Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Relax, Frugal Eater: A Measured Approach to Lifestyle Changes

My sister L has made a lot of positive changes recently. Among other things, she’s eating better, normalizing her schedule, and attacking debt that’s dogged her since the late ‘90s. I’m super-proud of her, and I’m pretty sure she’s proud of herself. But she does get bummed occasionally, mostly about the changes she isn’t making – stuff she wants to tackle, but needs to work up to.

But here’s the thing: she’ll get there. It will take time and she’ll probably mess up on occasion, but she’ll get there. And whatever you’re doing, whether it’s learning to cook, attempting to eat healthier, or saving up for a down payment on a house, you’ll get there, too.

See, when you’re trying to make substantial changes in your lifestyle, it’s tempting to attack every obstacle at once, and at full-tilt. Overweight? Raw foods diet! Out of shape? Advanced pilates class! Compulsive shopper? No more spending money, EVER!

There are two problems with the extreme approach, though. First, when boredom and feelings of deprivation set in, you’ll tire of the new routine quickly. Very few people can go from Sex and the City to Little House on the Prairie in a week without wanting to plunge a hammer in their eye. Lifestyle changes, especially ones as massive as diet and money, take time, patience, and dedication.

Second, when it’s all-or-nothing, the smallest foul-up can derail the most monstrous efforts. If you’ve ever started a diet right before the Super Bowl, you know what I’m talking about. (“I can’t do this all the time, so why bother?”) There has to be some latitude allowed, along with forgiveness for minor slip-ups. Otherwise, to borrow a saying, you’re killing yourself to live.

The antidote to all this? Baby steps, man. Instead of going whole-hog, adjust your behavior little by little. Your goal will be reached just the same, and you negate the chances of having total nervous breakdown in the process. Sure, there will be impediments, but there are ways to handle ‘em. In fact, listed below are a few strategies for surviving the rough times. And as always readers, I’d love to hear your ideas.

Acknowledge and analyze setbacks, but don’t panic. So, you overspent on a new shirt. You went 500 calories over your self-imposed daily limit. You burned Marcella Hazan’s Lemon Roasted Chicken so badly, it now resembles a post-nuclear tire iron. IT’S OKAY. Stuff like that happens. Before you scrap your plan completely, take a minute out for post-game analysis. What prompted the error? How does it make you feel? What can you change for next time? Careful consideration of mistakes can help minimize damage and prepare your mind for the future.

Remember your victories. Dude, you cook now! You ate a vegetable with lunch! Yesterday, you even spoke up when the Kroger cashier overcharged you by $4! These are all wonderful, wonderful accomplishments – stuff that simply didn’t happen a few years ago. Evoke these memories when you’re down, and they’ll give you strength to move forward.

Write about it. From time to time, I feel guilty blogging. Though CHG’s aim is ostensibly benevolent, I occasionally find myself barfing up emotions like so much bad chili. But you know what? It helps. It really does. Transcribing my weight travails and culinary screw-ups not only expresses my consternation in healthy ways, but makes me feel responsible to readers. If you’re hitting a rough patch, whether it’s with paying down debt or feeding yourself, try penning a paragraph about it. Then, look back at the entry in a day or two. It’ll put some perspective on things.

Find a support system. If you read Weight Watchers’ Then and Now pieces, you know (besides drinking water and eating breakfast) the majority of success stories cite the message boards as vital to their journey. It just goes to show: people need people. Whether it’s your mom or fellow attendees at a Dave Ramsey seminar, kind words, real empathy, and genuine accolades will prop you along.

Block out non-constructive criticism. From family to the media to Joe Sixpack: Idiot Construction Worker, the world is full of judgmental busybodies. Even the internet can be a none-too-helpful place, where faceless, semi-literate cyberbeings rag on your choices without consequence. You don’t need that, yo. While you can’t change peoples’ reactions, you can change your reaction to them. Ignore the haters and you’ll be happier for it.

Reward yourself. Everytime you hit a milestone or turn positive change into habitual action, you deserve something that says, “Yay! I rule!” Banked half your paycheck? Take a long lunch. Lost five pounds? Go bowling. Made your first vegan meal? Follow it up with a sweet vegan dessert. Acknowledging your milestones will encourage you to attack the next obstacle.

Boldly plunge forward. To borrow another saying (this time from Emerson): “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered by your old nonsense.”

In the end, nothing says, “Nothing can stop ME!” like not letting anything actually stop you. So don’t worry about the bad days. Attack your setbacks head-on and keep pushing for a better you. And next time you fall off the horse? Look that equine jerk right in the eye and yell, “I WILL BREAK YOU!” He won’t understand, but ponies don’t really get symbolism anyway.

P.S. Happy 29th, L.

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members Bill A, guyonabus, and gilest.)


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