Sunday, October 28, 2012

Small changes = big rewards

Two years ago I made the first in a series of small changes aimed at increasing my health and fitness. Some of the changes were small, while others were huge. All were a challenge; even the smallest of the changes. Habits are hard to break. I know. I've tried over the years and failed at most attempts, but not this time. I approached the problem from a different perspective. I used tools from my professional life. I'm a technical project manager. I know how to make big things happen. It takes a combination of small focused efforts and measurement of the process. It works every time. 

Project managers have a saying, "Who does what and by when?" It's a fundamental concept. In this case the "who" is me. The "does what" is to make a small change. The "by when" is the length of time it takes to make the change stick. I focused my first project on smoking. 

On November 1, I will celebrate two years without smoking. I was a cigar smoker. On average, I've smoked six or seven cigars a week since 1999 and one or two a week since the mid 80s. I targeted smoking for obvious reasons. It was killing me slowly. I knew that. I was not confident that I could quit as I had tried a many times before. Smoking a stogie was too much a part of who I was,  and it was something that I enjoyed too much to walk away from.

I attacked smoking in small steps. The first thing I changed was my environmental triggers. I tended to smoke at lunch. I would grab some fast food, go to a park and then eat quickly. The rest of my time was dedicated to smoking the biggest cigar I could find. I usually smoked with friends. Lunch was a social break centered around smoking. The first change was easy. I stopped going to the park for lunch. Instead, I started to eat socially with my coworkers at local restaurants. Without an opportunity to smoke, I smoked less. When I was alone, I went out looking for something to photograph rather than a quiet meal in the park.

I waited a few weeks and then targeted other environmental triggers. I liked to smoke a cigarillo in the morning after coffee. I replaced the morning smoke break with a short walk. I did the same in the afternoon where I would sometimes smoke after tea. I rarely smoked at home, so attacking my workplace environmental triggers had a larger impact on my smoking. After a few weeks, I was down to one cigar a week. On November 1, 2010 I stopped altogether. There were 15 small changes in all that I made to quit smoking. It took a few months to develop new habits. I'd make one small change at a time and then wait a week or two for before making the next adjustment. I replaced bad habits with healthy new alternatives. I also wrote a project plan and measured my progress by counting cigars smoked per day and money spent on smoking supplies per week. After a month, I had reduced my cigar intake by 35% and my spend by 22%. In the end, I saved an average $125 per month. 

Quitting smoking was easy compared with the next big change on the list. I wanted to quit drinking diet soda.  I had acquired the soda habit 40 years ago while a youngster. I switched to diet soda when Diet Coke came out and then migrated to Diet Dr. Pepper when it hit the market. I was a soda addict in the worse possible way. I estimate that I drank at least  seven cans of soda per day, plus a couple of large sodas from fast-food vendors. I was out of control. I used the same approach for sodas as I did for cigars, but it was much harder. The diet coke monkey was on my back, and it was working me over hard. I suffered through a month headaches and concentration problems, but I kept at it.  By the end of November, 2010 I had stopped drinking diet soda altogether.  Here are some of my small steps:

  • I drink three glasses of water when I wake up in the morning (24oz).
  • I substitute unsweetened iced tea for diet soda.
  • I drink water on a regular schedule (Yes… there is an app for that).
  • I order club soda when dining out.
  • I drink water with most meals. 
  • I stocked up on club soda brands for social occasions.
  • I drink scotch whisky straight up or with club soda (Instead of Jack and coke).

I've had a sip or two since quitting. I cannot understand why I liked it. It's so damn sweet. I really can't stand the taste any more.

Diet soda may not seem like a big health concern, but too much salt and chemicals in my diet worries me. With my health problems, less salt is a good idea. The chemicals are another matter altogether. Chemicals are not food. I want to eat food, not chemicals.

I've continued to use this technique on other areas of my life.  My current focus is weight loss. I've had good results so far too. Another area is writing. It's also one of the reasons I've slowed down on my blog. I'm working on a project that demands more of my time. Blogging is fun, but it does not help me get any closer to my writing goals, so i'm doing much less of it these days. 

I'll post more on this in the weeks ahead. Wish me luck.