Starting to stop, adding to subtract: changing habits the sane way


There’s a thing about starting the year afresh with the chronological turn of it; there’s another thing about aligning your restart with the turn of your personal turn on the planet, which is often more useful. (There’s a third, entirely different thing about restarting wherever you damned well please, but I’m too much of a coloring-inside-the-lines, goody two-shoes for that.)

I’ve always liked when my birthday fell, in September (yesterday, the 13th), coinciding as it did with the turning of seasons and the returning to school, something all inside-the-line coloring types enjoy. We’ve been enjoying a break in the heat here in Los Angeles as well, so we can even pretend that our seasons have shifted (although god help us all when the inevitable heat wave that is early October slams us sideways).

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like to change, along with why I’d like to change it. Digging in and getting at the roots of things has proven much more useful than anything else for actually changing my behavior. For example, when I quit smoking, my third or fourth round of brochitis was struggling to gain purchase in my lungs; while “health” was a nebulous goal, staying out of the hospital and not feeling like I was being drowned were both wildly compelling. Ditto with getting on the SCD the first time: at barely 90 pounds, having suffered a horrible summer of illness capped by four weeks of riotous fever, stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea, the idea of food I could keep in me long enough to put on the weight that would make me ambulatory again was right up there with no-brainers like oxygen and shelter.

You can’t fight City Hall, Mother Nature or your fat ass

At officially-48, I’m dealing with the first serious signs of physical breakdown. My hair is thinner, I tire more easily and, most horrifying of all to me, I pack on weight I can’t easily take off. I’m told I still look relatively young for my age and I still feel like a nimrod youngster most days, but the physical realities of gravity and hormone depletion are winning on too many battlefronts. It’s time to take action, and that means tying action to meaning.

You’d think that watching friends and relatives start to succumb would be enough, but it’s not. Death isn’t particularly compelling unless it has its rank breath smack up against your open nostrils. For me, what I want is more obvious and basic: to feel good when I awaken, and to keep feeling that way until I fall asleep. That includes but is not limited to:

  • being able to climb the local hills without getting winded
  • being able to sleep through as many nights as I can (this getting up in the night and peeing thing ain’t the worst, but it ain’t fun, either)
  • being able to pick something up off the ground without making Old Man Noise
  • being able to fit comfortably in the reasonably-sized clothes I already own
  • being able to avoid colds, flus and other stress-susceptible illnesses
  • being able to get off these goddamn meds for good

A lot of us who use our brains and our extended brains (i.e., The Google) for a living tend to be dismissive of the fact that we are not just a brain, but a body. Forget “spirit” or “soul”, we fight the reality that at the very least, the pile of gray goop has to be carted around by muscles, tendons and bones. And that’s not even getting into the idea that good food and rest and exercise can keep the gray goop itself functioning at a higher level for longer.

Subtracting from my fat ass back the additive way

Most programs of change seem to focus on the subtractive, talking about how you must deprive yourself of this or that, just like they emphasize Massive Overhaul rather than tweaking. All well and good when, perhaps, you’re really up against it, but what about when you’re looking at something squishy and less pressing, like feeling better or taking the dog for a walk with more joy or something long-term-good like possibly better hair for a wee bit longer? Then you’re looking at implementing the kind of long-term change that takes, well, long.

In his latest newsletter (which you really should subscribe to, it’s as good as mine, only different), Chris Brogan talks about a simple reframing that seems to be working for him: adding good stuff in rather than taking bad stuff away. He’s lost 20 pounds so far by doing stuff like adding water and adding a higher percentage of greens to his dinner plate. Is he really cutting back on Diet Coke and fatty carbs? Well, yeah, like I said, it’s a re-frame. But it’s a small reframe that seems to be working.

