As the holiday weekend approaches, the excuses for why healthy plans are unrealistic are thicker than the humidity at the end of June in Florida. It’s important and helpful to be realistic about our chances for making healthy choices in the face of bar-b-que, beer, and an endless buffet of cakes made to look like American flags. But past choices is only one indication of future behavior. Let this be the year when you declare your independence from negative self-talk holding you back from taking your health to the next level.
Not everyone is affected by negative self-talk, but many of us have been at one time or another. Negative self-talk is that little voice in your head that casts doubt on – or outright rejects – your thoughts or ideas about what you can do. It’s the voice that says, “you can’t do that,” or “that will never work,” or “don’t even try.” Sometimes it’s easy to hush it up and carry on. Other times, especially when we have had experiences when the voice was right and we did fail, we believe it.
Declaring freedom from this tyranny is easier when you take careful A.I.M.
A = Awareness. Awareness is always the first step! We cannot change what we are not aware of, so notice when you hear a negative thought. Pay attention to your thoughts, and take notice when you hear yourself saying something that takes a jab at your confidence. This kind of awareness takes practice at first, but it won't be long before you are able to identify when you are likely to start speaking negatively towards yourself and stop it before it begins. That comes in step two.
I = Identify the source. Once you realize that you are speaking negatively to yourself, resist the temptation to simply push it away or ignore it. Stop and listen. Then, take a moment to consider why you thought that. Did you see or hear something that triggered the negative thought? Noticing what triggers you to think negatively will help you be proactive about avoiding those experiences or being ready with a positive response when you can’t avoid them. Once you have come aware of the negativity and identified what caused it, it’s time to change course.
M = Mold. Whenever you hear yourself saying something negative, mold it into something positive. Now, it’s important here to be honest and sincere with yourself and not simply create a hollow sense of confidence that will not withstand a challenge. That means being in touch with your personal strengths and calling them into active duty when you need to be supported.
Sometimes it is hard to identify our strengths when we're feeling down, but there is always something we can do to be positive. "I can't," can be molded into, "I have not yet." Do you hear the potential? “That will never work,” can mold into, “perhaps if I try it this way.” Acknowledge the source of the criticism, and then debunk it. If you can't find the silver lining, remind yourself that kindness always wins, and give yourself another chance to try again.
The benefit from all of this kindness is that it becomes easier to let go of excuses and embrace the potential for healthy choices even in the face of challenge. Greater health is not an all-or-nothing situation. Holiday weekends, vacations, and unexpected obstacles can make it seem as if it is next to impossible to sustain healthy habits, but remember: “impossible” becomes “I’m possible” with just a little space. Give yourself some space to identify when you begin to limit your potential.
Your brain believes what you tell it! Declare your independence from the tyranny of negative thoughts and take aim at a whole new level of possible.
If I conducted a poll out on the streets of Tallahassee and asked folks how to live healthy lives, I’ll bet everyone would know the correct answers. Eating healthy food, watching portion sizes, exercising regularly, and managing stress top the to-do list for a healthy life. We all know it. The mechanics of healthy living are simple! But of course, we also know that simple is not necessarily easy.
Let’s imagine a follow-up question to my poll: why? We know the how, even if we don’t do it, but what would be your answer to why? I’d predict a much wider range of answers to that question, varying from practical to personal, and each one would be a little unique, because the why is something that has to click within us.
The why, of course, is your motivation. Many people have a goal hidden somewhere to get healthier, and those who pursue it do because they decide the benefit outweighs the hassle. When push comes to shove, there is an internal dialogue that convinces them to lace up and get out there. There is a mental switch that flips and moves their hand away from the chips and towards the bottle of water. Something speaks up and makes it easier to turn down the second helping. That thing is the answer to their question, “why?”
The answer is different for everyone, but there are some definite trends. A longer lifespan to enjoy grandchildren, improving mobility for an active retirement, getting off of expensive medications or avoiding surgery, and increasing energy are some of the motivations I hear often as a wellness coach. And, if your motivation is to fit into your jeans and feel better when you look back at pictures from vacation, that’s okay too. The more motivation you can get, the better!
