Habit change is a funny thing. Funny because there’s the way we think it’s going to go (the way we tell ourselves it’s “supposed” to go) and then there’s the way it actually goes.

If you’re like me, you probably assume that when you’re being “good” and when you have “enough willpower” or whatever the fuck, habit change goes like this:

Decide to make a change —> Make the change —> Stay consistent with the change —> Feel great —> Never have a problem ever again

Seriously, you guys, that’s the way I used to think habit change worked – even though EVERY SINGLE real life example I had ever personally experienced was more like this:

Decide to make a change —> Talk myself out of the change because I was afraid it would be too hard —> Decide to make the change again —> Attempt the change for a few days or weeks —> Feel inspired and pumped up —> Keep going —> Get bored —> Hit a mental/emotional/circumstantial road block —> Let the new behaviors slip —> Get angry with myself —> Feel like a failure —> Go back to my old habits and behaviors out of comfort and convenience —> Use this situation as “proof” that I’m incapable of change —> Repeat

Which is why, honestly, it was such a huge deal when I was able to quit drinking. That behavioral change was the exception to everything else I had ever tried to change, and it gave me hope that other changes were possible. It started the momentum snowball, which carried me off the couch and into a pair of running shoes, which then carried me into massive dietary changes. And through all of that, I’ve learned a lot about habit change. I’ve learned, for example, that the ebb and flow of making real changes in real life (changes that actually stick, even when things get tough) looks like this:

Decide to make a change —> Identify what, specifically, you want to change —> Identify why you want to change (is this goal truly a good fit for you, or is it just something you think you “should” do?) —> Start changing by doing one tiny thing at a time —> Be patient —> Get frustrated that things aren’t magically different overnight —> Sit with the discomfort, and keep doing one tiny thing at a time —> Commit, every single day —> Make this change a real priority —> Notice when the once “impossible” things start to feel effortless —> Value your commitment more than your progress —> Make more change —> Get into a good rhythm with the new habit that suddenly isn’t so new anymore —> Keep going, without needing as much thought or effort —> Realize one day that you’re not being quite as diligent as you once were, but shrug it off —> Notice when “not quite as diligent” has morphed into “totally off track” —> Get upset with yourself for letting this happen (shouldn’t you be passed this point by now?!) —> Breath, regroup, and get back to it

And it’s in exactly this way that habit change can be really difficult, because even when you’ve been doing something consistently over a long period of time, you can all of the sudden find yourself completely off track and out of alignment with where you truly want to be.

For example:

The other day, I realized how much gluten I’ve been eating lately. (Spoiler alert: I’m not saying gluten is “bad” and I’m not saying you need to stop eating it – this story is about what makes me feel my best, and is not to be mistaken for any kind of judgement about anyone else’s choices. Cool?) So, here’s the deal with gluten:

Last November, I stopped eating gluten for five weeks. It was a suggestion I picked up from The Ultramind Solution, by Mark Hyman, a book about how to fix our broken brains (in my case: mood disorder) through dietary and lifestyle changes in addition to (or instead of) medication or other standard remedies. I found the book fascinating, especially the parts linking the inflammatory nature of gluten with depression and other brain-related ailments, so I was eager to experiment with how it would feel to cut gluten out of my own diet for a bit.

I was very strict about it for five weeks (because really, the only way to know if something works for you is to be deliberate, intentional, and consistent with it over a specified period of time), and I noticed a definite increase in my mood stability. Not as intense as when I cut out processed sugar (that was huge for improving my mood/energy stability), but noticeable nonetheless. “Great,” I thought. “This works! So now I’ll just stop eating gluten and that will be that – easy.”

(RIGHT. “EASY.” GOD, HAVE I LEARNED NOTHING FROM YEARS OF HABIT CHANGE?? Sigh.)

