Most people would like to eat healthy on a consistent basis. And even if you already eat healthy most of the time, it's likely that you could do a better job of staying on target.
The benefits of good nutrition are obvious: you have more energy, your health improves, and your productivity blossoms.
So if we want to eat healthy and if it's obvious why we should eat healthy, how come it's so difficult to actually eat healthy?
And most importantly, is there anything we can do to make it easier?
Short–Term Goals vs. Long–Term Goals
I used to be terrible at achieving long–term goals.
I was decent when working on short deadlines, but if a project lasted more than a month, then my time management was totally off. I used to feel bad about this, like I was the only one who couldn't properly execute on a big goal. But as I've started to pay more attention to people who are good with long–term projects, my tune has changed.
I don’t think anyone is good at achieving long–term goals.
Some people are just good at breaking long–term goals down into short–term ones. They have a small chunk that they work on each day or week and at the end of the project, they enjoy this big, beautiful result.
Good habits — eating healthy, for example — work in much the same way. Some people are really good at breaking their long–term desires down into small behaviors that they can focus on each day. In other words, they are good at focusing on lifestyle choices rather than their life–changing goals. (More on that here.)
Eventually, these daily actions cascade into powerful, life–changing habits. But like a successful long–term project, a good habit starts with breaking the end goal down into very small steps.
I'm not great with long–term goals yet, but I'm getting better. And I've learned a lot about the process along the way. For example, here's one way you could use this process to start eating healthy…
Breaking Down the Steps of Eating Healthy
Good habits are smaller than you think. We often get caught up in the end goal and think that we need to do it all at once, but usually it's best to start with a very small section of our overall goal.
For example, many people want to eat healthy, but quickly find out how much work it takes to change their diet.
Here’s a list of what you need to do if you want to eat healthy…
- You have to buy new groceries.
- You have to prepare healthy food.
- You have to eat healthy food.
- You have to clean up and do the dishes.
If you’re the type of person who eats out often, then those four steps represent a huge shift in your daily life. It’s unlikely that you’ll change all of those things at once. I believe that most diets fail not because of a lack of willpower or motivation, but because we bite off more than we can chew.
Take a look at that list again. If you're trying to change all of those things at the same time, it's no wonder that it's hard to stick to diet.
But imagine a different scenario…
The Minimalist Approach to Eating Healthy
What if you eliminated everything except the most critical part of the new habit?
For example, what if you did these 3 things…
- Start intermittent fasting, so that you only need to eat two healthy meals per day instead of three.
- For the first two months dieting, you buy disposable plates to minimize clean up time.
- For the first month, you hire someone on Craigslist to cook a healthy dinner for you 5 nights per week. (This is surprisingly inexpensive. I've seen options for around $10/meal and it would ensure that you eat healthy after work each night without having to cook.)
Now, I realize that buying disposable plates and hiring someone to cook your meals is expensive, but we're not talking about doing this forever. We're just talking about making the habit easier to start with. We're talking about making an investment for the first month or two, so that you make it as easy as possible to start eating healthy.
With our setup above, the only thing you focus on doing for the first month is actually eating healthy meals. In the second month, you start buying healthier groceries and cooking your meals. In the third month, you stop buying disposable plates and do the full clean up.
Imagine how much easier it is to eat healthy when you take those barriers away at the beginning.
Don't Do It All, Just Start Doing It
Obviously, you can manipulate this basic strategy to fit your needs. If you can't afford to hire someone for 5 meals per week, then how about 2 meals per week? Do whatever works for you, but the general idea is to eliminate everything except the most essential task in the beginning.
Break down the goal into small chunks, remove the excuses, and make it as easy as possible to say yes to your new habit. You don't have to do it all, you just have to start doing it.
It might require an investment, but would you rather simplify the process, pay a bit more now, and actually stick to a healthy diet … or try to do everything at once, drain all of your willpower, and quit out of frustration two weeks later?
If you're serious about long–term change, then smaller is better, especially at the start. Break down your long–term desires into short–term habits and you'll find success comes much easier.
P.S. If you want more practical ideas for how to build new habits (and break bad ones), check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.