For me, the why comes in a combination of practicality and self-preservation. I have a busy day and know from experience that if I don’t exercise first thing in the morning, I will run out of time and energy for it later on. It just won’t happen. When I eat healthfully and plan my meals, I feel my best. When I feel my best, stuff gets done. But when I skip it, I am grumpy and disorganized. Adhering to my routine also helps me manage my weight. This is important to me because I’ve been overweight before and remember how uncomfortable, tired, and frustrated I was. I worked hard to lose weight, and I don’t want to do it again. When that alarm goes off in the morning or it is time to organize my meals for the next day, it is not a matter of how I will get out of bed or pack my lunch. It is simply reminding myself why. Sometimes I have to remind myself more than once, so those reasons need to be powerful enough to move me.
That is the key! The reasons why must be powerful enough to move you. There are plenty of perfectly logical reasons to eat healthy and exercise, but there may only be one or two that actually inspire you to get up and do something. Luckily, that’s all you need! So, how do you figure out what it is?
The next time you are standing at a crossroads for your health, listen to the internal dialogue that takes place when you negotiate with yourself. Take a step back from yourself and be the observer of your thoughts. Watch as your different priorities have their debate and pay attention to which one wins. When it does, make note of the prevailing reason. There you have it: your true motivation.
If the healthy choice was the winner, hooray! You are connected to a strong motivator (or have experienced the consequences enough times to know what’s best for you). If other interests prevailed, be honest with yourself about why. There are times when other priorities take precedence over fitness. Sometimes we don’t take action because the goal has actually been set for us by someone else, and we resent it. It’s important to know these things, because that awareness can relieve you from feeling like a failure for reaching a goal you didn’t even set. Instead, negotiate new terms to make the goal something you care about.
The truth is, sometimes we are not motivated to change until things have gotten so bad that the pain of change is not as bad as the pain of staying the same. Sometimes we are more motivated by avoiding unsavory consequences than by the promise of things being better. That is all okay! Your motivation isn’t up for judgment or evaluation. No one else even has to know what it is.
Connect with your why this week. Put a picture of it on the fridge. Write it on your shoes. Tape it to your computer screen. Make it the ring tone on your phone. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to it. Because once you are connected with the why, the how becomes obvious.
So, what’s your why?
Last month I traveled to Nashville with some fellow wellness coaches for a training meeting. We had a day to ourselves before our meeting began, so we set out to explore and find food. With no real knowledge of the city and a determination to find a healthy brunch in the midst of this biscuit and bar-b-que haven, we turned to our phones for a quick Internet search. And off we went.
We walked a few blocks, joking that none of us are great at following directions. It wasn’t long before we were off of our path. It wasn’t a problem though. We just re-centered ourselves on the map we were following and carried on. We walked and wandered, playing Goldilocks to Nashville’s three bears of breakfast options: too crowded, too greasy, too fancy. And each time we got turned around, we laughed and called out that phrase known by anyone who has relied on a GPS navigation system and gotten lost: “recalibrate!”
About the fourth time we recalibrated, about three miles into our sojourn for a breakfast that had turned into brunch, it clicked with me: recalibrating was an essential part of any health journey, and something that happens in different ways throughout our lives.
We all get lost along the path to a new and improved us, whatever that may be. Sometimes it is because of a deliberate pit stop, like deciding to let go of the healthy eating reins during a vacation. Other times the diversion is out of our control, like a health issue. Often, our wandering is because of something that we could have planned for but didn’t, like transitioning into a new schedule or lack of knowledge about how to take the next steps. It doesn’t always matter what the reason is, as long as we remember that our internal GPS is always there, ready to patiently announce, “recalibrating.”
But in order for recalibration to be helpful, there are a few elements that need to be working together.
A Destination. Your GPS knows you are off track because it knows where you are trying to go. Without a firm destination in mind, it’s useless. Our internal sense of direction is the same way. With a general goal of, “get healthy,” we’re doomed to wander around aimlessly, lost forever. Once we decide on a destination – it doesn’t have to be forever, just the first leg of the journey – it’s a lot more helpful. Decide where you want to end up before you start traveling.
