02.04.13

How To Change Your Life

If you want to change your life, willpower isn’t enough. Wanting it really badly isn’t enough. Brute force and sweeping declarations of how you’re positive that “this time will be different” aren’t enough. Determination alone won’t get you from where you are to where you want to be. It took me 26 years of unused gym memberships, unopened workout DVDs, and half-completed “body bootcamp” challenges to finally develop a regular exercise routine. TWENTY SIX FUCKING YEARS.

And now that I’ve been running consistently for 21 months, people often ask how I did it. How I changed my life so dramatically. What the “secret” is. Where my motivation comes from. And those are all such familiar questions, aren’t they? I mean, think about the last person you know who made a big change – the blogger who quit her job to travel the world, the friend who lost 50 lbs, the co-worker who got out of debt – significant life changes that, all of the sudden, just seemed to happen. Your dad used to smoke and now – poof! – he doesn’t. I used to drink almost every night and eat a diet loaded with sugar and now – poof! – I don’t. You look at your dad and you look at me and you’re all, “How did they do that so easily? I couldn’t do that. What’s wrong with me?”

Well, let’s clear up a couple of things. First of all, nothing is wrong with you. Second of all, making those changes wasn’t easy. And, most importantly, there’s no “poof!” moment. And yet, when we’re looking in from the outside of someone else’s big life change it’s easy to see what we want to see. We lay things out in a two part “now and then” timeline. Part one: I ate and drank an insane amount of sugar and completely avoided exercise. Part two: Now I don’t. For someone on the outside, that’s what it might look like. That I just woke up one day and was all, “Meh, you know what? I think I’m done with this shit. Poof!” But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Take exercise, for example. Do you want to know my truth? Here’s a snapshot of what really happened:

On January 1, 2011 I set a goal of doing 20 minutes of exercise three times a week. January went by and February went by and March went by and I was trying, doing my best to integrate exercise into my life, but I couldn’t manage to stay consistent with it. I’d work out once or twice a week, sometimes even three times a week, but never three times a week for more than one week at a time. April 2011 was the first month I was able to do 20 minutes of exercise three times a week for four consecutive weeks. It took me three months of “failing” at my goal in order to turn what I wanted into a habit. Because that’s the thing: Changing your life is really about changing your habits.

It took me 120 days in 2011 to get to the point where I was consistently working out. That’s 120 days of exercising, not exercising, thinking about exercising, feeling like a failure, wanting to exercise but not being able to get myself to do it, crying about why I’m so unmotivated, and beating myself up about the fact that millions of other people seem to exercise every single day without all the fucking emotional drama. 120 DAYS, YOU GUYS.

Like I said, there’s no “poof!” moment.

So, if we can accept that things don’t change overnight and that there’s nothing wrong with us and that other people’s changes weren’t as easy as they might seem, what does that really mean? And, most importantly, how do you actually change your life? I’ll tell you how: One small step at a time.

Societally, we glorify huge life overhauls. TV shows like Clean Sweep and The Biggest Loser give us the impression that we can completely transform ourselves in a relatively short period of time. Magazine headlines promise that you’re just “30 days away from an entirely new body!” At the heart of it, we’ve become a culture of people who demand enormous results in a fraction of the time, but the problem with that mentality is that it leads us to setting unrealistic goals. I can’t even tell you how many times I swore to myself (and truly believed) that, come Monday, I’d be an entirely different person. “Starting Monday I’m going to exercise every single day!” “Starting Monday I’m throwing out all the unhealthy food in my house and I’m just never going to eat like that again!” Sound familiar?

In my experience, the biggest problem with these types of “starting Monday” goals is that they don’t address what’s really going on. The focus is on the end result instead of on the individual habits we need to change and build in order to transition from our current lifestyle to the lifestyle we actually want. And that’s the key: transition. The single biggest reason my previous attempts at exercise never stuck is because I didn’t give myself the time I needed to transition from “Person Who Sits On The Couch A Lot” to “Person Who Exercises.” I figured that if I wanted it enough, it would just happen (poof!), but of course it never did.

