Do you remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare? Recently I leafed through my childhood copy of Aesop’s Fables and reread the story of a plodding tortoise who won a footrace against a speedy hare who was so cocky he stopped for naps. It occurred to me that the moral of this story applies to the way we often approach health improvements.
We are regularly bombarded by ads promising dramatic results in a short time with little effort: a beach body by next month or a skinnier you without giving up your favorite fattening foods. Unfortunately, these alluring offerings are usually disappointing in the long run, and when they are, we may blame ourselves for failing instead of seeing that the failure is in the plan itself. Then shame can set in and keep us from trying again.
Understanding the flaws in these short-sighted plans can help lead to a more realistic and rewarding roadmap for sustainable change. For one thing, quick-fix solutions do not take into account our unique lives. “One size fits all” is inappropriate for anything but scarves, and it certainly isn’t appropriate for our health.
In addition, quick fixes are inconsistent with brain science. We are, literally, creatures of habit. As I explained in detail in an article published in May 2020, all of us have earned our current habits – both healthy and otherwise – by practicing behaviors over time until they require little or no thought. For most people, it will take several months for a new behavior to become habitual.
Habit formation also requires consistency, which is even more important than time. Think of a baby learning to walk, trying repeatedly until one day walking is automatic. Babies don’t take days off when they are doing this important work. And the tortoise didn’t take naps. For those who consistently repeat a new behavior, habit formation can occur somewhat faster than for those who are less consistent over the same period of time. If we are inconsistent in our practice or attempt to shortcut the process, a new habit will not take root and our brains will soon revert to our old, hard-wired ways.
Understanding the compounding effect of small steps can help us be patient. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear recommends a “system of continuous small improvements.” If that sounds unexciting, consider his math: “The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding . . . If you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or minor setback accumulates into something much more.”
A small improvement could be as little as drinking a glass of water before breakfast or meditating for a minute each day. After a week or two, you can add another small step and then another. Notice I don’t call these “baby steps.” Small steps are not just for children.
Equally important is not measuring yourself against a desired end result. You may not be as thin as you’d like yet, but with your small steps, you are becoming thinner. You don’t yet have washboard abs, but your abdominal muscles are becoming stronger from the inside out. Both a short little word like yet and a concept like becoming acknowledge that you are evolving in a positive direction. You are a work in progress. Allow yourself some grace by taking satisfaction in your effort and the process instead of focusing solely on the outcome.
If you can believe that “slow and steady wins the race,” who knows what could happen? You might exceed the result you were seeking, meaning it wasn’t an “end” result after all. You could be as surprising as the plodding tortoise.