I’ve been thinking about how I might use this to get myself back on the SCD. Ordinarily, that means things like “no more pizza” and “so long, cupcakes.” But I considered it and wondered if maybe I couldn’t start making my way back by doing things like “carry SCD-legal snacks with me” and “switch morning walk to Trader Joe’s”: the former would likely keep me from falling off the wagon by keeping ferocious hunger at bay, and the latter would mean I could turn grocery shopping (kind of a chore to me) into a normal, semi-fun, fairly regular part of my routine.

A few weeks ago, I’d been thinking of today with a big, heavy red circle around it: Monday Is the Day I Quit Eating Anything Fun and Get Back On SCD. And it may turn out to be; frankly, I’ve gorged myself on so much sugar, starch and processed crap in anticipation of it, the thought of eating clean is pretty appealing. But as long as I’m still feeling pretty chipper, health-wise, I think I’ll try this slow, additive thing first and see how it goes. It’s in keeping with my friend, Matthew Cornell‘s idea of testing lots of small ideas and measuring the results (Matt, if you drop by, leave better links in the comments so we can nerd out, please!)

I also have some thoughts about other small, additive changes that might enhance my life a bit, like the Leo Babauta-inspired music experiment I started (and subsequently stopped) earlier this year. But first this. There’s enough other stuff swirling around right now, and the point is to make life easier, not more complicated.

In the meantime, I’m very curious to know what sort of luck other people have had with additive change, and whether it’s been easier (and stuck longer) than the subtractive kind. What say ye: yea or nay?


Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Absolutely, additive change has lasted longer, been easier to warm up to, and has been more effective than any of my drastic attempts to subtract (except for the cold-turkey quitting smoking thing. That went well, being just an absolute).

    The 60 pounds I lost by eliminating fast food first (okay, that’s not additive, but it was an “easy” little shift), choosing foods high on the glycemic index and filled with high-quality carbs, drinking more water, moving around more (you remember my blog post on Embracing Inefficiency, right? And how just getting my ass up and going into the kitchen to get a fresh water, rather than asking Keith to grab one for me while he was in there made a big difference), and simply making my better choices better than my bad choices were bad, and more often choosing better than bad, well, I’d say that was “easy.” Especially compared with the ways in which I’ve lost weight in the past. That I’m at a healthier weight (and holding) nearly two years after I started the process of making small changes, gradual changes that I could live with certainly says “it works” to me.

    As for the more emotional stuff, simple choices like, “Feel better about this,” have made a big difference. And I made a pledge that in 2009 (odd, because I–like you–celebrate my new year on my birthday, but for some reason this year I actually made–and have kept–a few resolutions) I would “say yes more.” That has been VERY additive in nature, duh, and the number of FANTASTIC, life-changing people and things that have entered my life just since I decided to say yes rather than doing the knee-jerk NO of a busy person has been fascinating and humbling to see.

    Sorry. This is a long comment. :) But yes, the answer is yes. Additive change–so far–has been easier, longer-lasting, and (probably most importantly) more FUN than those, “Today is the day I change my life,” things I spent so much of my early adulthood doing.

    Happy new year, CoCo! I’m so inspired by you and excited for you. MUCH LOVE!

  2. YAY for additive change!! I have used the additive approach for almost everything I have taken on over the last 4 years or so. One of the most impressive changes for me was adding meditation specifically geared toward stress-relief and finding it created a dramatic shift for the better with some surgery-related pain. (that always looks like “sugary-related pain” to me. cupcakes on the brain.)

    There is a quality of kindness and compassion that is present in the additive approach. I think there is something about our brains that can really get behind that – much more so that the gripping, desperate, “I will NEVER. EAT. CUPCAKES. AGAIN.” Which, for most of us, is a bald-faced lie and sets us up for failure. Maybe it’s because we are saying “Yes” to something instead of “no” to so much. In any case, I love this post and that you are doing this!

    Thank you for your inspiring and very funny blog!

  3. I totally agree. Here are some additive changes that made a difference for me:
    I will get a pedometer and walk 10,000 steps a day.
    I will write for 20 minutes every morning.
    I will always have fresh vegetables in the fridge.
    I will clean out that kitchen/desk drawer.
    I will go through my closet and put everything I haven’t worn this season into a bag for charity.
    I will reach out and make a phone call I feel too shy to make.

