One habit at a time, or all at once?
February 10, 2016 12:49 PM   Subscribe

There are so many things I want to change about myself, and I don't know where to start.

Hello everyone. First of all I want to say that most of the time I am happy and my usual self. I suffered from an eating disorder for five years and I thankfully one day just stopped in February 2015 and it lasted almost a whole year, until January of this year. I was going to therapy on and off but nothing seemed to work until I read a particular book about being present with no distractions while eating, and savouring each bite and eating whatever I felt like with no restrictions. That worked for me and lasted almost a whole year.
However, lately when I get home from work, I have been so tired that I've been eating mindlessly as soon as I get a chance and it continues on throughout the evening. All my plans of writing and doing exercise go out of the window. This stresses me out and is very upsetting, as it also destroys my week.
I tried eating mindfully but because of my tiredness I always say to myself 'ok this will be the last time i eat like this, new start tomorrow'. I have tried taking naps after work, and also therapy. I take vitamin D pills and also multivitamins. I also have a habit book. None of this works! I am feeling guilty all over again because I can't seem to get my act together.
Other things I want to change about myself are to exercise more, write in the mornings and do art more regularly once again, dance once in a while, and read everyday. I have about ten books in my bedroom that I want to read this year but have so little time that I doubt it will happen. There are so many things I want to be doing and just don't have the energy to.
Also I don't have just one group of friends, I have friends spread out all over the city and in order for me to keep my social life, I need to see them regularly which involves dinner or drinks, which also makes me overthink about food and it takes me out of the routine. But social life is very important to me as I am alone here in the city.
I feel like if I just focus on my eating and exercising habits that I won't grow as a person. Should I try to change all of these things, or follow the recommended baby steps? My problem is that when one thing fails, I give up for the whole day. Do I have too many things I want to do that it overwhelms me? I would greatly appreciate any advice on this as I feel like I've lost focus and not sure which habit I should focus on changing first. Thank you.
posted by akita to Human Relations (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I had a big transition year recently and one thing that helped me really find my new groove was to commit to something each day for my heart, my soul, my brain, and my belly. For me, that looked like this:
- Heart = physical health (some kind of exercise)
- Soul = state of mind (mindfulness or yoga)
- Brain = reading/writing/learning how to use socket wrenches
- Belly = eaten good healthy food in moderation, mindfully
So instead of "failing" by not doing ALL THE THINGS, I thought about it at midday & usually tackled something then (a long walk on my lunch break), thought about it when leaving work & maybe picked up some spinach & avocados on the way home, etc.

Like you I don't do well when I don't meet my goals. So thinking of it in terms of feeding/nurturing the parts of myself I thought needed attention was much more helpful than thinking of it as goals I had to meet. If I didn't feed my soul on Tuesday, I still fed my brain and my belly, so I didn't fail - and therefore I didn't feel like a failure/throw in the towel.

And really it didn't take long before I was doing a better job of prepping food ahead of time, so good food was nearly ready when I arrived home tired. Veggies roasted in bulk on Sunday and then thrown into soup one day, onto salads another day, etc.
posted by headnsouth at 1:04 PM on February 10, 2016 [52 favorites]

Try doing it for a day, a week, or a month.

Whether you focus on one thing or several, shift your habits a finite period of time. There's a reason why Dry January works for a lot of people--and they end up drinking less once the month is over. When you do it, you think "Well, I can do anything for a month." And you're right! But what's great is that by the time the month is over you have created new habits and new patterns that tend to stick with you. You go out for walks with friends instead of drinks. You order a soda water when the bar you're in doesn't have your favorite beer. Or you slow down and pay attention to what you eat because it's Mindful Eating Week and you'll have all the time in the world to wolf things down during Speed Eating Week, which is coming right up once you complete a whole week of eating while being mindful.

However, I wouldn't try to change everything at one time if I were you. I think once you develop healthier eating and exercise patterns you'll find that you have more energy and inclination to write more, create art, and so on. Best wishes on your journey. Remember to congratulate yourself on working on the situation!
posted by WordCannon at 1:08 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd say one thing at a time. And eating mindfully is like all mindfulness activities, very difficult, so kudos to you for doing it for a year! The trick now is figuring out your triggers -- you already know being tired and hungry is one, and being distracted by socializing/alcohol is another -- and devising solutions. (For example, consider eating a filling snack mindfully before you head home, and also having a meal that is ready to heat and serve when you get there.)

Really building this mindfulness into your life with regard to food is a very, very big step in growing as a person, don't you think? I do. Also, maintaining your social contacts is an important aspect of growing as a person . . . that is how we all build compassion, attentiveness, listening skills, empathy . . .

