If you want to change, change today — not tomorrow

Every year as December winds to a close, I think about all of the things I’d like to change in my life. I think about how I’d like to lose weight, stop wasting money on stupid stuff, and — especially — learn to use my time wisely.

Some years (and this is one of them), I make grand plans to change my habits.

Recently, for instance, I purchased a five-year journal. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a lovely little book that includes space to make entries for each day from 01 January 2021 until 31 December 2025.

Hobinichi 5-year planner

In my mind, it’d be awesome to commit to keeping this journal for five years. And I really really want to do it.

But here’s the problem. Often, these grand plans aren’t rooted in reality. They’re based on some idealized picture of who I want to be, not who I am. As a result, I don’t follow through. (Fortunately, my intended journaling routine is aligned with who I am.)

Here’s a real-life example.

I’ve struggled with my weight all of my life. There have been periods where I’m fit and healthy, but there have also been periods during which I indulge myself indiscriminately. I gain weight. My blood pressure soars. My mental health suffers.

Eventually, I decided I need to get fit again. When this happens, I take one of two approaches.

  • The first approach is to adhere to some sort of regimented diet. Maybe I decide I’m only going to eat vegetarian. Or, usually, I aim to stick to a high-protein menu. Plus, I’ll exercise every day! As you can probably guess, this doesn’t usually work. (Sometimes it does but not usually.)/
  • The second approach is to allow myself to continue eating and doing the same things I’ve been eating and doing, but to do so at a reduced level. I don’t deny myself anything that I enjoy (hello, Hostess Sno-Balls!) but I eat the stuff less often.

This latter method is aligned with who I am. It doesn’t operate on the assumption that I will suddenly become a different person. It accepts my quirks and works with them.

Like I say, I have a much higher success rate when I opt to make changes that come from a place of intrinsic motivation.

There’s nothing revelatory here. Psychology shows that changes are more likely to stick if we’re intrinsically motivated rather than pursuing something because somebody is making us do it (or we think we ought to do it). We have to want the change for the change to occur.

I know this, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to adopt habits that are completely foreign to my mental make-up. I think we all do this.

There’s another problem with deciding, “Oh, I’m going to suddenly be a different person on January 1st.” When I decide to adopt resolutions on some meaningful date — the first of the year, my birthday, various anniversaries — they rarely stick. Maybe I adhere to the new behavior for a day or two, but then I forget (or fail) and it makes me feel shitty. I feel ashamed. I feel like a failure.

I have much, much better success if I do not aim to adopt new habits on some meaningful date. I get better results when I decide to start now.

Again, let’s use my fitness as an example.

I frequently try to start fitness programs at the first of the year. Or on my birthday. But during my 51+ years on earth, this has never worked. Not once.

What has worked, however, is starting immediately.

If I want to lose weight and get fit (and I’m serious about doing so), then the most effective thing is to begin this very moment, not wait for some arbitrary date in the future. I have the motivation now. I have the desire now. If I start when I’m motivated, I’ll build momentum. If I wait until a future date, I may or may not have the desire at that time.

In 1997, for instance, I hit 200 pounds for the first time in my life on May 6th. After I stepped on the scale and saw that number, I decided then and there to lose weight. Over the next six months, I lost forty pounds. (And it was this weight-loss journey that led to my first blog. Neither Folded Space nor Get Rich Slowly would be here today if I hadn’t made that decision!)

In 2010, I resolved to lose weight starting January 1st. It didn’t happen. But I did get fit after a similar “come to Jesus” moment in early April. (That instance led to me losing forty pounds again and achieving the best fitness of my life.)

And this year? This year, I hit my limit on July 28th. I resolved to lose thirty pounds in six months. It now looks like I’ll miss my target by a week or two — but I’m still going to shed that thirty pounds. (And more.) Then, I’ll start working on exercise to boost my overall fitness.

In each of these three cases, I started when I was inspired to start. I didn’t wait for some date in the future.

I went alcohol-free from July 5th to October 29th of this year using the same method. I simply said, “Enough.” I made the decision to stop drinking, and I followed through. I’m ready to resume sobriety starting tomorrow, even though I know have a lousy track record of doing things when I pick a “magic” date. If I was serious, I’d start today. I’d let Kim enjoy champagne tonight and I’d celebrate sober.

Anyhow, none of this means that I shouldn’t try to make changes in the new year. It’s always good to pursue self improvement. But I need to be realistic about the likely results. And I need to recognize that my true successes come when I make changes immediately, when I’m motivated, instead of waiting for some magical time in the future.

4 comments

  1. JD, if I’m not mistaken, your blog (GRS) was the first place I’d ever heard of Crossfit. 🙂 I even googled it. I can’t recall exactly when that was, but at some point later I ended up attending a 6:00am bootcamp at a Crossfit “box” (it was slightly less pure crossfit) for about 6 months. I’d already lost 40 lbs and knew I should do more than just he cardio (running/walking) I had been doing. Eventually the gym moved to where it was just not feasible to expect me there at 6am.

    That was 7 years ago and over time, the weight (not all) came back. I got a Apple Watch in May of this year and I’m certain I haven’t been as consistent about moving since that time period 7 years ago. I added food logging (via Lose It! app) in September and I end the year about 10 lbs less than I started.

    I look toward 2021 with a continuation and tuning of my health rather than having to tackle everything at once. I want to focus more on Mobility (I’m 57) and get back to some form of strength training. Right now my lower back would not tolerate a boot camp (though it truly is my favorite form of exercise), so mobility it is.

    Cheers to 2021 and best of luck on the journey. (PS, I’ve thought about those 5 year journals too!)

    1. Yeah, mobility is a big issue for me too. It always has been, but it’s even more so now that I’m 51. One thing I’m going to experiment with once I add exercise into my lifestyle again is the Apple Fitness stuff. It meshes well with everything I have already. I have an Apple Watch. I have an Apple TV. And so on. I looked at some of the Apple Fitness programming, and I like it. It’s not intense as Crossfit (but then nothing is), but it’s activity, you know? On my agenda for February once I reach my target weight. (Usually, as now, I separate weight loss from exercise. Weight loss, for me, is generally a function of diet. And if I’m dieting, it’s tough for me to also exercise. I did it in 2010, but that was an exception.)

      1. Totally agree. I know it’s food that impacts my weight, it’s exercise that impacts my overall health. All important, but different. When I lost that weight 7 years ago, it was food tracking (and calorie reduction obviously), then after I’d lost 10 lbs, I added a Couch to 5K program, in the next 5 months I lost another 30, then added the boot camp. I lost another 5 lbs and was the healthiest I’ve been in my adult life with the cholesterol to match. I cannot say the same now (and also have the cholesterol to match unfortunately.)

        This time, I’ve been way more “active” since May, and started tracking food/calories in late September.

        This weekend I walked and listened to Paula Pant’s 1/1 podcast with “The One Thing”‘s Geoff Woods. (I have had the book on my kindle, but haven’t read it yet). The focus of habit forming basically describes when I’ve been successful even if I didn’t realize I was focusing on “one thing” at a time. I’ve decided to focus on my morning routine now, avoiding my phone before I’m up, out for a walk/run, and get the rest of my morning started.

  2. I ran into a related idea just a few days ago, on a fitness site I follow. That guy suggests that the way to create/maintain motivation is to make what you’re trying to do awesome. For example, he doesn’t try to “get in shape,” he tries to “train like Batman.”

    I just noticed that you were writing here again, and have caught up on the past week’s posts. Good to see—and I’d be pleased to read more about your fitness journey as well as your time-tracking stuff.

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