So, predictably, I stuck with it for a few more months. Then, I got curious about how it would feel to add a little gluten back in (would I feel the negative effects right away?) and I played around with that, intentionally, for another few months. I noticed that I felt better when I wasn’t eating gluten, but that I didn’t feel terrible when I did eat it, so it became easier and easier to let it slip back into my life. Why? Because gluten is easy, and I got lazy. Toast is easy. Sandwiches are easy. Deciding not to comb through every detail of a food label is easy. And so quietly, little by little, I let the gluten back into my life.

That’s how it happens, by the way. It’s not like one evening we just think, “You know what? Fuck it. I’m 100% done with this habit/lifestyle change.” It doesn’t happen like that. It happens slowly, where we decide that one piece of toast is fine and then one piece of toast every two days is fine and then toast every afternoon is fine and then oooh, English muffins, those are delicious! And since we’ve been eating all that toast, what difference does one little English muffin make? But then it’s not just one English muffin, it’s one per day, and on and on…

So, here I am, realizing how I’ve let gluten back into my life, and also realizing that my moods have not been very stable lately. There are other factors at play, of course (seasonal changes, a severe reduction in running due to injury, etc) but I know that I feel better when I don’t eat gluten and in the past few months I have been neglecting that truth – simply because it’s easier.

So, okay, I’ve now reached the point we all reach during the cycle of habit change, the point where we consciously realize that we’re off track and out of alignment from where we want to be. (Notice that I didn’t say “off the wagon” or anything dramatic like that, because I really don’t like the idea that we’re either “on” a program or “off” a program – it’s too black and white, too perfectionist-ey, and too likely to lead to thoughts like, “Well, I already had one cookie and messed everything up so I might as well have 12 cookies and then just ‘start over’ again tomorrow.”)

Because there’s no such thing as starting over. There’s only changing direction from where you are right now, and continuing on from there.

And that’s the key: changing direction. If you’re doing something that you don’t want to be doing, you simply need to change direction. You don’t need a big plan of what to do every day for the next six years, you just need to do one thing to change direction. Think about it this way: Let’s say you’re driving a car down a long road, and you’re traveling south. You’ve been traveling south for quite a while, when suddenly you realize that you’re going the wrong way. You never meant to go south – you need to go north! You just accidentally stopped paying attention for a while, and wound up driving in the wrong direction. So, okay, just because you’ve had that realization doesn’t mean that poof, you’ll automatically be going full speed in the correct direction. No, first you need to slow down, find a safe way to turn around, slowly begin driving north, and then let your speed build back up gradually from there. Habit change is the same.

There I was, eating lots of gluten (traveling “south” so to speak) and now that I’ve realized I’d like to stop eating gluten again (go “north”) the first thing I need to do is slow the momentum I’ve built up in that direction by doing one small thing differently. By doing that, I’ll begin the process of consciously turning the car around, which will then allow me to building momentum in the other direction through the compounding effect of one north-bound decision after another. Because, seriously, it’s the cumulative effect of your actions that create impact. Eating one piece of toast when you haven’t been eating gluten for three months wouldn’t equate to all of the sudden speeding down the road heading south, just like not eating toast for one day if you’ve been eating it all your life won’t all of the sudden mean you’re barreling northward; it doesn’t work like that. One thing doesn’t change everything, but lasting change must begin with that one thing because it’s that one thing that starts to turn the momentum in the other direction.

So on Monday, I didn’t eat gluten (slowing the car). Then, yesterday, I didn’t eat gluten (slowing down some more). So far today, I haven’t eaten gluten, and I’m starting to feel the momentum shifting in the direction I’d like to go. I’ve turned the car around, I’m keeping my eyes forward, and now I’m very slowly heading north, one day at a time. And that’s another thing, actually: try to only look in the direction you’d like to go. If I want to be driving north, it’s not very safe to be turned around in the driver’s seat, staring south and beating myself up over how many miles I traveled in the wrong direction – that’s a recipe for a car crash.

So just keep your eyes forward, focus on where you want to go, and then keep going – one step, one mile, one decision at a time.