You Can Do It

I remember being fascinated by oil tankers as a young boy. I couldn’t believe how huge they were and how much oil they could carry, but I was especially amazed by how long it took them to change speed or direction. It was my first lesson in inertia, and it stuck with me.

When it comes to habits, adults are a lot like oil tankers. Making small and subtle changes isn’t too bad, like switching from Pepsi to Coke. But when it comes to making a big change in direction, well…it takes some serious effort.

Up to 90 percent of our daily activities are based on habit. Think about it—you get up, brush your teeth, get your pants out of the bottom drawer, start the car, drive the normal route to work, and then probably do generally the same thing in reverse at the end of the day.

We tend to automatically associate the word habit with bad habits. It’s true that bad habits are the ones we feel we need to change, but getting rid of them rarely works. What usually works is exchanging them for good ones.

You’ve probably tried changing some habits from time to time, and found the task to be a challenge. More often then not, the change doesn’t stick. So how does one make a big change and stay with it?

Everyone likes to seem strong and decisive. We’re not. What we need is to pick a habit to change, and then set a long-term goal of what we’d like that habit to be. We then fill in short-term goals that lead us the right direction.

An example: Your bad habit is watching 3 hours of TV per day and exercising zero hours per day. For  many reasons, you’d like to get to where you watched only about an hour of TV per day and exercised at least one hour. Knowing how the vast majority of us react to just jumping in with both feet (poorly), a plan might look like this:

Week 1: 2.5h TV, 15 min exercise

Week 2: 2.0h TV, 20 min exercise

Week 3: 1.5h TV, 30 min exercise

Week 4 1.0h TV, 40 min exercise

You get the idea. By building a template for your behavior, you can keep yourself somewhat on track toward the long-term goal.

A second, and probably more important strategy is to let yourself be a human being. A common set of attributes can be seen in most people who fail to accomplish goals: perfectionism and ambition. That’s right, the better you want to do the job, and the more audacious your goal, the more likely you are to fail. Upon failure, perfectionists don’t set a more reasonable goal, they generally set a similarly audacious goal in a different area, only to (likely) fail again.

Because you’re human, you’re going to mess up and eat poorly, or miss a training day, or get sick, or whatever. Don’t worry about it. Stay with the plan. Find a way forward rather than throwing in the towel.

Hold onto the idea of a 90% effort. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds and you don’t quite make it, consider the effort a success if you made it most of the way. Set a new goal, build a new set of short-term goals to mark your progress, and try again.

Failure to reach goals is a hallmark of almost all successful people. Remember, improvement is hard, quitting is easy, and even making a slight change in course  is huge. You can do it.

A Food Manifesto for the Future – from the New York Times


Mark BittmanMark Bittman on food and all things related.

For decades, Americans believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet. We worried little about this diet’s effect on the environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure — that is, its sustainability.

That didn’t mean all was well. And we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.

Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring. In no particular order:
  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.
  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)
  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.
  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.
  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.
  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.
  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.

I’ll expand on these issues (and more) in the future, but the essential message is this: food and everything surrounding it is a crucial matter of personal and public health, of national and global security. At stake is not only the health of humans but that of the earth.