I am a gardening geek. I love to get outside in the spring to see what plants are peeking through the wet, still-frozen ground. To me, there is nothing better than seeing a new flower on a carefully-tended plant or a vegetable ripe for the picking in my community garden.
When I moved a few years ago, I inherited a small shady garden under a healthy looking pine tree. The garden had been untended for several years, and was an overgrown mess. At first, just looking at the space felt overwhelming, but my strategy to slowly pick away at what I could do in small amounts of time paid off. I began by clearing out an invasive ground cover. Then I sprinkled the garden with a few shade-loving hostas and ferns. And finally, I had the pleasure planting a few colorful specimens in the front of the garden for show. It took me a couple of years, but now when I look out my back door, I see an inviting space that has color and texture.
Why am I writing about gardening in the heart of winter? Yes, the Chinese believe that the winter solstice is the seed of spring. But that’s not it. It’s because the deepest part of winter is by nature cool, dark, nourishing, and inward-looking. Not that it’s a time for navel-gazing, but this time of year compels us to take stock of our lives and think about change. It’s the stuff of New Year’s resolutions.
Unfortunately, most people who vow to make changes at this time of the year either don’t do so, or only stick with their new regimen for a short time. For proof, just look at the jam packed parking lot at your local health club during the first week of January. A month later many of those cars will be gone, a sign of frustration and abandoned New Year’s resolutions.
As with my garden, I suggest a different strategy for getting healthy. It’s a plan of making small changes slowly. A lifestyle overhaul can feel overwhelming and be hard to maintain, but many small changes over time can yield big results. And this is backed up by a large body of research, with some studies suggesting that making small tweaks can actually extend your life by years.
A small change strategy gives you a better chance of success for a couple of reasons. First, it’s realistic. You’re not trying to overhaul your diet, exercise daily, do something for stress relief, and quit smoking all at once. Second, even making one small change can have an impact. Research has documented that even small modifications in your diet have a very real and positive effect on your health. And finally, by switching things up in a small way and sticking with it, you gain a sense of self-efficacy, which is the knowledge that yup, yes, yay! you can do this.
Supported by the surgeon general, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and a whole host of other agencies, the small change strategy may very well offer the pathway to collectively improving the health of people all over the world. If you are wanting to be a little healthier, think about taking baby steps–small changes, slowly, and one at a time.