You have to give yourself time to transition. In 2011, I had to realize that even though there were weeks when I would only workout once and was therefore falling short of my 3-times-per-week goal, it was once more than I was working out at that same time the year before. In December 2010 I didn’t work out at all, and in order to go from not working out at all to working out three times per week, I had to give myself permission, time, and space to make that transition. January – March was my transition period, and by April I had formed the habit of regular exercise. Does that mean three months is the magic transition period? Of course not. Other habits – like living sugar-free, for example – have been much harder for me to build, because every situation is different and every person is different and there’s no such thing as being “just 30 days away!” from anything.

What I’m saying here is that there’s a lot that goes into creating new habits. We’re all different, and being an asshole to yourself about why your transition is harder or longer than someone else’s is a waste of time. First of all, you have no idea what that person’s truth really is. Second of all, who the fuck cares? Take the time you need to create the life you want. It took me 303 days to go from being a Couch Person to lining up at the start of my first half marathon. Maybe you want to run a half marathon, too. Does that mean it’ll take you exactly 303 days? Of course not. It might take you half that amount of time, or double that amount of time, but you know what? The time is going to pass anyway, so you might as well just fucking go for it.

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenn February 4, 2013 at 8:11 am

The hardest part is not giving up during the transition times, and not letting that internal dialogue of “I should be working out right now but I’m not and I’m a terrible person for skipping that yoga class” turn into anything more than a fleeting moment of guilt. It’s so easy to get derailed and use that as an excuse to let the plan fall apart. The mental battle comes in when you forgive yourself for not sticking to the plan this one time, or the third time, or the twentieth time, and continuing to try anyway.

Also, the Power of Habit book was amazing and I loved all the science they offered behind the findings. Nerdy.

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Leslie February 4, 2013 at 8:18 am

I can appreciate the transition period. That time when you’re trying to figure it out and make it work. Lots of trials and errors.
I guess what I really wonder about is the engagement during this transition time. How do you stay connected to the goal in a daily way and engaged to it in those dark “I can’t do anything. Life will always be this way” moments.
For someone like me, who starts and stops with giant gaps in between, I really struggle with that transition period. I guess I’m an all -or-nothing type of person so I feel that if I’m not engaged in the goal in some way every day, then I’m not succeeding at all.

So…my question: How do you do the action steps toward the goal even when you’re in the transitioning phase?

PS – a new blog post from you feels like Christmas morning. Thank you for sharing who you are.

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Katie [Blogs] February 4, 2013 at 9:13 am

I’m a month into my transition period (like, the 20th one of my life…) and honestly, that whole quote that’s out there about each day not looking different, but then you look back you notice everything has changed is the truth. For me, a “one day at a time” approach is the only way I can do it. Else, I beat myself up over wasting so much time for 28 years, and wondering how long it’s going to take. So, I vow in the morning when I wake up to “just workout / make healthy choices / avoid distractions TODAY.”

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Marian Schembari February 4, 2013 at 9:37 am

Fuck. Yes. This is the most articulate post I’ve ever read on the subject of change. Well said, my dear.

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Nicole February 4, 2013 at 9:59 am

This is exactly where I am right now. And you know what? I’ve been bitching at myself for being such a procrastinator/lazy ass/failure and not working out more. Obviously I need to stop that immediately, but even breaking the habit of beating yourself up takes time.

Just now, I made myself a little sign for my motivation board that says “Keep tapping the jar” to remind me that it’s ok if I get off track, as long as I get back on when I can. LOVE THAT!

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Ana February 4, 2013 at 11:20 am

I don’t think I can say clearly how much I needed to read that right now. I have started running (again) this year, after putting it off for years because of my “bad knee” – which it is, bad, but I was also not doing anything to fix it in the mantime. I would like to aim for a half marathon by the end of the year – if not an actual race, at least the distance. So far this year I have managed to run 42 miles, which I know is not much, but it is 30 miles more than I have run the previous 3 years COMBINED.

Today I feel shattered and achey and coming down with the flu, and I know I should rest but I am struggling with the feeling that if I don’t go for a run today, I will have killed my exercise routine. So reading that hey, it doesn’t really mean that? Thank you. Thank you for being awesome.

