Make it a habit to study your habits.

Some say to go cold turkey when making or breaking a habit. Others say take baby steps. I say it depends on what type of life change you're trying to make. Focus on what you're measuring--is it frequency? quality? Are you focused on the initial change itself, or on the other changes it will bring?

Here is a list of things I've done completely cold turkey:

  • become a vegetarian
  • quit smoking
  • start writing every single day, even if it's just a sentence

And here is a list of things that took me months or years to accomplish (some of which I still struggle with):

  • meditate every day
  • go to bed early and wake up early
  • drink completely black coffee
  • stop weighing myself

As you can see, most of the major changes were done quite abruptly, whereas some of the more incremental changes were made over a long period of time. Why is it that some of these seemingly less important changes were much harder to achieve?

We often fail to see how some of the smaller changes add up to big changes. For example, as a result of switching to black coffee, one rather significant result was that my perception of sweetness changed. I became much more sensitive to sugar, which means that I drank and ate less of it. When I gave up on weighing myself, I stopped obsessing over food and gravitating towards disordered eating patterns. Gradually, I ate less and began to eat more intuitively, knowing that I had to rely on how I looked and felt rather than how much I weighed as a measurement (I realize that this totally does not work for everyone, nor do I condone it without doing your own research and creating your own personal metrics). Obviously, these causes and effects won't be the same for everyone, but it's interesting to note how these smaller life changes often rippled into other areas of my life much moreso than the larger decisions.

Take becoming a vegetarian, for example. I stopped eating meat on a whim one day after biting into a half-cooked piece of chicken in my college dining hall. But as many vegetarians know, giving up meat does not directly equate to eating healthy. In fact, becoming vegetarian really didn't alter my eating habits much at all for the first five years. It took a series of smaller changes--exchanging cereal for smoothies, or white flour for its more nutritionally robust cousins, buckwheat and spelt, before I radically shifted what "healthy" meant to me.

Same thing with smoking. I was a smoker for maybe six months of my life, which is not very significant. Quitting felt easy and effortless. But addiction masks itself in other ways, and it took me more than a year to realize that I had replaced smoking with food. In later years, I replaced smoking with...well, more smoking. One day, I woke up with a hoarse voice and realized that I'd been smoking hookah "socially" every single weekend for the past year. 100 puffs--which probably wasn't too far off from what I was doing on some nights--was the equivalent of smoking several packs of cigarettes (although I've found very few studies that actually confirm this, I suspect it's probably true). 

And writing every day? Well, that sometimes had the opposite effect on my productivity and drive, because I was focusing on the wrong metric: consistency. For some writers, this method works. But for me, writing every day became writing when I was half-asleep after teaching 4+ classes in a single day. It led to sloppy, uninspired sentences, and it just felt like more work. Now that I am out of the teaching world, this method works better for me, but it's still not the magical elixir to my writing productivity that I'd hoped it would be. Instead, I find that carving out real, unhurried time for writing--an entire Saturday, for example--is much more effective for me.

Big changes rarely lead to the kind of effects we're hoping for. It's the smaller stuff that all adds up. After not meditating for a couple of years, I picked it up again about a week and a half ago. The effects so far have been: going to bed earlier, which meant having more time to make breakfast, which led to eating more nutritious, protein-fueled food at breakfast, and it also gave me more time to do this--writing blog posts--every morning completely uninterrupted.

So it's true what they say about change: start with something small. I want to make one small amendment to that advice: you can start with something big too, but if you do, make sure you know what smaller changes you'll hope it will bring. If you quit smoking, does that mean all forms of smoking? If you give up meat, are you simply eliminating it from your diet, or are you doing a drastic overhaul of your eating habits? 

Ineffectual change can masquerade as good change. Just ask 19 or 20-year-old me, still eating pints of Ben and Jerry's at the college diner at 3am instead of a bacon wrap and feeling good about herself.