“Rome wasn’t built in a day” was a well-known French proverb in the 1100’s. Visitors to the world’s biggest city (one million people at its height) must have looked with wonder at the soaring columns, sophisticated aqueduct system, perfectly engineered road system and massive Colosseum. (1) Just for today, consider yourself Rome in its B.C. days. Destined to become a magnificent city, built over 500 years with expert craftsmanship and painstaking detail, you are Rome under construction.
At the beginning of January, jazzed and motivated and ready for big changes, you made some resolutions. By the end of January, your motivation to complete them may be waning. January tends to do that to us — charging in like gangbusters and limping out defeated. Well, not today, January! We are Rome. And Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Inch by inch, and row by row
Many behavior change experts encourage making little changes that eventually turn into lasting, big changes instead of shooting the moon with a tough, hard to achieve goal. (2) Remember the tortoise? He didn’t try to win the race in one exhausting burst of energy. He paced himself, plodded along and persisted, and beat that obnoxious, trash-talking hare.
Team Better subscribes to this bite-sized philosophy of change. You may not have time to work in ninety minutes of exercise today, but twenty seconds of high knees are totally doable. Changing eating habits overnight is impossible, but eating a bowl of oatmeal this morning is easy. You may notice that after the high knees, you do a few pushups for good measure. Or on the day you eat oatmeal, you are more aware of trying to eat whole grains. The magic of the inch-by-inch approach is that as you do many small things to improve health, big changes will happen over time.
If the end of January has left you demoralized, revisit your goals! Were they too ambitious? Do they need to be broken down into smaller steps? Today is the day to revisit and revise with fresh eyes. Earlier this month, Team Better challenged you to make fitness, eating, being and thinking goals. At this point, you have had both successes and failures, so tinker with your goals and make them more doable.
A key ingredient to success: self-compassion
The bricks of our personal Rome are the many small successes that lead to the big success of achieving goals. The mortar that holds the bricks together is self-compassion. Self-compassion is being kind and understanding to oneself. It is realizing that we are “only human, born to make mistakes” (thanks to Human League for those classic 80’s lyrics). It is giving ourselves permission to try, fail, learn and repeat without being paralyzed by self-criticism and rumination.
Research shows that self-compassion is connected to well-being, happiness and optimism; lower anxiety and depression; and higher relationship function. Although it seems that “going easy on ourselves” would keep us from striving to be better, self-compassion actually has the opposite effect. It has been shown to improve motivation for self-improvement, help us view weaknesses as changeable and actually increase behavior toward self-improvement. (3)
As you build your own Rome, be kind to yourself when things go wrong. Look at your failures with a lens of understanding and compassion. Self-compassion plus inch-by-inch, brick-by-brick improvement will be your tortoise-ride to successful behavior change. Brava Roma!
Why self-compassion is good for you
Watch this Ted talk on small changes from Stanford professor BJ Fogg
More cool stuff on Rome
- 10 innovations that built ancient Rome. History Lists, history.com website. Nov 20, 2012. Accessed Jan 3, 2017.
- A Stanford University psychologist’s elegant three-step method for creating new habits. Quartz. Accessed Jan 13, 2017.
- Breines JG, Chen S. Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2012;38(9):1133-1143.