A Connection. If we set our GPS to a destination and then ignore the navigation directions, never looking at the map for context of our whereabouts, not responding to nudges to take the next available u-turn, well, our GPS would be useless again. The relationship between traveler and navigator is a fluid one. We choose the destination, the best route is advised, and then it is up to us to take the lead and begin. The map only recalibrates once we start moving. Likewise, we need to be connected to our internal GPS, checking in periodically with ourselves to make sure we are still moving towards the destination we chose.
A Desire to Arrive. My friends and I could have wandered all over and discovered plenty in Nashville that day, but we were driven by our hungry stomachs to stay focused on our goal of food. We entered our coordinates with a purpose, and reaching health goals requires the same kind of commitment to a purpose and desire to arrive. Achieving goals absolutely has room for wandering, but the happiest travelers make efficient use of their resources and are excited to arrive at their destination.
In case you’re wondering, yes, we did find our destination: a little shack on the outskirts of downtown called the Blue Sky Café. It was delicious, and it was healthy! As we sat in the grass and ate our breakfast turned brunch turned lunch, we realized we had walked four miles in search of it. We had definitely not taken the most direct route, but the journey had been more fun because of it. We briefly considered catching an Uber back to the hotel, but decided we’d rather walk. After all, it would be a shorter walk back: the more we learned our way around, the less we needed to recalibrate.
It was a Friday evening, and my friend came into the restaurant as if she was blown in by a hurricane. She collapsed into her chair, dropped her phone into the overflowing bag on the seat next to her, and grabbed a menu. “Finally, Friday! It’s my cheat meal, so I can eat whatever I want!” And she proceeded to order something that felt indulgent, scandalous, and satisfying. As she ate her reward for being good all week, I thought about the pendulum she was on, swinging from closely monitoring her nutrition and meals to eating whatever she desired in whatever amount she desired. I wondered if she was enjoying the ride or hanging on for dear life. I’ve done both, as I suspect you have as well.
As a wellness coach, I hear a lot of stories of being “good” during the week and “bad” on the weekends. It wasn’t long ago that my weekends felt like that, too. I was eternally ticked off that I seemed to always be taking three steps forward and two steps back. Weekends are a notoriously difficult time to be healthy and stick to a routine. The whole essence of the weekend begs for something different, a break from the norm. But if you are working hard on making progress on changing your health risks, consistency over the weekend can be the element that takes things to the next level. Over time, I have created some strategies to get over the weekend hurdle and come out the other end feeling much, much better.
First, Decide What You Want. Yes, you get to choose! When you look forward you’re your weekend, how do you want to feel at the end? Energized? Relaxed? Rejuvenated? Prepared? Put some adjectives on your mood for Sunday night. Then, consider what needs to happen on Friday and Saturday in order for you to feel that way on Sunday. Also, consider what needs to not happen. You know what I’m talking about.
Adjust the Dial. Once you know your desired outcome, it’s time to look at the big picture and determine how realistic that outcome is based on you are willing to do or not do to achieve it. I often hear of goals to not drink as much beer on the weekends. A goal of drinking no beer is not usually realistic, but a goal of drinking less beer is. Be honest with yourself about what that means for you, and adjust the dial to something that feels like you’re making progress without swinging the pendulum over too far.
Do a Gut Check. Any good wellness coach is going to challenge you to go deep. Why is this outcome important to you? Why do you want to change your weekends? What are you missing out on if you don’t change? What will you gain if you do work hard for change this time? This is important, because when the going gets tough, you’ll need a reason that really pulls at you.
Clear the Obstacles. Make it easy to achieve your goal by removing the obstacles in your way. If your goal is to maintain good nutrition, keep as many meals the same as during the week as possible, and log them in advance in a calorie tracker like MyFitnessPal. This gives you an opportunity to see potential slip points and correct for them ahead of time.
If you're going out, check out the restaurant menu online and decide what to order before you arrive. Then, once you are there, order first before you lose your resolve and get sucked in by other people's plans.
