Simple Changes Aren’t Always Simple

One of my favorite writers is Ian Rogers, who blogs about his health at Fistfulayen. In one of his best posts, he writes about his use of the L.L. Cool J workout, which eventually turns into an astute point that virtually every “healthy diet” book focuses on the same handful of seemingly simple principles. He identifies six:

1. Eat five or six times a day
2. Limit your consumption of sugars and processed foods
3. Eat fruits and vegetables throughout the day
4. Drink more water and cut out calorie-containing beverages (beer, soda, and so forth)
5. Focus on consuming more lean proteins throughout the day
6. Save starch-containing foods until after a workout or for breakfast

… but then he notes they’re not as simple as they seem:

Pretty straight-forward, no magic, no surprises, but I had to completely change my diet around to get there.

The steps seem easy enough, but in order to achieve those simple steps, he had to alter his entire pattern of food and beverage consumption – and the cultural and social patterns that went with it.

In other words, a simple change that can be described in one simple phrase often has a huge amount of change underlying it. In order to, say, cut out calorie-containing beverages, a person may have to break a caffeine addiction, break an alcohol addiction, change their social lives in order to break free from such addictions, and significantly alter their daily routine so as to not fall back on such addictions.

That’s a challenge, any way you paint it. The intensity of that challenge, which ends up actually being a large handful of changes all at once, can easily overwhelm someone, even if their intent is wholly in the right place.

Let’s use a personal finance example. Cindy, a reader who emails me fairly regularly, recently wrote in to me lamenting her difficulty in implementing what seemed like a simple personal finance goal.

I will limit entertainment spending to $100 a month.

Within entertainment, she included her cable bill, the costs of going out with friends, and money spent on purely fun things. It seems like a very straightforward goal, but in Cindy’s own words, it’s harder than it seems.

In order to make that goal, I cancelled my cable and used some of the money from my first month to buy one of those digital converter boxes for my old TV. This disrupted three of my weeknights, as I’m now missing out on shows I watched faithfully. I’ve started skipping every other “girl’s night out,” which has been really hard. I don’t go clothes shopping any more either. I now spend a lot more time online than I used to and I feel a lot more moody and kind of sad, too. I keep finding myself cheating on that $100 limit too by buying stuff online.

Cindy’s not just trying one new routine in her life. She’s breaking a big pile of them and trying to establish some new ones at the same time.

She’s breaking the “girl’s night out” pattern. She’s breaking her television watching pattern, which is a several-night-a-week pattern. She’s breaking her clothes shopping pattern. She seems to be flailing with this free time and is somewhat settling on a new pattern of more online usage. She’s also seemingly adopting a new social pattern with her circle of friends, one that she’s not quite as happy with.

That’s a lot of change, any way you slice it.

I’ve found that, time and time again, when you take on a ton of changes in your life all at once, it’s very hard and there’s a huge tendency to backslide. Yes, some stubborn people can make it through a lot of changes at once, but most of us can’t – it’s very, very difficult.

So, what’s the solution?

The solution is to take stock of all of the real changes going on in your life and choose just one or two of them to focus on. Instead of sticking so fiercely to the simple “$100 a month” strategy, Cindy might want to simply live without cable for a while without altering her other routines in life. Yes, I’m advocating that she go back to “girl’s night out” every week.

Why do this? Her one change – cutting the cable – will save her money. But it’s a pretty significant alteration to her routine, one that she has to get used to and one where she’s going to need to find replacement activities that she’s comfortable with. That alone is a major change to deal with and she should give it time until that change is routine and normal.

Give it a month, Cindy, until coming home to a house without cable television feels normal. Find other things to do on those evenings where you might have watched some cable program. Try out a new community group. Visit the library and pick up a book or two. Invite the ladies over for a “girl’s poker night.” Find things that you really enjoy that don’t cost money to replace the gaps that cable has left in your life.

Once it’s all established and you’ve found a new normal, you’re sitting on a new normal with $50 less spent each month. Now, move onto another piece of the puzzle. Maybe the next thing to try is giving up clothes shopping – or at least altering it by hitting consignment shops and secondhand shops instead. Dive into that change – this one will probably be easier.

Sometimes, you’ll find a smaller change that is really hard to break because the activity you’re modifying brings you a lot of personal joy. Guess what? You shouldn’t break it. Likely, that thing is something that’s a big part of one of your true core values in life, and those are the things we work to preserve in life. Instead, move on and look for other ways to save and to change.

The moral of the story is simple: if a change is just too big for you to swallow all at once, break it down into smaller changes and work through those changes one at a time.

If you’re finding it difficult to meet a spending goal, look at all of the different things you’re spending money on and focus on the areas you can cut, one at a time.

If you’re finding it difficult to meet a diet goal, focus on one specific dietary change until it seems normal, then move on to another one.

If you’re finding it difficult to meet a personal growth goal, tackle a specific element of that growth (or focus on finding the space you need to tackle it).

It’s just like my two year old daughter with a bowl full of grapes. If you try to stuff too many things in your mouth at once, it becomes difficult to chew them and digest them. You’re far better off with one grape at a time.

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