The Discipline of Baby Steps

At least once a week, I make the mistake of going on Pinterest. While I hold no actual contempt for the 40-year-old mom wonderland, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed when that insufferable interlocking grid layout finally loads.

10 steps to minimalism in 10 minutes!

5 easy ways to eat healthier meals at home

The 6 principles of Buddhism we should all follow

Look, we all know surface level listicles are a scourge of internet age writing. I also know that I’m going to turn this post into a para-listicle in a few paragraphs. Please hold on to your pitchforks and jeers until then. I swear I’ll throw in actual research and some science words. Despite endlessly knocking reductive articles that act as a guide map to a better life, I understand where they come from. PBS’s video on The Psychology of Listicles touches on the biggest draw of the listicle: ease. The video mentions that our daily consumption of information has grown exponentially in the course of almost 50 years. The concurrent growth of outlets from which to send and receive information means we’re spending way too much time distracted and overloaded.

Unsurprisingly, the field of psychology is fascinated by “cognitive fluency” lately. It’s a concept that seems obvious (hindsight bias is 20/20). Frankly, it’s so obvious that we don’t even notice it working in tandem with something as harmless as a Buzzfeed article. Maybe not so harmless to the field of journalism, but I digress.

The foundation of cognitive fluency is the idea that people prefer things that are easy to think about. The human brain has a penchant for efficiency, and this rears its head in our tendency to gravitate towards linearity and compartmentalization. This is where the beauty of the listicle lies. Of course we want a clear and definitive ranking of the last 20 years of sitcoms! What else would we do? Weigh the nuances of each television show, assess the ensuing social implications, and consider the artistic merit of the comedy in it?

Who has that kind of time? I’ve already read 5 articles on the best burger restaurants since I started asking that rhetorical question!

You can’t blame the brain for what it likes, but it’s important to recognize that just because it’s easy to read a 10 step guide to pursuing a more conscientious lifestyle, doesn’t mean it’s easy to integrate into everyday life. It’s the same fallacy underlying every failed diet. Plenty of diets are unsustainable because of the idea that instant deprivation is built to last. Not many people hold out past two weeks of cutting out all sugar before diving into a bag of expired Halloween candy. You can try to argue that it’s a matter of discipline, but there’s no discipline in short-term solutions.

I advocate for baby steps. Changing my eating habits started with a pledge to drink water instead of soda at least once a day, and a year or two later of incremental changes like that have had long-term effects. I lost and kept off 50 pounds, and I no longer hyperventilate after one flight of stairs (every time). I’m far from as healthy and mindful as I’d like to be, though. No amount of healthy eating or walks around the neighborhood will singlehandedly cure my OCD, but I’d like to take some of the weight off an already exhausted brain. The fact is, I rarely eat at home, I don’t really exercise, and I can sometimes feel the life being drained out of me after 6 hours of playing Farm Heroes Saga on my phone. I also know I can’t tackle all of these at once. Resolving to go from the girl that skipped gym class every day to Serena Williams isn’t going to work. The fallacy of diets teaches us that much. So I made a calendar. Maybe you can pick one of the days, maybe you can pick 3, maybe the whole week. The point is, every day of the week targets a different facet of unhealthy behaviors. The beauty of a diverse Monday through Sunday approach is that it targets our love of categorization, without forcing us to go from 0 to 60.

Laura’s Well-Meaning Listicle (alternatively, The Conscientious Calendar):

Meatless Mondays:

This international campaign has been around for a while. It advocates for a once-a-week approach to a practice that is better for animals, your health, and the environment. It’s a slow and simple way to add vegetarian meals to your dietary roster without having to instantly go from knowing everyone at McDonald’s to knowing everyone at Whole Foods.

I’ll miss you, Andrea. You always got my order right. See you on Tuesday.