Workout on the weekend! Starting the day with exercise helps reduce your appetite for splurges and revs up your metabolism.
Chop fruits and veggies for snacks all at once or buy them pre-chopped. It's easier to grab them out of the fridge than take out a piece of fruit, knife, and cutting board.
Put a white board on your fridge and write out your menu for the weekend. Seeing it in black and white will not only keep you organized, but also serve as some extra accountability when you try to open that door and grab something to snack on.
Don't buy junk. If it's not there, you won't eat it. And don't say you're buying it for the kids or your husband or wife or whatever. They don't need it either.
Be loud and proud! Sharing your intention to be healthy over the weekend to a buddy, family member, random people at the coffee place, gives you extra accountability and makes you feel more in-charge of your weekend! Plus, you may inspire a friend to follow with you, and then you can keep each other honest.
Here are some great ways to voice this goal:
Keep it positive. Focus on what you're doing for yourself (having a healthy weekend), not what you're missing (I'm skipping dessert).
Keep it present-tense. Talking about being healthy in the future is great, but the difference between, "I'm having a healthy weekend," and, "I'm going to have a healthy weekend," can be huge. The second one could have the word, "tomorrow," added way too easily!
And finally, remember: a cheat day only cheats you. You deserve better! You work hard all week to establish healthy behaviors and fuel your body, and you can take it to the next level when you maintain consistency over the weekend. Decide what you want, move the barriers aside, and make it easy to jump off the weekend pendulum and over that hurdle.
Congratulations! You’ve been working hard, making great choices, exercising regularly, and feeling the changes in your body as a result. You deserve a reward, so go ahead and treat yourself! Whatever you want. But here’s the catch: it can’t be food, and it can’t be expensive.
Screeech! Did your creative wheels just come to an abrupt halt? I often ask my clients if they have rewards built into their weight loss plans, because they can serve as an incentive and because they’re fun.
We all work hard, and building in opportunities to let loose and have a little fun is healthy and smart. But, it’s important to make sure those rewards are helping your progress, not hindering it.
Food is often our go-to reward because it’s so easy and inexpensive. Going out for a celebratory meal is the default when you finally get that job offer. Facebook abounds with pictures of happy children eating frozen yogurt on report card day. It’s easy to let food be a reward because it simply feels good to eat! It really does feel like love sometimes to share a meal with friends or indulge in something reserved for special occasions.
But, when your goal is weight loss, rewarding yourself with food can mean eventual sabotage. After all, you’re going to be wildly successful, so you’ll likely be celebrating quite a lot! Celebrating with food can be part of a balanced life, but if you are using it as an incentive or a reward, consider whether it is truly helping you succeed.
If you reward every milestone with food, it won’t be long before the diet mentality takes over and you’re digging yourself out of the “I worked so hard, now I deserve to eat,” trap. That is not a good place to be!
After we eliminate food as a reward, the next most popular idea is usually something indulgent like a massage, new clothes, or some other luxury item that feels a little bit scandalous. These are fantastic ways to celebrate an accomplishment if you have the budget for it, but for most of us, that party would get expensive pretty quick and then we would have to set a new goal for better financial management. That’s not a good place to be either!
Here are some ways to reward and celebrate your accomplishments calorie-free and under $15:
The best place is somewhere between the two types of rewards that motivate us: external and internal. The external rewards, like fitting into a smaller size jeans or getting a pedicure after losing ten pounds, are fun and exciting. But ideally, the reliance on these incentives to prod us into taking steps towards greater health should decrease over time as we become more connected with the internal rewards of increased confidence, greater life satisfaction, and plain old feeling good.
Enjoy every step of your healthy journey, and when you stop to high-five yourself, do it in a way that supports the big picture. As you hit your stride and establish habits that will stand the test of time, you’ll find that making healthy choices are their own reward. The external stuff – the new shoes or the massage – just won’t shine with the same luster because they can’t hold a candle to how you feel on the inside.
My almost-kindergartner inherited a lot from me. His blue eyes, his love for pajamas, and his hard-headedness are all legitimate hereditary gifts from good old mom. There’s one more thing that he comes by honestly, but he might not consider it a gift as he gets older: a sweet tooth.
