When you want to make a change in your life, wellness or otherwise, what’s the best approach?
Want it very badly but do nothing about it
Jump right in and do it already!
Approach it very carefully, making very small adjustments that over time yield the transformation you desire
Everyone knows it’s #3, right?
Except it isn’t. At least not always. When it comes down to it, there is no one perfect way to make changes in your life. Let this sink in and you’ve just saved yourself the need to read the scores of books out there on habit change. (I know—I read them.)
Hopefully you realize that answer #1 won’t help, either.
A common example of the take-it-easy approach is when it comes to everyone’s favorite wellness practice, flossing. You’ve probably heard that you should start with just one tooth to ease you into the routine of doing it every day.
I tried that. And I failed.
Because—really, one tooth? Who can work up enthusiasm for one tooth? I wasn’t going to go through all of the rigmarole of taking out the little box of floss and wrapping it around my fingers just to floss a single incisor. Imagine how long it would take to work up to your whole mouth—and get the beneficial effect you want. That’s just depressing.
So I went the opposite route. Basically I chose option #2. I decided to floss every time I brushed my teeth, which is usually three times a day. Doing it that frequently has three main benefits:
The frequency helps cement the habit more quickly
The frequency also helps you see results more quickly (bye-bye, bleeding gums!)
I didn’t have to be perfect. If I skipped one time doing it, I was still doing it twice—which was two times more than I had been before
I do this with workouts and fasting intervals, too. By aiming to do more than I ultimately care about, I (generally) set myself up for success. And if it doesn’t work at all, I’ve learned how not to pursue that particular goal.
However—and this is a big one—this does not work in scenarios in which your emotions get involved.
I didn’t feel like a failure when the small-modification approach didn’t work for me. I didn’t have any emotions or feelings of self-worth tied up with my ability to floss regularly (though I knew I really want to do it for my gums’ sake). It was simply an experiment and it failed, teaching me only that I needed to try a different way.
If you’re trying to make a change that’s all tied up with feelings about yourself—and you know that you won’t be neutral about “failing”—then you might find more success with making very small, careful modifications. Ease yourself into it.
So the gist is: Know yourself. You already do—you just might be working against this knowledge. Recognize what situations are fraught with feelings—and which you’re neutral about. And to the extent you can, remember that it’s all just an experiment.