  4. I had a similar experience to Nona. Two and a half years ago, a total couch potato, who always hated to exercise or any kind of sports, I had an impulse to walk into a yoga place. I was so fed up with feeling 25 pounds overweight and icky. It wasn’t the typical kind of yoga – it was a strange and somewhat mysterious Korean form called Dahn yoga. The exercises were a little weird. The good thing about it was that it was doable for someone completely out of shape and had some theory about giving you positive energy. The truth was I felt less depressed when I walked out and I started to actually feel my body in a way that made me WANT to eat healthier.

    A year later I was able to take real yoga classes and the overall effect has been amazing. It changed my body and my attitude and the result has been a 25 pound weight loss that stayed off for 2 years. I also found an eating plant that works for me long term where I eat often and small amounts so I never feel hungry (this was my downfall). But the motivator was the emotional and physical change that resulted from yoga.

  5. I’ve never thought about the difference between adding or subtracting change before… I’m not sure which is easier, but I’d probably guess that substracting things is easier for me. I bet it depends on what type of person you are!

  6. Hey there. I completely agree that the additive approach works well for me too, probably because it feels like a gift and who doesn’t like getting those?! So the beautiful pitcher full of water, the cozy yoga pants and the comfy walking shoes all help as motivators.

    But I gotta tell ya, if you can find me an antidote to thrill of a twinkly-eyed, husky man offering me artisanal cheese or a fresh cupcake – I will take that plan! Yup, me and my Rubenesque butt will be your fan forever!

    While I am focussed on acheiving new positive goals, I try to make sure that the speedbumps I hit are pretty joyous in themselves! But man, hitting those goals, whatever they might be, is pretty sweet in itself.

  7. I like the sounds of additive change. It reminds me of the “kaizen way” where you take small steps to change.

    Thanks for your post. It reminded me not to put pressure on myself over my business. Each small change I make to it is additive and will result in a massive change over time.

    As to being 48, you’re still a baby. Once you can remain calm and at peace, your health will improve and become perfect. Our bodies reflect our thoughts.

    Happy Belated Birthday!

  8. Oh YEA, most definitely, yea. Mostly because purism or deprivation has been my own personal road to hell in the past, and a lesson I learned the hard way. I love the way you framed the idea of additive stuff. Russ Harris (an acceptance and commitment therapy guru) talks about avoiding goals that a dead person could accomplish more easily than you, i.e. to stop eating chocolate or whatever. And instead, if we want to lose weight so we can feel healthy or strong, to add a goal that makes us feel that way. I guess what I’m saying is, your advice rocks.

    And happy birthday! I’m an August girl and equally nerded out over the the synchronization of my birthday with new school year trapper keepers and all!

  9. Whoa! A mother lode of excellent input!

    Bon – You’re the poster child for self-improvement. It’s been astonishing watching this new you blossom from the old. Must definitely talk to you about the “yes” thing. I still have confusion around that—I say “yes” to many new things and end up with overwhelm. So. Yes. Wednesday.

    Nona – Meditation may be a bit down the line for me. But I had such a good experience with Mark Silver’s Remembrance thingy, I may start that up again.

    Marsha – GREAT list. Plus, I love lists!

    Ellen – Fantastic story. Are you on Peter Shankman’s HARO list? B/c this is exactly the kind of story that needs to get out there more widely, and that you see crop up from time to time there.

    PP – Interesting. Obviously—or maybe not so obviously—nothing works for *everyone*. Witness the raging discussion going on over at Gretchen Rubin’s blog around the FlyLady prescriptive of putting on shoes to work.

    Anne – I might humbly suggest that in the scenario you mention, neither cheese nor cupcake is the main attraction. But if you need an antidote—well, you can always just send him to me.

    LPC – Look. I want to do this. But there’s no well in hell I’m starting blow-drying my hair at 48.