It got real last week when he wanted to have orange juice with his dinner and I told him that he could have some after he ate the carrots on his plate. I had just sat down and didn’t feel like getting up to pour orange juice, and honestly, I didn’t expect him to actually eat them. But he totally called my bluff, and a few minutes later interrupted his brother to point out that he had eaten his carrots and was ready for his orange juice.
I’ll admit I was stunned. Despite my credentials as a health professional, I have never been very successful at getting my children to knowingly eat vegetables. So of course I took all of the credit and congratulated myself for being such a good example. Then I was impressed by how quickly he had responded to the right motivation. But the wellness coach in me couldn’t ignore what had been a strong enough motivator to get him to actually eat a vegetable: the reward of sugary sweet orange juice.
Well, he’s five years old. Of course he wants sweets! We humans are hard-wired to crave sugar; we all have a sweet tooth on some level, and the reward of dessert motivates good behavior at every age. But, that natural craving is playing a larger role in the health of our nation, as we add more sugar to our everyday foods and consume more calories as a result. Sugar is blamed by researchers as a contributor to obesity, type-two diabetes, some cancers, and plenty of regret after an ice cream binge. It’s for that reason and more that kicking the sugar habit is a common health goal.
The thing is, kicking the sugar habit isn’t just about sugar. If it was, then artificial sweeteners would be the perfect antidote to our problems. A sweet craving is not necessarily for sugar, but for sweetness. That means our goal isn’t necessarily to avoid sugar, but to eliminate the craving for sweets. And that, my friends, is tough.
But so are you, and if reducing your sweet tooth is a goal of yours, here is your guide to kicking it for good.
Read the Ingredients, not the Label
Just because the package says it is free of high-fructose corn syrup does not mean it doesn’t contain sugar. There are many names for sugar, and it doesn’t take long to discover that almost every packaged food in the grocery store contains some form of it. Ingredients like syrup, cane juice, dextrin, malt, or anything ending in –ose is a hint that there is added sugar. When you see these ingredients, you’re looking at a food that will make your sweet tooth stronger.
Intentionally Eat Different Foods
Taste buds can and do change, and one way to create that change is to deliberately feed them different things. Notice how often you reach for something sweet, and challenge yourself to choose something else. Give yourself time to acclimate to a different flavor expectation, and start slow. Choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit – with natural sugars and fiber intact – and some chopped nuts. You’ll enjoy some sweetness, but on a gentler scale. Try a tablespoon of peanut butter (no sugar added!), which researchers have found will zap cravings quickly by activating hormones that water down your sweet tooth. If having just one tablespoon of peanut butter is as much torture to you as it is to me, consider this next suggestion.
Stop Skipping Meals
Now we’re talking! Ravenous hunger, when we are most vulnerable to swings in blood sugar and cravings for a quick blast of calories, often occurs when we try to make it to lunch without breakfast or eat a measly lunch and then succumb to afternoon temptations. Stay satisfied and less likely to binge by eating every three to four hours, and make that meal or snack a balanced combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. For example, sugar-free peanut butter on simple crackers is a great snack and not overly sweet, making it another baby-step option for reducing the expectations your taste buds might have for sweetness.
Reducing a sweet craving doesn’t mean never eating it again, but it does take intentional effort to create enough room for a different craving. The only way to truly change a habit is to commit to being intentional and deliberate about setting boundaries for yourself and respecting them. Right now I set my kids’ nutrition boundaries, as futile as it may seem at times. I hope my little guy continues to surprise me with what he can do when his eye is on the prize, and that as a culture we can change what we see as the carrot.
It’s festival season! In this glorious time before the summer heat descends upon us, Tallahassee is buzzing with weekend events, each with its own craft beer, food truck, artisan-crafted baked goods, and perfectly understandable reason why the diet should start on Monday. It’s a fantastic time to see our beautiful and ever-changing city! Likewise, weekends are notorious for knocking us off of our healthy path. So go out and live it up, but as your wellness coach, I may whisper a reminder over your shoulder: “it’s all fun and games until your jeans don’t fit anymore.”
