On Nutrition

When your goal is to become healthier, it’s easy to think in terms of big, sweeping changes (like eating nothing but organic, home-cooked meals and hitting the gym every day) and big results (feeling fabulous, being superfit, looking 10 years younger). Images of these transitions may play in our minds in all their full-color, high-definition, widescreen glory — indeed, we’re often encouraged to keep this “big picture” in mind. But what about the small picture?

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are good nutrition, exercise, sleep and other self-care habits — forming habits (or undoing unhealthful ones) takes time and consistent effort. We don’t just step into our big-picture image like walking onto a film set; it’s your day-to-day actions that add up to lasting improvements in health and well-being, not just lofty ideals. As Aristotle put it, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Are you familiar with the ancient “argument of the growing heap”? It’s sometimes called the “one-coin excuse,” as in: “I want to be rich. One measly coin doesn’t matter.” Sure, one coin doesn’t make you rich, but what if you add one more coin, then another, and another? Your heap will grow, and eventually you’ll reach the tipping point where adding just one more coin takes you from “not rich” to “rich.” So, one coin does matter. Focusing on that growing heap instead of any one coin makes it harder to make excuses and easier to keep moving forward rather than spinning our wheels.

For example, what if tonight you don’t feel like cooking a healthful meal, and you say to yourself, “What difference does one meal make? It doesn’t matter if I pick up fast food.” Does one healthful meal make you healthier? Ten? Eleven? Eventually, you will reach the point where you feel that you are indeed healthier — and that last healthful meal you ate made the difference. While any one meal may seem meaningless, over time, the sum — or heap — of nutritious meals you eat, the walks you take, the nights you go to bed on time becomes quite meaningful. The very habit of taking healthful actions, repeatedly, has value in and of itself. Here are two strategies for growing your heap:

Start the day by writing down — or at least reflecting on — three things you’re grateful for and three small goals to help you move toward your big-picture goals. End your day by reviewing your progress, maybe thinking of one way that you could have made the day even better. This can help you focus on the positive and keep your small-picture progress top of mind, which is especially important when your big-picture goal seems far away. Maybe you still can’t walk up a hill without getting out of breath, but you are walking almost every day and are able to walk farther or faster on level ground.

Choose daily actions that you actually want to do. If you are trying to eat more vegetables, eat vegetables that you enjoy and are easy to prepare. If you are trying to exercise more, choose forms of activity that you enjoy and are convenient — no joining a gym that requires you to fight traffic, especially if you don’t even like going to the gym.