portion size, get more exercise, using the stairs more often, drinking less soda, eating fewer sweats, change your diet, etc, etc.... The changes often seem like things that we should all be able to do. They seem simple because, on any given day, they ARE simple! These kinds of “lifestyle” changes are very easy to do once, or for short periods of time. But as they say, old habits die hard, and making *permanent* changes is hard. The only way to really make a “lifestyle change” is to change habits. And what’s the most effective way to do that? Easily!
A habit is like a pair of leather shoes. If you’ve had them for a while, then they’ve been broken in, they fit you just right, and they are comfortable. When you put on a new pair, they are stiff, awkward, uncomfortable, and they just don’t feel natural. It’s really hard to leave the old pair behind. But over time, they break in. When you try to change your habits, it can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Going back to old habits is more comfortable, but if you give it time, you can break in your new habit.
Examples of lifestyle changes:
- Eat healthier
- Exercise more
- Lose weight
Examples of major lifestyle changes:
- Exercise every day
- Rreduce stress
- Lower your blood pressure
- Lower your cholesterol
Asking Too Much
Often, the problem with making lifestyle changes is that the changes are too big. Like the approach I see so often on TV where someone’s lifestyle is overhauled, and they are expected to stick to it. Even the small steps that are often recommended are often too big. A bigger change is like stiffer leather in those new shoes. The stiffer the leather, the harder they are to wear. Going from a sedentary lifestyle, with little exercise, to a lifestyle including four 1-hour workouts per week is a big change. Leather that stiff is really hard to keep wearing. In the long run, a lot of us fail when trying to make a change like that.
So, why are we asking ourselves to make changes so big? It’s our need for instant gratification. The truth is, if we really were to make these kinds of changes permanently, they would work! A lot of research goes into what changes we can make to improve ourselves. So, there is no question that they can be effective. But they still take time. And we want to see the improvement instantaneously, so we make a big change, only to find it too hard to stick with it for the long haul.
So, right off the bat, we wear those extra stiff leather shoes all the time, and before you know it, we are in so much pain from the blisters and bruises, that we give up and go hobbling back to our comfy old shoes (or habits).
Lifestyle Changes for the Rest of Us
For the normal, non-superhuman, there is an easier way to make lifestyle changes. The only things you need are a non-propensity for doing things that are hard (got it!), and (gulp) patience.
If you want to make a permanent lifestyle change, it needs to be easy. It needs to feel comfortable and natural. It can’t be a struggle. If maintaining a change is a struggle, then it will not last. If a change is easy and natural, it will last.
Chip Away the Stone
The easiest changes to make in your life are small ones. If you chip away at an old habit, it will eventually be gone with out you even noticing (kinda like the main character’s cell wall in The Shawshank Redemption). It's the only sure-fire way to make a large change to anything: one little bit at a time.
A Simple Example
Let’s take a simple example of one of my own lifestyle changes: cutting down on coffee and caffeine. If you’re a coffee junkie, you might think I’m crazy. But this particular goal isn’t really all that important. What’s important is how I was able to make the change permanently.
I’ve given up coffee 3 times. I can’t stand to drink coffee black, so I use a lot of cream and sugar, which means fat and calories with every cup. So wanting to eat healthier, and having overdone caffeine a few adverse reactions to too much caffeine, made me want to cut back.
Each time I gave it up, I was fine for a period of time. I’d be tired, and it would take some getting used to, but I could do it. After a while though, life would get busy, and I’d get so exhausted that I would have a cup “just to get me by”. Then it was another cup. And the next thing you know, my no-coffee goal was a bust, and I was drinking coffee again. I always went back to it, because the change I was trying to make was too big. ...even though it’s only coffee.
The Right Way to Change
I was only able to make a real change by being more patient and deliberate. I followed these simple steps:
- Find an adequate replacement. If you want to reduce or remove something in your life, replace it with something else. Make sure to fill that void.
- Make the change gradually; chip away that stone. Don’t go “cold-turkey” unless you have to
- Be patient, and plan for a gradual change that takes a long time (months, or even years)!
- Find a way to make it part of your routine.
- Don’t give anything up completely if you don’t have to. You’ll miss something less if you know you can indulge occasionally.
How I followed The Steps
So, in my case, I followed those steps to drink less coffee.
Step 1. I decided to replace coffee with tea. Tea is better for you anyway, with all of its anti-oxidants and natural health benefits. There are also lots of options, flavors, and levels of caffeine (including ‘none’, if I want).
Step 2. I made the change gradually. I started by learning about the different types of teas out there and how to prepare it. But I didn’t jump right into having tea all the time. Since part of my goal was to cut back on caffeine, I started by switching to ½-caff (1/2 decaf). It was still coffee, so it didn’t seem like a change. Easy!
Then I introduced tea by having it once in a while. This helped me get used to drinking it, and would give me a chance to try different kinds of teas over time. I tried lots of different kinds of teas, over a couple of years, until I found some green teas that I liked without needing cream or sugar.
Step 3. I made it part of my routine by having it at my desk at work. It worked out well, because the coffee at work is terrible, so NOT drinking it was, you guessed it, EASY. Having tea right at my desk makes it just as convenient as grabbing a cup of coffee, if not moreso.
I’m still experimenting with different flavors, but I have 2-3 cups of tea every day, and I only drink coffee on the weekends.
Step 4. I still have ½-caff coffee on the weekends, and occasionally during the week. But I’m OK with it, because the vast majority of my coffee intake has been replaced with tea, a much healthier alternative.
After doing all of these things over several years, I am now down to 1 to 3 cups of coffee each week, and it’s always ½-caff, so the caffeine is down to about 1 cup! That’s down from 2 to 3 cups every day, or 15 to 20 cups per week. That’s a 90% reduction! It just took a long time.. :)
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