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Susan February 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Thank Nicole. I needed that jump start to begin a new project I’ve been wanting to work on. It’s odd how we can easily become so encouraged to do something, see great outcomes in our head but when it comes to actually DOING it, then the negativity and the laziness comes in to haunt us. Next thing I know I’m procrastinating starting.

I started my exercise journey 2 years ago, Jan 2011 doing Barre exercises and started off slow and set a pretty good rhythm by end of that year and now I’ve incorporated Pilates Reformer exercises alongside Barre. And this is a girl who hasn’t exercises in over 15 years! I look back and think, WOW, more than 2 years of exercising, where did the time go? Now, I just need to apply that type of thinking of just go out and fucking do it to other areas of life…haha. I definitely NEEDED to read this post today. Thanks Nicole!

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Caitlyn February 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm

YES! This is what I’m just now realizing although you said it a lot better than I did. So glad I found your blog, I love it.

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Jo-Anne February 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm

What a great post and I so know what you are talking about I have only just started to try and get back into the exercise thing, I am taking it one day at a time…………

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Andi February 4, 2013 at 3:27 pm

I am SO inspired!!!!!

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mandy February 4, 2013 at 4:05 pm

YES. I am finally coming to terms with all of this. I finally bought a gym membership so I can run in a climate that isn’t 18 degrees and it has done really good things for me and my motivation. One of my favorite quotes they have on the wall is “motivation is what gets you started, habit is what keeps you going” and I think of that every time I consider skipping a day in my workout schedule.

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Danielle February 4, 2013 at 5:49 pm

I really needed to read this today. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself b/c I started working out 2 weeks ago & then pulled my back bad last week, so that I couldn’t even start my new job last Monday. And then today, I started it & came home practically hobbling from the pain & all I could do was berate myself for not being healthy & for being out of shape so that I pulled my back. And then berating myself more b/c I’m playing the comparison game. Thank you for this!

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gretchen February 4, 2013 at 6:59 pm

So true! I honestly couldn’t tell you when I started my Couch to 5K. I just started it at some point. Then I stopped at week 4 bc it got too hard and I got discouraged. Then at some point later on (a month? 6 months? Who knows?) I started over. Then I stuck with it. Then I kept running. I ran 4 miles. Then 5. Then I believed I could run a half marathon because you did. AND LOOK AT ME NOW, MOTHERFUCKERS!*

(*Pregnant and exhausted and seriously proud when I can complete 30 minutes of running without stopping. And it’s not even 3 miles. But THAT’S OKAY. BECAUSE I’M GROWING A HUMAN.)

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nikkiana February 4, 2013 at 8:46 pm

I think this is the sort of blog post that I need a poster format of so I can hang it on my wall to remind me to not get so damn down on myself about the changes that I’m trying to cultivate in my life. Thanks!

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Marie Nicole February 5, 2013 at 7:26 am

You mean I can’t just take a pill and be a better person?

I found what did it for me was to simply start loving myself. Really. Just love myself and it became actually easier to make the necessary changes in my habits. Waking up early to watch the sunrise because I deserve it, and then having the benefit of extra hours in my day to do the stuff to take care of myself.

Like you said, habits need to be changed to install new routines, but the sweet side is it takes only 21 days of doing something for it to become a habit.

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Michele DeVries February 5, 2013 at 9:49 am

I freaking LOVE you! I’m trying to quit sugar and come back from a running related injury that I incurred during training for my first marathon (over a year ago!) so that I can finally race again this summer. I could not have found your blog at a better time and I cannot thank you enough for the encouragement, support and overall kick in the ass I always feel when I read your posts. You rock.

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terra February 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm

For me, when changing things, whether it was deciding to be a more fit person or quitting smoking or whatever, I always got to the point where I was ready. Sometimes I didn’t act on that readiness, and it would pass, and be gone and then I wouldn’t be ready more, but it always came back around. It gets easier, the changes, even if it hurts and is awful in the beginning.