If that matters to you, of course. It might not. But if you set a goal back in January of losing weight or gaining fitness this year, then this is for you.
Growing up in the New Orleans area, I learned pretty early on that if I wanted to eat healthy, I would have to work really hard at it. Holidays and festivals flowed from one right into the next, all of them centered on food. As a destination where people travel with the sole purpose of eating, living in NOLA meant facing food obstacles at almost every turn and feeling doomed in the process.
As I started getting serious about losing weight, I had to face the reality of how my social life affected my chances for success. Every interaction I had with friends revolved around food, my family cooked and shared large meals, and it just felt weird to plan a social event and not start with the menu. It wasn't until I moved away for college that I began to set the boundaries I needed to manage my weight.
Heading out to a festival and trying to stick to a “diet” is no fun, I know. Strike a balance by staying in touch with your motivations for healthy change and keeping them at the forefront of your attention. Before going into social situations where you may be tempted to overeat, take a few minutes to plan out how you will manage your hunger. Pack a healthy, portable snack in case options are limited, write down the reasons why you want to maintain healthy habits on the weekend, and be realistic about what can and can’t be avoided. Most of the time, it’s not as hard as we expect to avoid unhealthy traps.
Choose your company wisely, and plan outings with friends who share your goals. But be prepared to fly solo if they aren’t ready for change. If being around old habits is a slippery slope, look for new ways to socialize. For me, this meant meeting friends for walking dates during lunch instead of dining out, planning active outings, and being prepared at parties with something healthy. Eventually, people began to expect me to cheerfully stick to my guns in the face of funnel cakes and walking tacos, which is how I earned my nickname: Healthy Heather!
Many times, it’s the people we are closest to who get us through the ups and downs of weight loss. But sometimes, those same people are our biggest obstacle and we have to consider whether old relationships are compatible with new habits. Friends who sabotage you, undermine your values, or make you feel inferior because you are choosing a different path may feel threatened by the changes you are making and how they will affect your relationship. They may be jealous of your success, or resentful that they are not ready yet to make the same changes. They have the right to feel that way, but they do not have the right to undermine your efforts for change.
It is still hard to eat within my needs when I visit my family in the Big Easy, but I do much better when I stay focused on the real reason for being there. Living healthy when your social life revolves around food can be overwhelming. A combination of preparation, compassion, and downright stubbornness can help you change your lifestyle and still have a life!
Have you ever written a letter to yourself? As we approach the end of the school year, high school teachers across the country may be encouraging seniors to write a letter to their future self, perhaps giving advice or maybe a cautionary warning, and then later on in life we are supposed to read the letter and draw some kind of conclusion. It’s fun to read what a younger, more naive version of yourself may have considered to be profound and sage advice, and compare how things really turned out compared to what you predicted in your youth.
I wonder if the reverse could also be meaningful, and what our future selves would say if they could reach back to where we are now and give us advice. As a wellness coach, I often encourage my clients to look around and see what is written on their walls. When hindsight is 20/20 and we reflect after a catastrophe that the signs were “written on the walls”, it only makes sense that if we had taken the time to read what is written there, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and headache.
Of course, we can’t predict the future, but we can draw a reasonable conclusion based on logic and common sense to determine whether our current situation is one that is likely to end well, or otherwise. The signs are there: a growing list of medications, a doctor advising a lifestyle change, chronic fatigue, increasing forgetfulness or a sense of overwhelm are all indications of a train running off the rails. How many of these signs are we passing in our daily lives, planning to do something about them when things calm down, and ultimately ignoring?
Reflect back on the life you have led up to this point. What advice would you give a younger version of yourself, knowing what you know now? Countless books have been written on the wisdom of the ages, and the lessons we learn over the course of a lifetime: don’t sweat the small stuff. Forgive early and often. Buy the accident policy!
And, of course, we listen and nod and reflect on this earned wisdom, and go on with our lives. The luxury of spending more time with family is easy for someone at the end of their life to suggest, when the practical application of that good advice is harder to achieve. Many things are easier said than done; many of the smartest, wisest choices seem possible “if only”. If only things were a little different, a little less hectic, a little less expensive, a little less inconvenient.