    Judith – Yes! I *am* still a baby, and I forget that sometimes. I mean, it’s gotten better with time, so it stands to reason it should get even better with more time. Thanks!

    Briana – That Russ Harris thing is golden. Thanks.

  10. Change often feels like deprivation because something in us loves our habits, whether they are good for us or not, which might be part of why “adding in” can work.

    I have found that lasting change requires acknowledging what we are losing by giving up the habit. As we come to understand what we get out of continuing the habit and bring acceptance and compassion to that, we are much more capable of making a wise choice. With this awareness, when cravings and urges arise, we can love that part of ourselves that wants to take us down a slippery slope. For more info, I just wrote a post called, A Revolutionary Look at Changing Habits.

    And I totally support you starting the SCD, if you need it. I was on it for two years, and it ended up being very much an “adding in” experience for me.

    All the best to you….

  11. Thanks for the link, Colleen. One thing (among many :-) I admire about you, Colleen, is your willingness to experiment. This and other posts bear that out, and it’s good. As pointed out, I am biased in favor of curiosity and experimentation – they’re the antidote to getting stuck and living (with quotes) in fear of change.

    Re: additive change, you might be interested in my article Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide: Productivity Lessons From Basic Math. Seems like we’re on similar wavelengths, applied to productivity and self-improvement, respectively.

    For my Think, Try, Learn approach, the best link is How Do You Treat Life As An Experiment?. My fellow readers/experimenters here on your blog might also enjoy checking out Edison, the Think, Try, Learn experimenter’s workbook. It’s early days, but we’ll have an update in a few weeks.

    At officially-48, I’m dealing with the first serious signs of physical breakdown.

    I am definitely with you. I’m the same age, and, I have to say, getting old ain’t for the faint of heart (not that we’re old). For me it’s anxiety about my teeth. Years of grinding are starting to reap dividends.

    Happy experimenting!

  12. A few years ago I decided to eat more fruit. I’d given up dieting years before that but was feeling unhealthy and needed to do something. I was amazed to find that this impacted in many different ways – feeling better, not wanting sweets or sweet foods etc – and I lost weight without trying or even thinking about it – or going hungry! I still believe in the subtraction method, but in a way which adds (bear with me!): by taking something unhealthy away, I enrich my life and make it sacred, therefore I’m actually giving to myself!! Ta daa!! When I discovered that Aspartame was carcinogenic and banned in some countries, I stopped having it. Period. The taste is revolting and when your palate recovers, you find that water actually tastes good rather than all those chemical tasting drinks. If I fancy a cola, I have one that contains sugar and not the super whammy extra types with Aspartame and heaven knows what else :)

    I also found that when I had my first child and the health visitor advised not cooking with salt, once I got over the initial shock of the difference and craving for salt, the food tasted so much better – I could taste the potatoes and carrots rather than the salt. Oh dear, what a shock – it’s now 23 years later and I’m still not adding salt to cooking water. It turns out it’s just as well because I recently found out that my blood pressure was very high despite my low BMI.

    Generally, I eat what I want when I want. If I want some cake, I have exactly the one I want. But I don’t eat it every day or even every week. I comfort eat every now and then but come back to healthy choices as I feel better for it – my body craves lots of vegetables and salad when I haven’t had enough.

    Thanks for a great site, Colleen!

  13. I don’t have anything unique to add on the positive addition vs. negative subtraction debate except to say that I’m with everyone who’s voting for the positive addition. (I think it’s been pretty unanimous, actually.) And if I wasn’t already happily a member of that voting bloc, this quote by Irish Murdoch would probably nudge me in that direction: “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” Huzzah for small treats, I say.

    Reframing as an exercise is so useful it ought to be bottled.

    If there’s a snag in a re-frame it’s this: you have to buy into the story attached to it or at least be willing to explore that new story. For example, if the reframe has to do with swapping honey for white sugar as your go-to sweetener, if you don’t buy into the slant of the story behind the honey thing, you won’t ever feel aligned with it. And that can become a brain wedgie that’s hard to undo.

