Change one thing at a time

Every New Year people flock to the gym in the hopes of getting in shape, but only a handful stick around long enough to see meaningful change. What do these people do differently?

Let’s start with what most people do. They psyche themselves out telling themselves that THIS TIME they’ll crush their goals. Nope. Not happening. They’ll stay stuck in the same cycle. They try something. Get discouraged. Stop. It’s frustrating, and I can understand not wanting to try anymore. Most people won’t shed the weight once they’re fat.

The stats don’t lie.

The annual probability of an obese man attaining normal weight is 1 in 210. That’s a 0.476% chance of getting fit. It’s 1 in 124 for women (0.806% chance). The odds for morbidly obese men and women are staggeringly low, at 0.077% and 0.147%, respectively.[1] The mechanics of weight loss are known to virtually everybody, which means it’s not a knowledge issue, but a behavioral one.

Once a habit has been formed it’s hard to change it into something else, especially because our habits are informed/triggered by the environment we live in. I have two particularly strong environmental triggers. One is after dinner. I always crave something sweet after dinner. I scour the kitchen cabinets and fridges for something sweet, but because I hardly ever buy any, there is none for me to devour.

The other trigger is if I happen to be in front of a TV and can’t occupy my hands with something, like a game controller. Sometimes I crave something sweet, at other times something salty or fat. It’s because I’ve primed myself with eating those things in front of the TV doing fuck all else. It sucks because now I’m stuck with those cravings, possibly for life.

What would it take to unlearn that?

It would be like unlearning how to drive a car once you’ve already mastered that.

You can’t.

You’ll never forget how to drive a car once you know how.

People basically get only one real shot at forming healthy habits when they’re young. It gets progressively more difficult the older you get.

All I can realistically do is replace the relatively boring task of watching TV with something more stimulating, but sometimes I’m just too exhausted to do anything else but that. I don’t know what to do about that craving for sweetness after dinner, aside from ignoring it for a few hours. It does pass. Although, writing about it right now makes me long for dessert again.

Funny how that works.

Let’s not be quick to blame sugar.

It’s you. It’s me.

I know, I know. That’s a hard thing to accept.

You have to completely change the way you live your life to get in shape. It’s not optional. The body listens to environmental signals. If your body consistently found itself underneath heavy weights it would get the message of “if you don’t adapt you’ll die”, but since yours consistently finds itself seated or lying down, it has no reason to adapt but grow fat instead.

I know, I know. It fucking sucks.

Why can’t we just eat a giant stacks of pancakes without consequence? Why can’t I scarf down bags of chips every night without worrying about becoming unhealthy? Why must I pass on all the sweet looking pastries after dinner? Why does all the good stuff require preparation for it to taste good?

Damn it.

But the body’s state also affects the mind.

We can’t neglect either one, or our quality of life plummets.

It’s in our best interest to take care of our body as best we can.

You can do it.

It may take a decade.

It may take less than a year.

But you can do it.

IF you stop obsessing over results.

You must instead obsess over improving your habits one day at a time. That way you can take a hit of disappointment much more easily, and you won’t get frustrated as much either. What does obsessing over your process look like, then?

You need four things to successfully get in shape: a healthy diet, sound sleep, consistency, and (workout) intensity. In that order.

Start with a healthy diet first. Forget about gyms or hard exercise. Make only one small change at a time. An example goal could be swapping your daily Coca-Cola intake with water. For some this is an already seemingly insurmountable challenge. This simple, but difficult, change will already net you noticeable results. You’ll feel less constipated, less bloated, less foggy, and your skin will clear up.

Next up would be changing your breakfast to a vegetarian one. You really don’t need the insane amount of protein people are consuming these days. It’s much more important to get an adequate amount of veggies into your system and understand how much food your body actually requires.

If you’re a heavy dude or dudette be warned. Your body requires an insane amount of food to maintain that weight. It’s advised to not calculate what your body would need at a normal weight, but less than what you’re eating to keep the weight you’re at. That requires counting calories. I know you don’t want to do that because it’s hard work and painfully boring.

You could try winging it with 3 square meals a day and no sweets but you’ll be forgoing control and making it much more likely you’ll fail.

It’s up to you, really.

I have system that I’m lucky enough to be able to afford. There are many like it. I use HelloFresh to cover most of my dinners. They save me the pain of doing groceries and thinking about what I should eat. It’s only a pain when life’s challenging though; if life was less tiring I would be much more into it. But for now it’s a system that works for me.

It took many years to get lunch right.

I try to eat veggies for lunch too. I try to eat some type of grain (e.g. quinoa, rice, wheat) with veggies and a protein source. If I can’t cook I eat bread with cheese and serve it with veggies (e.g. cucumber, pickle, bean sprouts), but I try to limit my consumption of cheese and dairy products in favor of veggies and better carbohydrate sources. I’m not aiming for perfect, but good enough to see results.

Breakfast is either oats, eggs with or without veggies depending on what I have on hand, or some type of yogurt. The latter served with fruit, nuts, and seeds. It’s my “sweet” of the day. The point is that I limit my breakfast options and pick items with the least amount of sugar in them. Again, it doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough, and since I’m generally very active I don’t care much about eating a bit of sugar in the morning.

You can choose to do what I do, but the point is that you should limit your options first and go from there. Don’t start with getting all three meals right from the get-go, you’ll fail. Start with getting your dinners right, or your breakfast, whatever you prefer. Then go from there. Improve month after month, year after year, and you will change.

The next target for you to master is sleep. Prioritize good sleep hygiene and go to bed on time. I could fill an entire post on how to sleep well, but for now it suffices to say that sleep is of paramount importance to get right. Your body won’t change the way you want it to if it doesn’t get adequate sleep.

If you can handle it you should consider adding low grade exercise to your day wherever and whenever you can. I mean the type of exercise that doesn’t require a change of clothes, like going for a walk around the block, or taking a bike to work instead of a car. I use the car maybe five times a year. Everything else is within biking distance (<50km round trip). Volume adds up.

Target sleep once you feel like you’ve made at least one positive change to your diet. That way you’re much more likely to keep your momentum going. So to recap for a moment, focus on diet first, but only change one thing at a time. Get one or two things right, then get your sleep habits under control. While doing all this you just need to move more than you did previously.

We’re not even there yet. Once you’ve mastered your diet, sleep, and low grade workout routine, you’ll have to up the intensity for the body to say “you know what? These fat reserves are a liability, they must go!” Unfortunately, most people don’t have it in them to push themselves to their limits. That’s okay. Life already demands so much from us.

It gets worse though.

You must show up and do the work week after week to enact meaningful change.

That fucking blows, doesn’t it?

I personally believe a fit body is out of reach for most people. I’m in awe of anyone over age 25 who got fit and stays that way. Younger people have it easier, usually due to circumstance (e.g. student life, parents with money, access to better information), but it’s still challenging. Getting fit requires vast resources, a focused mind, and an unbelievable amount of work that the vast majority of the working people don’t have the energy or money for.

If you’re a smart cookie then you can apply the same principle to any other hard problem that requires a change of habit.

Focus on incremental change over long periods of time.

That’s how Rome was built.

Created on August 16, 2021
Published on August 16, 2021
Last modified on March 31, 2022