“No time like the present, no bird like the pheasant,” my dad is fond of saying. It’s nonsensical but gets stuck in your head after awhile. I always figured it was some old-timey common saying, but in all of the Googles, only one other person has said something similar:
Photo courtesy of Reuben Whitehouse. Some rights reserved.
Thanks, quirky internet stranger! Anyway, I’ve hesitated to write this post, because even though I’ve wanted to communicate this idea, it’s not as practical and quantifiable as most of the other advice and experiences I’ve shared. Then, of course, I realized the irony of putting it off, and decided to just jump in and try to say what I want to say.
Several times in my life, I’ve made a lifestyle change quickly. When I was 19, for example, I went into a presentation on animal rights a complete meat-eater (barely an omivore, only in that I used a bun to hold burgers and tended to have fries on the side) and came out a vegan. As in, I went to the cafeteria for lunch straight after the lecture determined never to eat meat again, and I haven’t. (Dairy and eggs I’ve been a bit lenient on as ingredients over the years, but not meat.) I am 39 now, so I’m thinking this change is going to stick.
This is the most drastic example, but there have been other times when I’ve shut down or started up a habit almost on impulse and it’s stuck. My big financial transformation may have taken a few days vs. the hour it took to turn vegan, and I’ve fine-tuned my approach almost constantly over the years, but the psychological shift was sudden, dramatic and (seems to be) permanent.
There are many other instances where I’ve tried to make a change and it hasn’t stuck. One of my biggest weaknesses (now that I’m no longer an overspender, that is) is physical fitness. I’m a slothlike creature by nature, loving to recline, relax, remain resplendently in repose, etc. Getting up and getting moving is just not my first impulse (or my second, or third, or …). So I’ve started countless physical fitness journeys that have petered out after a week, a month, a year … I’ve never gotten a routine to stick, basically. My only saving grace is I’m too cheap to buy a car, so I get a lot of walking and occasional biking in.
Will I ever find a routine that sticks and gives me my ideal body and fitness level? I’m not sure, really. But I never give up the idea that I will. So whenever I feel inspired to try, I start a new fitness routine.
Same with housekeeping. Having grown up in a cluttered household, barely ever asked (or taught, or ordered) to lift a finger to clean up after myself, I have a well-honed laziness and ability to turn a blind eye to chores that should be done. Every once in a while I get a burst of inspiration to tackle the floor of the whole condo, or keep the surfaces clear of paper clutter ONCE AND FOR ALL, and sometimes these bursts last weeks or even months. But again, I haven’t found a way to make myself consistently useful in the arena of housekeeping (beyond finding room in the budget for a cleaner to come once a month to help out!).
So why am I regaling you with tales of my chronic failures? I just want to make it clear that I’m no guru who’s found the key to modifying every part of my behavior that I find lacking. There are some parts of my life where I keep stumbling and having to start over again.
But where I’ve really succeeded, I’ve found that my big life changes have a couple things in common:
- I started right away. When I’m struck by the inspiration to make a big change, I tend to do better if I don’t spend time dithering, or making elaborate preparations for the change. On the other hand, I’ve watched myself and many friends of mine delay making changes, either by flat out saying “This isn’t the right time” or “I can’t,” or by spending tons of time in the planning stage — making plans that quite often don’t actually ever get implemented, or fizzle out quickly; sometimes even spending money on the tools for something that never gets off the ground. (I can name my $1000 treadmill bought on a payment plan, a 15-year-old mistake I’ve never forgotten, as one painful example.)
- I quit something first. With both veganism and fiscal responsibility, the first step was to stop. I stopped eating meat and dairy, and found that I could find enough subsistence around me to get by while I learned how to cook and get a well-rounded diet. I and my family stopped spending; for a time we bought only groceries, turned down every invitation that would cost us any money, and made do with the clothes, housewares and other supplies that we had on hand, before we gradually figured out how to budget those things in. If you can’t figure out how to get started, maybe there’s something you can stop doing as a first step.
- I established a routine as quickly as possible. With money, of course, I started setting up little challenges and goalposts, and started a blog about them. Soon, I’d feel weird and itchy if I had a financial bit of news and didn’t share it with my blogger community, or if I paid a bill and didn’t change my debt totals on my spreadsheet.
- I made myself accountable. With the veganism, I had a clear moral path and so I needed nothing more than personal guilt to keep me on track. But with finances, I’d tried many times before, and it really helped to have an audience (my blogger community) and a high-stakes motivation (keeping my family from going into default on our debts).
With one of my more recent (temporary) fitness successes, I’d been tiptoeing around the fact that I needed to add strength training to my daily life. My wife started doing a certain amount of the same kinds of exercises every morning and night, not making a big deal of it, just taking less than 5 minutes out of her morning and night routines to fit it in. After watching this for about a month, I suddenly one night thought, “Why try to come up with some brilliant hard-hitting weights routine when I could just get started?” So the next morning I began my own little mini-routine of strength training, and that night, and the next morning … very soon it became second nature, and only a couple of health scares/events derailed me. But yesterday morning, I started up again, again on a whim.
I think this one could be a keeper; it just got interrupted too soon in the process to stick the first time I tried. But it’s something I can start right away, and it’s easy to make it part of my mornings and evenings, which are some of the most routine-heavy times in my day.
So, if you’re still reading, here’s what I propose: Pick something you’ve been wanting to do, something that’s been nagging at you for a while that you’ve found seemingly valid reasons to put off. Start doing it right now. The first step for many lifestyle changes can’t be planning; it has to be something with a palpable reward, a feeling of a step taken.
So you want to get fit? Get up from your desk and do 25 ab crunches, then set your alarm for the next day at the same time so you can do them again. You want to start saving? Open a savings account — they’re all about the same, so just pick a free one and start; you can always switch later — and set up a recurring automatic deposit. You want to start making money to pay off debt? Go through your stuff and list something on Craigslist right away.
Whether the change you want to make is big or small, the first step can probably be taken right now.