    By the way, reading your blog is like that whoosh of fresh air when you first open a window on a late November morning. Sorry for the cliche, but I can’t think of anything better.

  14. I really, really like the Japanese kaizen way of change … it’s all about taking baby steps … a baby step can be simply sitting on a stationary bike for 2 seconds…the next time 5 seconds…the next time you do 1 pedal…I’m talking real, itsy, bitsy baby steps…what happens is the baby steps begin to lie down the neurological pathway for change in the brain, which makes the change long lasting…naturally…the baby step idea is that the action is so small it does not awaken the reptilian part of our brain that causes fear and makes us run from the change and gobble our next cupcake. Here’s a book that I really liked…it’s cheap too:
    “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way”
    You can get it on for about 7 bucks.


  15. Gail – Are you a fellow IBD-er, I wonder? And what is it about two years and the SCD? Fanatical adherence worked almost effortlessly for two years and then…well, one piece of bread, and the walls began to crumble.

    Love that Lao-Tzu quote on your sidebar, btw. A good reminder for me today.

    Matthew – Thanks for clarifying and adding. As I knew you would. You’re so good like that!

    Karen – What a wonderfully inspiring story! And thanks for the kind words.

    Melissa – Good point on the buying in part. I’ve found that once I get the “why”, it’s much easier to roll with whatever. And I think that is a LOVELY compliment. Perfectly written.

    Deb – Okay, this is the 477th time I’ve seen kaizen lately. Have to put it on the list of stuff to read up about. Thanks, as always.

  16. Happy birthday! Mine’s in a few days, but I confess I always felt gypped in the school years. Teachers would notoriously decide to start celebrating students’ bdays after mine had occurred.

    Small tweaks to routine work pretty well for me. Taking stairs 2 at a time, walking in place while brushing my teeth, stretches during commercials… in a couple years this had built up to weight lifting and more legit exercise. I fall off the wagon occasionally, but during those times I still take the stairs by 2 and generally keep up with some basic stretches.

    Need to find ways to incorporate it into other aspects of my life though.

  17. I agree with adding things in as a way of changing things. Especially when it comes to changing my diet and the way I feel on a day to day basis. When I started adding in the healthy food I found that it began to crowd out the stuff that was not so good for me.
    What it comes down to is that I hate telling myself I can not have something. Hell…I hate focusing on what I do not want in general. I find that it does not really help anything and I end up giving lots of energy and attention to it…so it just becomes a bigger problem, or I feel like there is something wrong with me because I can not stop thinking about it.
    I Find that focusing on what you do want more of, and what is working is a much better way to go about changing anything. Rather than trying to “fix” something, I focus on what I want. I am not broken…and do not need repairs…but I would not mind an upgrade every now and then.

  18. Things that work for me:

    Committing to adding one small change at a time. If I’m going to floss every day from now on, I don’t start that the same week I start exercising.

    Trying different times when a particular activity seems unpleasant. I used to hate flossing before going to bed. For DECADES I hated night time flossing. About 3 months ago, one of those “Well, duh!” moments came: floss after brushing in the morning. I don’t know why I like it then, but I do. The universe does not care when I floss, but I do.

    Make the change pretty and appealing. Chips and pretzels, out. Snack-size veggies in. Bought a bright red small colander to put cherry tomatoes in and they look great on the kitchen counter. “Oo, pretty! I think I’ll eat one!”

    Permission to only do a little and see what happens. Okay, I don’t feel like pushups today. So just do a couple and then quit. Or, hey, I’ve done a couple, might as well finish them. Didn’t finish? A couple is better than none.

    Self-forgiveness. I didn’t exercise today. Beating myself up won’t give me today back. Breathe, re-center, start again tomorrow.

    Perspective on what I’m doing right already. At least I don’t need to stop smoking or beating my children or wearing plaid tights. Although I do post comments on blogs that make me sound like I have my shit together, when I very often don’t.

Comments are closed.