I think if you can get back to mindfulness about food and drink, it won't be a big step from that to scheduling time to exercise and mindfully doing that. That you are learning to do one thing well is a big assist to the next one you take on. And small, consistent steps are the key.
posted by bearwife at 1:17 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Something that really really helped me was actually defining the person I want to be. Instead of "I need to exercise more" or "I need to lose 10 pounds" or "I want to read more" I focused on the person I want to be. I wrote down that I want to be "fit," "outdoorsy", "financially independent," "healthy," "service-oriented", etc. These were some of the words that I want to define me. Each day I focused on these words and tried to incorporate an aspect of them into my day, then I wrote that down in my journal. For instance, if I took a walk, sent out resumes, went horseback riding, ate sensibly, I wrote it all down under the correct heading. By defining who I wanted to be and writing it down I could see that I was already a little bit of that person. Writing it down also encouraged me to do more - took a walk yesterday? I bet I could add a little jog into today. I also learned to focus on the things that I really wanted to define me. I didn't want to just lose 10 pounds, I wanted to consider myself a fit person. I didn't want to just make more money, I wanted to be considered a financially able person. I didn't just want to be nice from time to time, I wanted to be a person who served others. I didn't just want to be a person that said I liked being outside in nature, I wanted to be outdoorsy.

So, maybe sit down with yourself and figure out who you want to be. What words do you want to describe you and then work toward incorporating those aspects into your life and record them.
posted by Sassyfras at 1:21 PM on February 10, 2016 [13 favorites]

The conventional wisdom is that you should build one habit at a time. I don't buy it. I can walk and chew gum at the same time, and so can you. The key is keeping track of everything. Someone on here mentioned a few months ago. I've been using that ever since, and it's great. It tracks each thing individually, so even if you miss one thing ("work out in the morning" is one of mine), there are still other things you can do later. Missing one doesn't make the whole day a failure. It's really useful.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:25 PM on February 10, 2016

You used not to be super tired after work, and now you are? What changed? A new job? The amount of light this time of year, or the weather? Has work gotten more stressful? Are depression or thyroid problems rearing their heads? Are you getting enough sleep? Do you need a certain amount of exercise to feel alert?
posted by yarntheory at 1:48 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Start with one thing first. Just one. Focus on it. Like no eating in the first hour after you get home.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:17 PM on February 10, 2016

I have one suggestion that might kill a couple of birds with one stone, since I also am frequently tired after work (anemia and generally laziness), eat mindlessly when I get home, and fail to exercise: as soon as you get home, before you can get distracted by anything else, change into something comfortable and go back outside for a walk. Even if you only make it a few blocks and realize you're too tired/hungry to go on, you've at least tried it. I find that most nights that I do this after work, I end up walking for a half hour or more and get home and immediately start dinner, since it's a little later and I'm in a different mindset than "arrive home, throw down bag/purse/coat, commence snacking." I haven't been doing it much lately because of the weather and have packed on some very unnecessary pounds and feel generally crappy about myself. I'm going to try to get back into the habit tonight!
posted by jabes at 2:46 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's very difficult for us to give you good advice given that you've had eating disorders. I'm afraid that anything I might say could trigger you.

I'd really urge you to find a new therapist, one that specializes in eating disorders.

Since you ask, I will let you know that I've been having a very similar experience to you. I have never had an eating disorder, but I did used to practice mindful eating for weight management until it somehow stopped working. I tried more traditional methods and kept on trying them for three years.

This past Xmas I kind of hit rock bottom. I couldn't sleep at night, couldn't get up in the morning, could barely drag myself to do a half hour's light exercise in the afternoon. The AFTERNOON. I spent money impulsively, had to stretch 8 hours' worth of work to 12 hours because I couldn't focus, felt terrible all the time. I figured maybe I was just lazy - or maybe this was age? I was trying extra hard to eat correctly, but I just couldn't do anything right.

Then I stumbled across some material that convinced me I had drastically underestimated my calorie needs - as most information sources seem to do. In early January, I methodically increased my food intake until I found my maintenance level. WHICH WAS ALMOST DOUBLE WHAT I HAD BEEN EATING BEFORE.

Almost immediately, I could focus, move around and get through a day without feeling like a wet dishrag all the time, could think clearly, had more impulse control. Bad habits which had been intractable for - you guessed it! three years! I am suddenly finding I'm able to get on top of. A habit is a habit, so it doesn't just disappear, but with a bit of effort I'm able to exercise normal amounts of self-control. Which I previously didn't have, because I was literally trying to starve myself. It's as if I had tried to drive 400 miles on only half a tank of gas, and wondered why I was grinding to a halt halfway through.

The way you describe feeling exhausted, can't do the things you want to do, and you come home and eat the sofa every night - you sound exactly like me. Minus the eating disorder, I could've written this myself just six weeks ago. It looks like you possibly just need to eat more.

So this is just my guess, and if this suggestion doesn't help you then please please ignore it, and NO MATTER WHAT please find a therapist specializing in eating disorders, STAT. It just sounds to me like if I had to pick ONE thing to change it seems like you are just not getting enough food to live on.
posted by tel3path at 2:51 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I asked an expert in habits about this once, and she said the answer is definitely one at a time. Much greater chance of success. Also start with a small change, to build confidence that you can do more.
posted by three_red_balloons at 3:17 PM on February 10, 2016

I'd say one thing at a time. That way you're likely to actually *do* it rather than feel overwhelmed with many things you feel you *should* be doing. If you try to do too much at once you're likely to just get frustrated.

