If someone happened to print off all the lifestyle advice that’s on the Internet, the resulting pile of paper would probably reach far enough to guide Pluto through how to bounce back after being declassified as a planet. And this is a brilliant thing.
We are empowered and supported by the insight of others, and when we’ve won a bit of wisdom ourselves it’s wonderful to share it. But with all the information out there telling us how to eat better, live better and generally be better, why do so many of us struggle with even the smallest change?
Altering Your Lifestyle is a Bigger Challenge Than We’d Like to Admit
When night owls are searching for ways to feel better when waking up early for work, there are reams of useful ideas. Get to bed earlier, don’t use any electrical devices for a couple of hours before bed, wind down with a bath, set your alarm half an hour early so you can exercise and eat before heading off … it’s all sensible, valid advice. The problem comes when it becomes clear that simple, actionable stuff like this can actually be difficult to apply to real life.
Most people simply don’t have the time and inclination to structure their evening around the part where they have to go to bed. They want to spend time with their partner, friends or family. There’s a massive amount of chores to do. They’ve got hooked on the latest TV series, or often stay up reading until the early hours because they can’t find time during the day.
This is a small example, but one that illustrates how changing your routine usually means cutting out something else you think is important. It may all seem so easy, just a case of following good advice; but when it actually comes to it, those night owls are still staying up too late and feeling sleepy all morning.
Life Gets in The Way
The same is true for all kinds of changes. You know, because you will have read it a million times, that if you start exercising more you’ll feel better – but then the evening rolls around and you’re knackered. Or perhaps this Monday is the time to start that new diet, but then your friend turns up on Wednesday with a pizza and bottle of wine.
People tend to put this down to a failure of willpower, and be quite unfair to themselves. But if you work for eight hours a day, sleep for another eight, and commute for two, this leaves only six hours to shop, eat, wash, clean, have hobbies, see loved ones, exercise, relax and a million other everyday things. Your free time is limited, and the ability to make the best decisions for yourself is compromised.
Working out exactly what it is that’s best for you is a whole new challenge in itself. Trends come and go, and while women in the seventies were committing themselves to the grapefruit diet, now the mantra of “eat more protein, not less!” reigns supreme. Another effect is of these trends is the media developing a myopic and limited view, and not communicating the whole picture.
For example, mindfulness meditation has been a buzzword for a couple of years now, and it is an indisputably healthy habit. But the obsession with this trend is arguably obscuring the other techniques that could be a better fit for some individuals, such as transcendental meditation or Loving Kindness, because “mindfulness” is the word that will get the most clicks. This and scenarios like it are leading to the strange situation where people are both drowning in information and under-informed.
Sifting through all this advice – while also taking into account contradictory research and arguing experts – takes time and effort. There’s also a tendency for the media to advocate an all-or-nothing approach, where only a complete lifestyle overhaul will do.
Identify What You Value and Change Accordingly
So how can you get over this hump? First off, the idea of drastic, overnight change of your daily habits will probably have to be left behind. Instead, change nothing at all, but become more aware of how you behave across a couple of weeks – perhaps by noting down how you spend your time and what you consume. This way you can work out what’s important to you, and where you can make small adjustments to your day.
When I did this, I found that during lunch I would stay at my work desk aimlessly reading stuff I wasn’t that interested in online – something I could change immediately without much hardship. So I began leaving the desk, using my lunch break to meditate and spend 20 minutes on Duolingo learning some Spanish. I also realised that my “wasted time” in the evenings watching Netflix with my partner was something I valued and enjoyed, and would rather not give up completely simply because technically there might be better uses of that time.
Start Small and Go Slowly
How this looks for you could be completely different. You might realize that your attempts to get up earlier and go for a jog are repeatedly failing. However, rather than blaming yourself and resolving to try again, you could try skipping with a jump rope for five minutes (which is more high-intensity) while waiting for a cup of tea to cool down. Or perhaps the time you spend on social media (the dreaded “screen time”) each day is actually really important to you, because it’s useful for your hobbies and helps you keep up with news – so you’d rather not reduce it.
You can also take advantage of the technology invented to make change easier – just don’t download ten healthy living apps when you’re a bit hungover and feeling guilty. Do some research and pick carefully according to your priorities and needs, focusing on getting used to one thing before adding more. For example, if you tend to work late into the night on your computer, you could try f.lux software, complementing this by meditating for twenty minutes before sleep instead of trying to wind down hours in advance.
The ideas and instructions of others are valuable and could really improve your life, but they should act as a guide, not a quasi-religious scripture you have to follow to the letter or fail completely. Taking generalized (if ultimately good and sensible) advice and tailoring it to you as an individual through small and gradual adjustments will make lifestyle change that little bit more achievable. Before you know it, all those little changes add up, and you’ll have created a sustainable lifestyle that works for you.