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Angie February 5, 2013 at 6:48 pm

I can so relate to many of the comments written here. It was like everyone was writing about me. I reached that transition phase and knew that it was time to change my life. I knew I had a goal and I knew that I was the only that could make it happen. I was ready. For nine months I have been going to the gym…not every night and yes I beat myself up every time that I don’t go but I am 40 lbs lighter with only 20 more to go to reach my goal. This is just the beginning for me. I am so excited to see what my future holds. My kids are grown…now it is me time!! I am so determined and excited!

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kelly February 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Gah! “The time is going to pass anyway, so you might as well just fucking go for it.” Seriously, pretty soon my entire house is just going to be decorated with things you tell me that resonate. Basically, you’re a genius and this post is exactly what I needed to read.

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Sharron February 6, 2013 at 11:20 pm

So true, I am 42 and finally on the road to the journey to eating cleaner. I was the kind of person who read all of those magazine headlines and felt like a failure when I didn’t wind up looking like a supermodel…duh!

I’ve ditched the mags, the quick fixes, seen a homeopath and am on my way to eating cleaner. Gradually changing my habits instead of hurtling headlong into something and crashing and burning

Thanks for the inspiration and the links on eating clean, especially Brendan Brazier’s link, he makes being a vegan look seriously attractive

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Chandra February 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Like so many before me, thank you for this post. I’m 37, the mother of 2 young children and I started getting up at 5 am most mornings over a month ago to start exercising, three weeks ago I started C25K…this past Monday I ran on a treadmill at the gym and seriously messed up both my knees, I can barely walk. I’ve been down on myself because I felt like, even though I hadn’t lost any weight yet, and I have A LOT to lose, I was at least making a change, making progress, and now I’ve been derailed……from running, only, for now, and this post helped me realize this.
I need to keep up with my change, my transition, even if its different for now then what I planned, because its the end goal that is important.
Thank You.

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doniree February 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm

:::waves hello from her own transition period:::

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Diana Vilibert February 10, 2013 at 10:44 am

Agree with everything here, and love that you linked to The Power of Habit! I’m in the middle of it now, and think it’s such a helpful read for anyone starting or trying to start a new habit. It takes out a lot of the mystery behind motivation and change—like, if I just follow this formula, the habit will stick. I don’t have to search for some secret motivation/inner transformation power that it’s easy to imagine other people have when they achieve a big goal. It’s very empowering!

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Jena February 15, 2013 at 8:54 pm

It’s taken me a while to sit and write you a comment on this post – because I’ve been really busy. I’m still trying to get my routines down, it’s so difficult since I still work third shift. I keep thinking it’ll change when I stop working this shift but I honestly don’t know that. I’m just trying to get things going, and I’m still so unsure of everything – but I’m not going to let that stop me.

My biggest thing is just making a decision and sticking with it, that’s been the hard part for me right now. I’m still trying to overcome some of the new life I’m deciding to live and it’s really eye opening. It all started with your blog to get me to realize that I needed to change my life.

Thank you for this post Nicole, it seemed to come just at the time when I needed it. Of course I think that about pretty much all your posts, so I’m a little biased. Also I’m in awe of this layout, you and Jamie run a fantastic company and I admire both of you so much.

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Get Thin for Good Online Weight Loss Program March 2, 2013 at 2:26 am

Excellent article filled with truth, thank you very much.

As an overeater, or person addicted to food will tell you, it is really hard to change the HABIT of thinking about food in a bad way, which results in obesity.

It is indeed the HABIT that needs to change, and this is the hardest part of learning how to stop depending on food to fulfill your needs.

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Alarna Rose Gray March 2, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Totally awesome post! For me, it’s been more like years of failing… but each year, doing a little bit more. Until this year, finally feeling like I’m getting somewhere. The cool thing about what you’ve said is that it means that every little failed attempt is, actually, still progress!!! Thank you :)

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Adrienne March 17, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I really like the name of this blog. I haven’t figured it out yet myself. I’m hoping someday.

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Scott March 19, 2013 at 5:15 am

I stumbled across this. I don’t really know how.
I understand where you are coming from but I was a smoker.
Smoked a lot.. I tried quitting 3 times but one day I woke up and never wanted to smoke again.
I never used and thing to help me quit.. No nicotine patches or gum nothing.
I just woke up one day and thought I don’t want to smoke no more and have nothing to show for it.

