The prospect of premature death didn’t make me change so I tried this instead

The Lipitor I no longer need“Take this pill, every day, for the rest of your life,” my doctor said. I sighed at this obvious sign of decline, envisioning the 7-day pillbox that all old people seem to have. “Already?” I asked.

Approaching 40 years old, I was overweight, stressed, and didn’t exercise. My medical history wasn’t great either, my dad having died of a massive heart attack and my mother having suffered from diabetes.

I knew I was killing myself slowly. But the specter of the many changes I needed to make was too overwhelming. I couldn’t face all of it for the sake of some still-distant benefit. So I just kept doing what I was doing.

Yet 10 years later, I’m back to the weight I was in high school, eliminated most of my harmful stresses, and my doctor says I don’t need that pill any more.

Here’s what worked for me. Whatever your goal, I hope it helps you make the changes you want to make.

Food as metaphor

What I thought I wanted was just a habitPart of my problem was ignorance. I simply didn’t know what was in the food I was eating, where it came from, and what it was doing to me.

But the bigger problem was the set of habits I had developed. That bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel was like an old, familiar friend I’d see every day. So too was the hamburger with fries, the Chinese food takeout, the slumping on the couch watching TV after a long commute from a stressful job.

Although I knew it wasn’t good, it was what I knew. It also seemed to be what everyone around me was doing. Only now do I understand how much our habits and our environment shape so many aspects of our lives.

Change at work

Verbal persuasion isn't enoughIn my job, I’ve spent years showing people how their way of working was bad for them and for the firm. The pointless meetings. The armies of people processing emails. The ludicrous HR policies and systems. This is the fast food clogging the arteries of corporations.

I pointed out better ways, gave them examples, and they still didn’t change! “What’s wrong with these people?” I would think to myself. But nothing was wrong. I had only to look at my own behavior to see how difficult change is. After all, if verbal persuasion was enough then people wouldn’t buy so many packs of cigarettes with “Smoking kills” pasted on them.

The only thing that worked

There was no single thing that made the most difference for me. It was a combination of things that I learned and applied gradually over time. A few months ago, I found that much of the wisdom and research I discovered in a decade of reading self-help books was distilled into a simple, practical list in Coach Yourself. This short list summarizes the basic approach towards changing anything in your life.

  • Take small steps towards your goals
  • Set some realistic, achievable goals
  • Structure your life to help you attain your goals
  • Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe
  • Look at the areas where you’re successful
  • Reward yourself for your successes
  • Focus on your achievements
  • Enlist the support of friends
  • Chart your progress
  • Picture the way you’d like life to be

Where my previous attempts at change failed, it was because I attempted too big a change too quickly, overreacted to my failures, lacked peer support, or missed some other element on this simple list.

The next small step

As I wrote this I reflected on what I did and ate yesterday. My day started with meditation. Then I walked to work, ate a wide range of scrumptious vegetarian meals, had a cold-pressed green juice for a snack. I even went to yoga with my wife, something I hope will be my newest habit.

10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine such a set of changes. But each small change empowered me to do a little more. This process led to a new career, writing a book, and creating a  “guided mastery” coaching program that helps people change their own work and life.

Of course, what’s right for me may be wildly different than what’s right for you. The path you take will also be different. But for most of us the change begins with a small, simple step.

What will yours be?


About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The prospect of premature death didn’t make me change so I tried this instead

  1. Very timely, I recently decided to make some significant changes to what I put in my body after some less than stellar news about my health. That news came years ago, similar to you, I ignored it for years. It’s a habit, and habits are hard to break. Structuring my life differently, even changing who I associate with regularly helps. Finding people with similar goals in person and online has been extremely helpful. They help create new habits.

    • John Stepper says:

      Good for you and also surprising. You are a great example of someone who keeps learning & growing. It was your post on our social network that nudged me into becoming a vegetarian. Now *that* was an awesome contribution. 🙂

  2. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Hi John
    Thank you for such an enlightened and encouraging post.
    I particularly liked your (not so)“short” list to change anything in your life!
    Comprehensive and all workable singly and in combination – fantastic.

    I was a smoker. When it came to giving up I used some of the very same points you mention. I certainly pictured the way I wanted to be (smoke free) but most of all I enlisted the help of my friends – particularly those who said “you- give up? Can’t imagine it!” – the sceptics! It was crude – I enlisted as many friends as possible to “bet “ me something if I had still given after three months. If I failed I had to give to them. We were all relatively young and just starting out so bets ranged from a bag of fruit to a trip out , a treat – to pledges of money! Even the sceptics joined in thinking I would end up doing the giving. Well, I managed it and a few decades later I still haven’t looked back.
    But there was one added point on my list that was a considerable driver and unknown to my sceptics . May I add it to your list?
    I was already convinced it was right to give up at that moment. Motivation.

    Smoking is a physical addiction and nicotine a drug. Verbal persuasion does not usually work because the addiction ca be greater than the desire to change the behaviour. For some it requires medical intervention. There are no small steps and failure not an option. Is the analogy with other behaviours and habits the same I keep asking myself?

    Would you say that changing behaviours at work is so difficult because there is no “perceptible” change to the person you are persuading if they do not alter their behaviour? Not enough to gain or to lose? They are not convinced it is the right moment or the right way forward for them? What does motivation look like for them? Is it very individual?
    Email is after all “comfortable” for many and HR policies however ludicrous – about processes, bad or good.

    Reading your blog I too reflected on what I had done yesterday and the day before – and What I may try and do tomorrow. I know there are lots more steps to come!

    Thank you for a great piece.

    • John Stepper says:

      What an awesome comment. I think I counted 6 questions! I think developing the habit of working out loud might be much, much easier than quitting smoking because people can quite quickly get positive reinforcement via the social networks. When someone replies or hits the like button on your contribution, you get a jolt of positive chemicals that makes you want more. The hided mastery program is an attempt at getting people that initial small jolt quickly and then moving on to bigger jolts that require more (but too much work.

      p.s. I’m glad you quit and are healthier. 🙂

  3. Thank you, once again, for timely thoughts. You know this is just what I need right now. For anyone trying to make changes in their lives, and especially anyone contemplating chances, and afraid to, this just makes it easier. I must be grateful.

    “Small moves, Ellie.. small moves.”
    From CONTACT.

    For those who deal with paralysing fears, I’d add one more:
    Have a conversation with your fears. Ask them what they are for, what they are trying to accomplish – what is their purpose? Is there another way to accomplish that purpose? Have you already gone there, and not noticed?

    Most people would say “face your fears”, but that doesn’t tell you how. I’ve found that “talking” with them – finding out what’s behind them – works for me.

    I read “Do you think today is just another day in your life?”. My response to you for now is, the day I started reading your column, and lunch in Wall Street area, were two really, really good days. Thanks.


    • John Stepper says:

      That’s a good addition. It reminds me of the Cognitive-Based Therapy books I’ve read where you address your inner critic. “Really? Is that a fact or a story I’ve made up.” Seems the talking through it gives us perspective and reduces anxiety.

      Glad for those 2 good days. Nice to know you. 🙂

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