Pick one thing that you want to do first, buy yourself a cool calendar, and mark off a time slot for yourself to do that activity. Check off the days when you do it so you can see progress and feel motivated to keep going.
posted by christiehawk at 3:50 PM on February 10, 2016

Here's my $0.02, keying in on this part of your post: My problem is that when one thing fails, I give up for the whole day.

I would suggest you start with changing that. There is a reason 12-step programs use the slogan "one day at a time". If you sit in those rooms (as I have), you will hear that sometimes, it is one hour at a time or one minute at a time. If you slip, and many people in 12-step do, you start over again.

If you can re-frame your thinking from whatever it is that makes you give up for the whole day to something more along the lines of "well, ok, I made a mistake, but I am not going to let it stop me from keeping my commitment to myself for the rest of the day." Or, perhaps you give yourself credit for every hour that you did succeed rather than having one mistake impact the entire day.

Good luck. Personal change is hard work.
posted by elmay at 4:24 PM on February 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Other things I want to change about myself are to exercise more, write in the mornings and do art more regularly once again, dance once in a while, and read everyday. I have about ten books in my bedroom that I want to read this year but have so little time that I doubt it will happen.

One thing that I haven't seen suggested here, which might help you easily tackle some of these goals (especially since meeting up with friends in an important part of your life). Have you talked to friends about their goals and activities?

So if you have a friend who likes to dance and goes to a weekly dance class, well go with them to the same one. Or if you have a friend doing the couch to 5k, work out and compete with them. Or also make new friends who have these same goals.

The other thing that I haven't seen suggested here (and there is published literature and studies behind this - memail if you want it it, but not citing because it seems obvious and straight forward) is that some people have success by defining themselves as having a characteristic consistent with the goal. So for your goals, if you follow some of the ones above, "I am a dancer, I am meant to be a dancer" (or writer, or reader, or whatever one you select.)

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 4:35 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a huge fan of Tiny Habits with BJ Fogg - it was free the last time I used it. It works by creating associations. One of my first tiny habits was putting my keys in the same place every day which sounds meaningless but it actually prevents a ton of morning stress for me. I also worked on mindless eating at 4 pm.

I can't vouch for any of the paid academy stuff, but 3 years later I'm still consistently putting my keys where they belong unless I somehow miss the trigger event.
posted by 26.2 at 6:29 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

My own experience is that it works best to focus on one change or habit at a time, until it's fairly well engrooved into my daily life, then add the next.

My Zen teacher has a book that might be relevant: Making a Change for Good: A Guide to Compassionate Self-Discipline. The back half of the book is a 30-day personal retreat, in which you choose one issue to focus on for a month. It includes daily check-ins and exercises, and comes from a totally non-punitive orientation.

Best wishes! Changing habits takes work and is worth it…
posted by Lexica at 7:48 PM on February 10, 2016

I did a similar process to some of the others on this thread, where I focused on adding a single thing, then later adding another thing, etc. Basically, I added one new thing a week. The things were all over the map, from small things to keep my house cleaner (like never going to bed with a cupboard open) to things like going to the gym 3 days a week, to having dinner with friends at least once a week.

Not all of the habits stuck after I stopped blogging about it but some of them did.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:31 PM on February 10, 2016

One more general piece of advice I've found helpful is that willpower is a scarce resource, so to make habits stick you have to try to make the new way of doing things as easy as possible. In my case for instance, I wanted to run more, but I would always find I had too many other things to do after work. By running in the morning immediately after I got up, I essentially only had to get up, put on clothes and get out the door - no hard choices to make.

If you feel tired when you get home, you are really going to struggle to make extra effort to eat well at that point. Think about what you can do earlier in the day when you have more energy to make it easier to stick to your desired habit in the evening? Slow cooker meal you put on the morning? Batch cooking and freezing?

Your unconscious mind and engrained habits are incredibly powerful, so to take most advantage of your conscious desire to change, you have to use the planning and preparing skills your conscious mind is good at to minimize the amount of pure willpower you have to use.
posted by crocomancer at 4:42 AM on February 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel like if I just focus on my eating and exercising habits that I won't grow as a person.

That's an interesting thought. In my experience, learning how to eat in the ways that were best for my body and learning how to exercise in the ways that were best for my body involved a lot of growing as a person - when and how to be more disciplined, when and how to be more forgiving or indulgent, how to observe what works well for me, how to improve my ability to put those things into more regular practice.

From my perspective, developing just one habit - asking yourself, about each attempt, success, failure, practice, experiment in each day: Is this working well for me right now? - simply learning to ask that could help you grow as a person throughout your life.
posted by kristi at 1:05 PM on February 13, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you, these are all great answers. I am going to focus on one habit at a time. For now it is mindful eating x
posted by akita at 12:20 PM on February 15, 2016

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