Choices – How to Make Tiny Decisions For Long Term Benefit

My last two posts where about big decisions and included a couple of ways to help make a potentially life changing decision. In today’s post I wanted to write about the small things we decide on a daily, even hourly basis. The little choices added up that will have a potentially longer and more profound reach than the big changes.

I’m talking about habits, the things we end up doing unconsciously, or that turn into addictions. All the little actions that are on auto-pilot, that we sometimes defend with a “well it’s just the way I am” or “it’s too late to change now”. At one point in your life however the decision to begin this habit was a choice; even if an unhelpful habit began in childhood it perhaps now needs to be questioned through the lens of your adult self. Most of the habits we have are helpful, they allow us to get through life without having to think everything through, such as brushing and flossing our teeth, driving a car, doing your job etc. What about the ‘bad’ habits though? How do we change these?

I will use diet as an example, though you can apply the following to everything you’d like to change whether it’s just a small change or a huge one. Most of the time when it comes to revising our diet it’s approached as one huge change, “I must cut out all of the stuff I love, that comforts me and instead eat stuff that I don’t really like and suffer deprivation” kind of thing. How often does this work? If it was easy we’d have a nation of slim, healthy people with glowing, clear skin! We hear again and again that crash dieting, for instance, doesn’t work in the long term and can be detrimental to health yet people still try to go on restrictive ‘diets’. Official guidelines on diet for long term health are widely distributed but not followed by all who would wish to be more healthy and develop the discipline needed to make good choices.

So, what to do? Below I underline four key points to help make the small choices a little easier.

Key Point No.1 – Start Small

The term micro habits has been gaining popularity and for good reason. Look at habit change and positive new choices as a long game for deep lasting benefits rather than as a quick fix you renege on. Once you consistently practice a new small action for at least three weeks it changes into a habit. Once you have experienced success with the first new habit the impetus is there to continue, the small high you get from being successful fuels the new changes. If the thought of change feels overwhelming start really, really small. For instance, if the habit has become dangerous, say an extremely unhealthy diet, the thought of change can often be more distressing, this is usually due to overwhelm, fear or perhaps even feeling worthless because you’ve let it go this far. Start with something tiny such as eating a little less of one thing each day for three weeks, then add one portion of a fruit or vegetable for the next three weeks. This may seem like nothing, but consider this, with 52 weeks in a year imagine where you would be this time next year using this method?

Key Point No.2 – Change Your Routine

The next key is to change your routine. What most people don’t realise is that a lot of our less helpful habits happen by association and familiar terrain. As an example take heroin addiction, research has found that when the addict moves to a different local and associates with different people about 70% of the time the addict, once treated, stays drug free. Many habits are joined together, associated with specific times, local – even within the same room, people or being alone, certain activities. Looking at your own eating habits for example, are certain activities joined up with how and what you eat?

Key Point No.3 – Don’t Get Discouraged

This one is important, don’t get discouraged when you lapse. It happens, it will happen. Don’t use it as an excuse to let all the bad habits come flooding back. So what if a few days go past, decide again to go back to those small changes, just don’t give yourself a hard time about it. Be kind to yourself, just accept that you’ve lapsed, laugh about it and know that if you’ve come this far you can go even further. What you may find after a few weeks of performing a new healthy habit is that going back to it is easier than when you first started as the experience of the new habit is now with you.

Key Point No.4Track Your Progress

This one is about tracking your progress. This can be very satisfying emotionally, it also has a physical and visual component to it that fixes the habit more thoroughly. I remember when my daughter was in Primary School and learning about nutrition and healthy eating, her class was encouraged to start a chart to illustrate how much fruit they ate each day. She drew, in colour, every piece of fruit she ate on a daily basis and I think she consumed about four times more fruit than usual doing this. After a few weeks she stopped filling in the chart and ate less fruit than consumed during this experiment but to this day, almost two decades later, she still eats several pieces of fruit a day. So find some way of registering progress until the habit is so ingrained you don’t think about it. To really ramp this up find someone to track progress with, a daily mutual check in with each other, you don’t even have to share the same goal as each other just that it’s something important to the two of you.

There are of course other ways to begin new habits and make healthy choices but the four above are a good place to start.

One final point I’d like to make is about emotions; as someone who deals with emotional drivers for almost everything I have found that releasing the emotion behind a bad habit doesn’t necessarily stop the bad choices. It may be a key factor in severe cases but I think the main factor with emotion is that though it may have been the driving force behind a bad habit, when it comes to actually physically making the change you just have to do it! Human beings are hard wired for the easy option so breaking a habit takes effort, this is worth remembering when you begin the process of change, start small and relatively effortless but be very consistent…

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