I know, New Year’s Resolutions aren’t cool, and trust me, I hate the “new year, new you” silliness too. I like the old you!
But like many people, I do feel like reflecting and planning at this time of year, and sometimes the results look suspiciously like resolutions, no matter how much I characterize them as “goals” or “plans”.
(And while some organized people might think about this during the last week of December, around here the new year hasn’t really arrived until the kids are back in school, which was this week.)
Anyhow… last year I joined a group coaching program hosted by UC Berkeley sociologist and coach Dr. Christine Carter. I love her authentic, compassionate, research-driven style, so one of my first priorities this week was to listen to a recording of her New Year’s Day call, where she tackled the tricky subject of resolutions.
She does a nice walk from our typical lofty, vague aspirations to practical habits that can get us there. There’s a lot more to it than I can do justice to here, so if you’re curious, join the group (it works out to just US$10 a month) or pick up her latest book, The Sweet Spot. (Haha good name. No affiliation.)
What I wanted to share with you here are a few eating-related ideas that meet her key suggestion of “throwing ambition out the window.” I love this advice. Hear me out high achievers.
We’re so enthusiastic in January, it’s easy to fall into the trap of taking on too much: Committing to run a marathon when we haven’t exercised in years, or starting a new meditation habit thinking it has to be a half hour a day. We may get off to a glorious start in the optimistic early days, but if something happens to derail us (and it always does), that ambitious plan is going to feel overwhelming and likely be abandoned.
The solution? Dr. Carter advises starting with something “ridiculously easy”. (And fun!) Something you can do in less than five minutes. She calls this a “better than nothing” (BTN) routine. Maybe it’s sitting to meditate at the same time every day for just 30 seconds, or walking out the door just to the end of the block right after you get home from work. The idea is to pick something so very effortless that you could do it even when time is tight or your willpower is low.
The idea is to start with the BTN routine, then very, very slowly build from there, while always allowing yourself to do just the BTN version if that’s all you’ve got. In that spirit, here are five food-related BTN practices for you to consider.
- If your goal is to bring lunch to work, the BTN might be to bring at least an apple to work every single day. Apples are inexpensive, a bag will last in the fridge for about a month, and they don’t have to be refrigerated. The perfect BTN portable snack. But only do apples if you enjoy them! You could do this with mandarin oranges, individually wrapped cheese or nuts. The trick is to bring at least that same simple thing every day, even if you don’t have time or energy to pack a whole lunch, to establish the neural pathway that will turn this into a habit.
- If your goal is to curb emotional eating, how about a hot bath after dinner every evening? The big idea is to develop coping skills that don’t involve food, which might take more than a nightly soak, but it certainly fits the easy, enjoyable, and “better than nothing” criteria, assuming you’re a bath person. Perhaps from there you develop a whole calming evening routine, but for now, is there something “ridiculously easy” you can do to relax every day?
- If your goal is to eat more vegetables, how about picking up cherry tomatoes every time you shop, and keeping them washed and ready to eat in a bowl on the table? A handful of cherry tomatoes is certainly BTN in the vegetable department. You could do this with any “no prep” vegetable that you like, from snap peas to baby carrots to baby cucumbers.
- If your goal is to do more weekend meal prep, find something you can get in the oven or on the stove in just 5-10 minutes, and get into the habit of doing at least that, every single weekend. I’m thinking of foods like steel-cut oats, roasted peppers, hard-boiled eggs, or roasted chicken (not all of them though). Some people get very ambitious about weekend food prep at this time of year, which is great, but if/when it starts to feel like too much of a production, it’s nice to have something simple to fall back on, to keep the habit going. Pick one.
- If your goal is to snack less in the evening, how about a Greek yogurt with breakfast every day? In this study, a higher protein breakfast reduced evening snacking in volunteers sent home with a cooler full of tempting snacks every night. Even the smallest containers of individually packaged flavoured Greek yogurt have as much protein as an egg, but they’re portable and don’t require cooking. Participants in the study actually got much more protein than that, so if you have time, whip up some eggs or have a piece of leftover salmon with toast, but for a BTN habit, it’s hard to beat Greek yogurt.
By the way, ideally your new habit should be intrinsically rewarding, so try to pick a food that you really love, even if it doesn’t seem to be the “healthiest” choice.
I’d rather see you consistently bring a vanilla Greek yogurt to work (if you enjoy it), for example, rather than forcing yourself to do the lower-in-sugar plain yogurt, if you truly can’t stand the taste. (I know, sweeten with fruit, honey, etc, but some people just can’t do it. Don’t force it. Life is too short.)
If you like a few of these ideas, yay! But I’ll end with another of Dr. Carter’s key messages: Just pick ONE new habit to focus on at a time. Really. I know at this time of year we all want to do more… get organized, eat vegetables, plan new adventures… but take it from a recovering overachiever who has had to learn this the hard way and teach it to clients for years. One thing at a time.
Unpacking each of our lofty goals takes changing lots of little habits and bigger routines, consistently over time. Build your confidence with one and go from there, but never forget you can still do your better than nothing.