Starting to stop, adding to subtract: changing habits the sane way


There's a thing about starting the year afresh with the chronological turn of it; there's another thing about aligning your restart with the turn of your personal turn on the planet, which is often more useful. (There's a third, entirely different thing about restarting wherever you damned well please, but I'm too much of a coloring-inside-the-lines, goody two-shoes for that.)

I've always liked when my birthday fell, in September (yesterday, the 13th), coinciding as it did with the turning of seasons and the returning to school, something all inside-the-line coloring types enjoy. We've been enjoying a break in the heat here in Los Angeles as well, so we can even pretend that our seasons have shifted (although god help us all when the inevitable heat wave that is early October slams us sideways).

So I've been thinking a lot about what I'd like to change, along with why I'd like to change it. Digging in and getting at the roots of things has proven much more useful than anything else for actually changing my behavior. For example, when I quit smoking, my third or fourth round of brochitis was struggling to gain purchase in my lungs; while "health" was a nebulous goal, staying out of the hospital and not feeling like I was being drowned were both wildly compelling. Ditto with getting on the SCD the first time: at barely 90 pounds, having suffered a horrible summer of illness capped by four weeks of riotous fever, stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea, the idea of food I could keep in me long enough to put on the weight that would make me ambulatory again was right up there with no-brainers like oxygen and shelter.

You can't fight City Hall, Mother Nature or your fat ass

At officially-48, I'm dealing with the first serious signs of physical breakdown. My hair is thinner, I tire more easily and, most horrifying of all to me, I pack on weight I can't easily take off. I'm told I still look relatively young for my age and I still feel like a nimrod youngster most days, but the physical realities of gravity and hormone depletion are winning on too many battlefronts. It's time to take action, and that means tying action to meaning.

You'd think that watching friends and relatives start to succumb would be enough, but it's not. Death isn't particularly compelling unless it has its rank breath smack up against your open nostrils. For me, what I want is more obvious and basic: to feel good when I awaken, and to keep feeling that way until I fall asleep. That includes but is not limited to:

  • being able to climb the local hills without getting winded
  • being able to sleep through as many nights as I can (this getting up in the night and peeing thing ain't the worst, but it ain't fun, either)
  • being able to pick something up off the ground without making Old Man Noise
  • being able to fit comfortably in the reasonably-sized clothes I already own
  • being able to avoid colds, flus and other stress-susceptible illnesses
  • being able to get off these goddamn meds for good

A lot of us who use our brains and our extended brains (i.e., The Google) for a living tend to be dismissive of the fact that we are not just a brain, but a body. Forget "spirit" or "soul", we fight the reality that at the very least, the pile of gray goop has to be carted around by muscles, tendons and bones. And that's not even getting into the idea that good food and rest and exercise can keep the gray goop itself functioning at a higher level for longer.

Subtracting from my fat ass back the additive way

Most programs of change seem to focus on the subtractive, talking about how you must deprive yourself of this or that, just like they emphasize Massive Overhaul rather than tweaking. All well and good when, perhaps, you're really up against it, but what about when you're looking at something squishy and less pressing, like feeling better or taking the dog for a walk with more joy or something long-term-good like possibly better hair for a wee bit longer? Then you're looking at implementing the kind of long-term change that takes, well, long.

In his latest newsletter (which you really should subscribe to, it's as good as mine, only different), Chris Brogan talks about a simple reframing that seems to be working for him: adding good stuff in rather than taking bad stuff away. He's lost 20 pounds so far by doing stuff like adding water and adding a higher percentage of greens to his dinner plate. Is he really cutting back on Diet Coke and fatty carbs? Well, yeah, like I said, it's a re-frame. But it's a small reframe that seems to be working.

I've been thinking about how I might use this to get myself back on the SCD. Ordinarily, that means things like "no more pizza" and "so long, cupcakes." But I considered it and wondered if maybe I couldn't start making my way back by doing things like "carry SCD-legal snacks with me" and "switch morning walk to Trader Joe's": the former would likely keep me from falling off the wagon by keeping ferocious hunger at bay, and the latter would mean I could turn grocery shopping (kind of a chore to me) into a normal, semi-fun, fairly regular part of my routine.

A few weeks ago, I'd been thinking of today with a big, heavy red circle around it: Monday Is the Day I Quit Eating Anything Fun and Get Back On SCD. And it may turn out to be; frankly, I've gorged myself on so much sugar, starch and processed crap in anticipation of it, the thought of eating clean is pretty appealing. But as long as I'm still feeling pretty chipper, health-wise, I think I'll try this slow, additive thing first and see how it goes. It's in keeping with my friend, Matthew Cornell's idea of testing lots of small ideas and measuring the results (Matt, if you drop by, leave better links in the comments so we can nerd out, please!)

I also have some thoughts about other small, additive changes that might enhance my life a bit, like the Leo Babauta-inspired music experiment I started (and subsequently stopped) earlier this year. But first this. There's enough other stuff swirling around right now, and the point is to make life easier, not more complicated.

In the meantime, I'm very curious to know what sort of luck other people have had with additive change, and whether it's been easier (and stuck longer) than the subtractive kind. What say ye: yea or nay?


Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.