Those barriers are legitimate, but let’s put them to the side for a moment and pretend they are not there. Then, try some of these techniques for hearing the wisdom of your future self.
Just Ask For It. This idea might sound a little out there, but go with me. Close your eyes, connect with yourself, and listen. Listen for what your heart and soul are saying. Remember in “Dead Poet’s Society,” when Robin Williams’ character has the boys lean in towards to trophy case to hear the wisdom of the students who had come before them? Just like that. Be still, close your eyes, ask yourself for advice, and listen. And believe it.
Pretend You Are Not Yourself. If listening to yourself is too out there, then pretend you are giving advice to someone else. If a friend was headed on the path you are now, what advice would you want to give? What would you say, and what would you not say for fear of hurting their feelings? Tell that to yourself, in a kind way. And believe it.
Write Your Own Ending. I was amazed once by a story of a man who wrote his obituary in advance of his death, and didn’t like what it said. So, he tore it up and wrote a better one. Then, he lived that life. A slight shift in habits can change the course of an entire life cycle; write a few drafts and pick your favorite. Then, believe it!
Your future self is up ahead, trying to make eye contact with you and give you a significant look. Make eye contact. Read the writing on the walls of your life. What does it say? Will you believe it? Do you believe you can write something different?
I got a new car a few months ago, and I wasn’t very happy about it. My 2004 Subaru Forester and I had been together for thirteen years. It was dented and faded, it rattled and made weird noises, my Wakulla Springs bumper sticker was almost entirely worn off, and it was clearly missing non-essential parts that I had single-handedly ripped off on the side of the interstate so I could keep driving. But it was paid for, and it was cute, and it had a roof rack, which I never used but valued greatly. And I knew that car. We were a team. I could drive it with my eyes closed. (I did not do that.)
But I knew it was time for a change. Repairs were becoming more frequent, it was becoming inefficient, and after over a decade of me driving it, well, let’s just say it was tired. So I bit the bullet, and I do enjoy driving my new Prius. But I miss my clunky old car, and I do still think about it with nostalgia.
Changing habits is like that sometimes, isn’t it? We all have habits that we’ve lived with for years, and we know they need to change and that we will be happy with the outcome, but we’re cozy and comfortable. Even when we know they are destructive, expensive, unproductive, and sometimes dangerous, we stick with them because they’re what we know. There is risk in change, even when we have a reasonable expectation that the outcome will be good, even when the only real risk is the possibility of feeling weird and mildly inconvenienced.
Well guess what? No one ever said you couldn’t be wistful for the old days. Changing habits doesn’t necessarily mean closing a life door and pretending they never existed. You can change your health habits without saying goodbye. Consider these approaches to change that may ease your transition.
Just Press Pause. When ending one habit and beginning another feels overwhelming, don’t pressure yourself to cut ties. Just press pause. Press pause on the unproductive things you might do – being too sedentary, eating too much, wasting time – and reserve the option to go back to it later if the new habits don’t work out. I have not met anyone yet who wanted to go back to being sedentary, overeating, and feeling like they are wasting their time, but who knows, it could happen. Don’t worry about ending something. Just begin something else.
Let Yourself Mourn. If you are ready to close the door on a habit and never speak of it again, allow yourself time to mourn that loss. Yes, it is a loss! There is a “win” to everything we choose to do, whether or not it is a healthy one. When we choose to cook more instead of eating out, we lose the convenience of having someone else cook. Getting out of bed earlier to go exercise means losing the comfort and coziness of blankets and pillows. Even our destructive habits have an element of benefit to them, and it’s totally okay to acknowledge what you are giving up in order to gain something else. That’s fair. So be sad, and then get yourself together and keep on keeping on.
