Start With Easy

The long winter is mercifully over, and spring is springing. We are now several months into the new year, and as the trite saying goes, How time flies.

Many of us made New Year’s resolutions several months back. Perhaps a few of us can even recall what they were, and even fewer can proudly say they have kept their resolve and met these goals.

I am not one of the latter. I hope you are.

Observation, as well as solid research bears this out: Most of us begin with grand aspirations to make sweeping changes for the New Year, and a fraction of us actually do make those changes. Most of those changes, it turns out, are related to improving one’s heath. Among the most common goals include:

  • Lose weight
  • Eat less
  • Exercise more
  • Stop smoking
  • Get more sleep
  • Stress less

These are all noble and worthwhile goals. The majority of us could benefit from reaching these goals, but so few do. Why is that?
Because we are human. Because we have been living in a patterned, habituated way that created the excess weight/out-of-shape body/smoking addiction/poor sleep/excess stress.
And habits, as we all know, are hard to break.

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The human brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It is Command Central, responsible for the functioning of every other organ and body system. It is the only major organ that cannot be transplanted. And, it is one of the organs most easily improved upon with the owner’s effort. Current research also bears out the idea of brain plasticity: that the brain can indeed change and improve, against what years of former research indicated.

It responds well to patterned behavior: anytime an action is repeated enough times, whether it is eating too much, smoking, reacting poorly to stress or maintaining a sedentary lifestyle, it creates a path, a trail in the brain for the human who owns the brain to follow down again and again, until it becomes the path of least resistance. And, coincidentally, humans love the path of least resistance.

Compare it to the cattle trails in the pastures of the Midwest. The cattle walk the same path repeatedly, until the trail is worn into a rut, and getting out seems almost impossible. Stepping out of this rut requires effort; walking within the rutted trail requires very little.

Inside that trail, however, the cows are missing out on verdant fields of green outside of the trail.

Humans are missing out on greener pastures, too. There are grand and glorious fields of green waiting for us outside the trails we have made in our minds, the trails we created from repeating the same action again and again, the trails that keep our habits going strong.

But it seems so hard; it seems to require so much effort to make those changes. Let’s take the example of the person who needs to exercise more, which is most of us. Most of us would benefit from at least a half-hour of exercise each day. But half an hour? That thought keeps us firmly planted on the couch, in front of the television, probably with a bag of chips close by. Plus, who really has time for that? Never mind that those who think this—again, most of us—waste much more time that it would take to exercise in front of that TV, or on our phones or whatever.

So, let’s make it smaller and easier. Let’s start with just 5 minutes. As smart as the human brain is, it can be easy to fool as well. Just as you might with a toddler, tell your brain We’re only going to do this for five minutes. You can walk for five minutes.

And your chances of getting up off the couch and out the door are much greater than if you insisted on that thirty minutes of walking.

So, you got up, and got moving. Two minutes pass, then three, and gee, this isn’t so bad. I feel like walking more. But just five more minutes for a total of ten. I can do ten. No wait, this feels really good. I think I can make it for fifteen or twenty minutes…

And you are off. You are working toward that goal.

Here’s the funny thing about humans and their brains. We think that in order to complete a task, whether it is taking a 30-minute walk, unloading the dishwasher, sorting that pile or bills or finishing that novel, that we must wait for inspiration to arrive. Surely it will; it’s on its way, so we decide to sit and wait for it to arrive.

But until we get moving toward the goal, it doesn’t move toward us. If you are like most humans—and likely you are, getting started on the dreaded task actually brings the inspiration to continue it and eventually achieve it.

Action begets action. It takes the actual getting started to bring the inspiration to you. It will meet you halfway, or perhaps it will only require you to give a third. The important thing to remember is that it will likely wait for you to initiate.

Leaving behind the pack-a-day cigarette habit likely feels daunting, so let’s start with the pack minus one for the first week. This may take a bit longer, but again, it is moving in the right direction, something you weren’t doing before.

Need to drink more water? Start by adding just one more 8-ounce glass daily for this week. You can certainly do that, and it won’t make you feel waterlogged like if you drank as much as you know you needed to do.

Need to drop a few pounds? Most of us do. If diets haven’t worked—and most don’t, try simply eating less of the same foods:

  • Put your spoon, fork or sandwich down between bites.
  • Chew each bite thoroughly. It will make you feel more full, more quickly.
  • Drink a glass of water a few minutes before mealtime. You likely need to drink more anyway, and it will fill you up a bit.
  • Before you take that second helping, step away from the table for just a few minutes. It will distract you, and you may realize you didn’t want it anyway.
  • Don’t deny yourself the good stuff, simply take a smaller dessert.

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Changing old habits can indeed be hard work. Simple, small steps like those listed above make a large task seem easier.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Break the goal down into small steps, and you will have more success. You are the captain of your ship with your health, and you can turn it around. Many other people have, and you likely have what it takes to make the changes that will bring you better health. They likely struggled just as we all do, but they likely took smaller, easier steps.

The New Year isn’t new anymore, but spring is. New life is growing all around us. Consider turning over a new leaf as the leaves come on the trees.

It’s never too late to make a resolution for better health.