A friend of mine, who shall remain unnamed, seems to be caught in a loop of big actions, often accompanied with even bigger announcements, all while featuring unhealthy impatience and the tendency to give up after a few weeks, if not days. One of their goals is weight loss and I get the occasional message informing me about the latest dietary rules they imposed on themselves. “No more fried stuff, need to get back in shape for the summer” lasted less than a week due to lack of results. “Vegetables two times per day minimum, the feasting stops immediately” started promising, I even received unsolicited evidence in the form of meal photos at a rate that would make the Instagram server jealous. Then the weekend came and the rule disappeared as fast food and burgers lured my friend in. “Six gym sessions every week! No exceptions, must shed the pounds now!” almost scared me until we approached day 3 and I realized my friend went on a beach vacation and the gym was far away, physically and mentally.
Now, there would be a lot to unpack here and I will refrain from practicing layman psychology. However, I want to point out one aspect of the problem which is the lack of patience. Patience can be the key to success when we are trying to change our behavior, want to introduce a new habit or outright reinvent ourselves. Thanks to the body’s ability to adapt and repair, combined with the vast opportunities that life-long neuroplasticity offers, we can basically reprogram ourselves. There’s a caveat, though: It requires patience. A lot of patience!
Unfortunately, there is a homeostasis like stability in starting something new (e.g. a dietary change) and inflated expectations of early results (e.g. weight loss, shape changes). From a sustained improvement perspective a lack of patience is the ultimate killer of all ambitions, especially the big ones. Impatience stops success in its tracks and can harm our mood and self esteem badly – after all, something was bothering us enough to make a first step and we (once again) failed. High expectations aren’t bad per se. High expectations on a compressed timeline are, however, what throws us back into inertia quicker than we left it behind. We have to give ourselves time. A lot of time!
Story time! I myself had an on and off relationship with weight loss. After I left the military my physical activity went down to 30-50 minutes of strenuous exercise per day. That doesn’t sound too bad, but from where I came this was a severe drop. The quality and quantity of my diet remained on typical Army levels. That is, at best medium in quality and tipped to the quantity side of the scale. Not necessarily a recipe for a stable weight. In the years that followed I showed a similar pattern like my friend. I came up with ever stricter rules, albeit with less fanfare. This was grounded in the expectation of quick results. I wanted to get back to previous levels ASAP and imposing strict rules on myself would get me there fast, or so I believed. Naturally, all attempts were doomed and I wasn’t able to keep it up for more than a few weeks at a time. Sooner than later I switched back to my old eating habits.
Everything changed when I tried something obvious, but radically new to me at the time: Practicing patience. It all started when I read a book called “Essentialism” in which the author Greg McKeown stated that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. That clicked with me immediately. From one second to the next I knew: I had been slow (no sustained success in years!) because I was going too fast and wanted too much. It seems counter-intuitive at first. But I had nothing to lose, so I gave it a try. I set myself a goal of eating a healthy breakfast every morning for a year. And this would be the one and only food related goal or rule that I would have for the entire year. Everything else was a free-for-all. After a year I would assess the results. No strict rules, no daily measurements, no big announcements, just a healthy breakfast every morning. Most importantly, that meant I had no pressure, after all, I had one year to figure it out. That was plenty of time!
The next morning I prepared myself a breakfast of what I believed to be healthy options at that time. Over the following weeks I got curious how healthy my breakfast really was. I did some research. A few innocent searches on the Internet and watching two lectures on biochemical processes and digestion later I had a stack of books on the topic coming my way. One can go really deep on a topic if there is a full year dedicated to a single, small goal. At the end of the year I had, without any effort, developed a recipe that was objectively healthy (backed by vetted literature and dozens of meta-studies), took about an hour total to prepare per week, and could be stored for up to seven days when refrigerated (excluding the fresh fruit part which would go in the morning of to avoid premature oxidation). Today, years after developing this small habit, I still eat the same healthy breakfast every morning and I can’t see it going away anytime soon. It only took me a year to change from eating random garbage-level food to a healthy, filling, nutrient-rich breakfast for most likely the rest of my life. Thanks to patience with myself the transition was smooth. Given the preceding years of failure to change habits, I’d say taking only a single year to implement life-long change is lightning fast. Since then I have sped up my rate of change slightly. I still add one new habit or change in behavior to my list each year. If a year goes particularly well then I consider adding a second habit or change at around midpoint, although I like to err on the side of going slow so I can reap sustained results faster and for longer. Failure due to a lack of patience has just become too expensive. I don’t have the time to go fast!
So far I have removed alcohol, processed foods, caffeine (a recent one) and refined sugar from my diet entirely. I lost 30 lbs (~13 kg) of body weight. I still exercise roughly 40-60 minutes on weekdays. Furthermore, I deleted numerous time-sucking apps from my phone and quit social media. That increased my reading rate to more than 25 books per year. For me, this is close to reinventing myself over the course of only a couple of years. All thanks to patience, self-kindness and the fact that I just don’t have time to go fast anymore. I need to go slow because I want sustained results quickly. Sometimes, when I say it out loud, it still sounds counterintuitive to me. But I know it is true. I wish my friend, too, will reap the benefits of small changes executed patiently one day.
What about you? What’s the smallest change you can implement in a year?