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kamran March 20, 2013 at 10:22 am

I perfectly agree with your line “if want to change you lifestyle change your habits” Indeed Great Post !!!

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Christian March 27, 2013 at 9:25 pm

I agree with you. Thank you for writing this article. I have been finding it difficult to accept myself with the faults I have, accept that change will take time, and at the same time try to find the motivation to change. Whenever I do try to change, I’m always waiting for that “ah ha” moment that lets me know I am over the hump and it never seems to happen. Then, I don’t think I have changed at all and become discouraged and go back to the way I was when I was miserable. Its a vicious cycle. I think you have opened my eyes to the flawed thinking that I have had. I need to understand that there is no “ah ha” moment and that change comes one step at a time. Thank you very much.

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fifi sturgeon April 1, 2013 at 12:46 am

my moment will never come. i have been fat all of my life, there is never going to be an “AH! HA!” moment. Perhaps my moment was accepting this revolting body and making the best of what i have. brat camps are wasted on the young….take middle aged women, leave them in the desert and let them “find” themselves. Time spent on a treadmill is punishment for your weakness – we all know that. Geting a natural high from exercise is utter bollocks. A high from watching Pride and Prejudice is another thing all together.
fi

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JCoo April 3, 2013 at 5:46 am

OK Im in! I may need a buddy though- anyone in? Im 46, overweight (by 40kg), not much exercise currently, unhealthy eater, mood swings and a tad obsessive. Gee sounding like a real catch here :) But Im a nice normal woman I promise :) )
JC

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Robert April 6, 2013 at 11:07 am

You offer some useful insights into the topic of change. The transition period may be quite long in some situations. Perhaps I need to accept that fact and move on from my failed attempts without any negative emotion. Thanks.

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marianna April 10, 2013 at 4:34 am

loved this post
I am right now sitting on the couch feeling appalling and wanting to jump up and shower, do my hair, dress nice and go out looking radiant.
But after a two day migraine this is hard to do.
After reading this post, I figure it’s really OK to slowly get my energy back and carry on.

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John April 24, 2013 at 7:02 am

I love this post. It has not affected me yet but I will understand one day.
When I’m reading this again.

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Rahul May 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Damn..!!!!this aritcle is cool…u rock……

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Aneel May 22, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Really great post.

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th June 10, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Stumbling upon this corner of thoughtfulness gave me some much needed breathing room at a time of feeling at the bottom. It’s funny how people say change is a constant when not wanted. I’ve been looking for a dramatic decision that upends my life for the better but maybe it is the little things. Thank you for the encouragement.

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Honey June 27, 2013 at 9:18 am

I think your writing style is so great and i appreciate all that you’ve said.

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Paul Conway September 26, 2013 at 8:48 am

Rings very true to me. My only rule now is this: don’t quit. Even if it means starting over and over again from the beginning.

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Lisa October 30, 2013 at 10:11 am

Hi Nicole!

Great article. You really highlighted the key ingredients to change in one’s life. It’s all about creating new habits that support the life you desire. Wanting it and taking action are completely different.
Congrats for taking control of your life and creating what you want in life.
Lisa

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Frankie January 15, 2014 at 12:02 am

I just wana say fuck ya 2 the way you write, what you write about & just thank you. I like yer style; it’s a familiar 1 :) Happy New Day, screw waiting 4 New Year 2 wish/say happy ;9)

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Haley March 4, 2014 at 10:55 pm

TRANSITION! I am stuck. I literally googled “How to actually change your life”. I am familiar with the idea of transition. I have never noticed the transitions before though! I think that’s why it’s a thing with me. I remember becoming fat. I remember when I changed my eating habits. What I don’t remember is my life before? Isn’t that odd? I bought a Yoga mat. I said if I could be on a schedule it would be easier. I set 7 goals for 7 days. I want to be my best. I just am so weak! I’m using the next 4o days to transition into who I want to be. Good post. I loved reading this.

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LTRob March 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Two word review of this article: Fuck. Yes.

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