Connect With the Payoff. The grief won’t last long, I promise. It won’t be long before you like how your new habits make you feel, and the appeal of going back to old ones will fade. Acknowledge that, and connect with it. Write the reasons why you are happier in a notebook and refer to them from time to time. Jot down a challenge you encountered when reverting to old ways would have been easier but you persevered. Keep a record of the payoffs – a new size clothes, walking a flight of stairs without getting winded, getting off of medication – and read them. The more you connect with the benefit of your new choices, the less you will feel tempted to look back.
But if you do look back, that’s okay. I like heated seats, and better fuel economy, an ice-cold air conditioner, and a warranty. My new car is stylish and clean and great, and it was the right choice. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes miss the old one. I’m not going back to it, but I can still remember.
Do you have an old habit that may be comfortable and easy and familiar, but you know needs to be upgraded for something smarter? Shop around this week. Take new habits on a test drive. And when you’re ready, press pause or trade in the old ones for something new. That new life smell is pretty sweet!
Imagine that I have a ball of yarn, and it represents time. On one side of me is a pile of unraveled yarn that we will pretend is the amount of time that has happened before us: the eons and millions of years that occurred before we got here. The people and the dinosaurs and the plate tectonics and everything that happened before us. On the other side of me is the remainder of the yarn, wound up into a ball, representing the time that is yet to come. And in the middle is me, holding taut a span of yarn about two feet long, and it represents the average human life span, which is seventy-nine years. One side is millions of year and one side is infinity and beyond and then we have seventy-nine years that we participate in. Got it?
Seventy-nine years is not very long, and obviously some of us get a lot more than that and others get much less. But you know, we don’t really even get all of it. We all know life is short, but when we break it down, it seems even shorter. At the beginning all we can do is kid stuff, and we have to obey grown-ups. Then there is a part right after that when we’re all idiots, and then there is a pretty decent span when we mostly have it together. But even then, what we’re really living for is retirement, when we can stop and do whatever we want. Then we get a few good years, and then we die.
That’s how a movement began to maximize this short life we have, and live your “best life.” Books and blogs and podcasts and magazines and television shows have been created to help us learn how to be our absolute best, and suck the marrow out of every day of life. Carpe diem! Bucket lists! Make the most of every moment! We chase this ideal throughout our lives, thinking that being the best version of ourselves will mean we lived life more fully, and that means we didn’t waste any of it. And I think that’s a really good way to miss your life, because we end up spending most of the short time we have trying to be our best self, our most self, and instead we should just be our favorite self.
Your favorite self might not be your best self. Your potential is unlimited, so who is to tell when you are at your best? We can always improve on what we’ve done, so striving to be our best, well, it seems kind of exhausting. Busy people like to say that good is the enemy of great but good is not the enemy of great. Good is fantastic, and good is really satisfying. Instead of living your best life, I invite you to live your favorite one. And here is why: when you are connected to something that brings you joy – the thing you wish could be your job, the work you would do for free – it cannot be hidden. You cannot pretend that you are not connected to it because you are beaming with joy, and that radiates to others in a really significant way.
When you are connected to a purpose, or a favorite thing, you infect others with the passion that you have, not the stuff you have done. You attract others with the joy that you have, not just your prettiest moments. Science shows that people who shape their lives around their purpose are more productive, less stressed out, less likely to engage in addictive behaviors, and more likely to increase their life span.
What was that? You heard me.
So how do you tell the difference between your best life and your favorite life? Here’s a clue: your best life has a much longer list of things to do, and your favorite life can be satisfied with much less. Here are some ideas that might help you discover it.
Catch yourself smiling. When you notice that you are smiling in a genuine, natural way, take some notes. What is making you smile? Look beyond what you see and see what it represents.
Ask others what you are good at. When you are asked to do or teach something, why are you the one they choose?
Listen to your rants. We all have something that gets us fired up. When you begin to rant and rave, listen to yourself. What are you advocating for? Why is that important enough for you to shout?
Then let the rest go. Cull the to-do list that is taking up your precious life and delete the optional items that are not connected to your purpose. Within reason, of course. You’ll be able to tell the difference between what to let go and what to keep, because the right things to let go will make you feel really good when they’re gone.
Life is short, and it is good. I hope that this week, you catch yourself smiling and it feels good enough to let the rest go.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!