To-Do Tuesdays:

Not everyone has a planner with a color-coding system that they stick to religiously. I’m here to announce that I do, and I still procrastinate. Evidently, writing down your intention to do something doesn’t “actually count as doing it”. I’m also really tired of feeling like every day is an endless trudge through a to-do list that never gets smaller. Obviously, I’m going to put off the “least essential items” (see: my writing, my music, my happiness) for months. If you’re a workhorse that never gives yourself time for your non-deadlined pursuits, use Tuesday to make sure you work on a passion project. If there are some things you keep putting off because you absolutely dread them, only torture yourself once a week. Either way, it gets done and you get a break.

Weed-y Wednesdays:

(Marijuana optional.)

For someone who doesn’t go outside unless it’s absolutely necessary, I talk about my urge to learn about nature a lot. Dedicate your Wednesdays to cultivating your garden, going to a dog park, or seeing a butterfly garden. Go outside and find plants that you like. Name one. Name it Marty. Greet Marty whenever you pass him by on the way to your car. Find a nearby hiking trail, drive to a lake, go to a museum and learn about bugs.

It looks cool on your 40″, go see it for real.

(No) Throwaway Thursdays:

Thursday should be a day of refurbishing, upcycling, and recycling. If you’ve purged your closet to the bone, or you’re not the crafty type, dedicate today to curbing impulse buys. Let that $5 sweater or those clearance string lights wait for 24 hours. My favorite part is realizing that I usually dodged an impulsive bullet.

Fitness Fridays:

My income, studies, and hobbies are all chained to desktops (both digital and wooden). I don’t like sports. I don’t know any exercise that isn’t a squat or a hip bridge. I have a short left tendon that forces me to tip-toe everywhere, which isn’t particularly conducive to running or even walking. Reframing fitness helps, though. I love to dance, whether it’s with tap shoes or on my bed. Walking my dog is a small dose of movement that kills several birds with one stone. Cleaning is a sport? Okay, that’s a stretch. We’re built to move. You don’t need a gym membership or an encyclopedic knowledge of exercise names to dedicate your Fridays to taking the stairs and stretching some limbs.

Side note: Can someone please explain what a Farmer’s Carry is?

Spread the Love Saturdays:

I’ve normalized displays of love in my friend groups, as have they. I’m not so sure everyone else does the same. Take today to remind a friend that you love them. I want to take Saturdays to pass my friends a note over text and tell them uplifting things. Take a family member out for ice cream. Do something your partner loves. Donate money to a stranger or volunteer. Saturdays should be about resting exhausted feet and brains and spending some time with your heart and soul.

Screen-Free Sunday:

I recognize the irony of preaching anti-tech rhetoric on my personal website. After I publish this post, I will post it to my Instagram. Then, I’ll open Twitter for no reason. Then I’ll put Youtube on my smart TV and play Farm Heroes Saga on my phone. After a few hours of the YouTube and mobile game combination, I feel a familiar emptiness setting in. I try to rectify it by opening up my laptop and working. Then the weight of all my obligations triggers panic attacks.

My OCD often attacks my fear of mortality, decision making, and time. A lack of productivity and hours in bed brings me into a state of hopelessness. Switching to overworking myself makes me feel like there’s nothing more to life than this never-ending cycle. Maybe putting down the phone, turning off the TV, and stowing my laptop would force me to redefine what it means to make valuable use of my time. If both my methods of relaxation and productivity are tied to the same devices, what can I do when I put those devices away?

I know I’ll always love the prospect of quick, categorical fixes. I want a checklist so I can easily measure my successes and failures. That’s not a long-term fix though. Checklists only have so many items, and what do you do when you’ve checked off the last item? Are you any better after following 10 steps? Did you even get to number 6? I know I don’t. I can recognize my limits, and overhauling my entire lifestyle and mentality in a few days is a big one.

To modify an old cliche: Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I’m sure people wouldn’t have been as proud of a city built in just 10 easy steps.

Featured image shot by Alejandro Nuñez on a Canon AE-1 Program, on Kodak Gold 200.