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There are lots of things the Whole Life Challenge asks us to do: give up beloved foods, change the way we drink coffee, pay closer attention to how we feel. We’re asked to move more, stretch more, drink more water, be more kind. Some things we’re asked to do are easy, others can feel next to impossible.
After completing seven Challenges, I have learned there is one single factor that determines my “success” or “failure” — my willingness to put myself first.
Can I Really Put Myself First?
Is there anything that sounds more selfish? Even proclaiming it quietly in my own mind can feel radical and scary. Few of us are accustomed to putting our own needs ahead of the needs of others.
Like many, I work, have kids, and lead a busy life. Also, I don’t like to cook, I don’t love to exercise, and although stretching feels great, it’s very hard to fit in. During my first Challenge, I spent the first three or four weeks making do by simply avoiding non-compliant foods. I gave up my coveted white chocolate macadamia nut Clif bars, my strawberry Chobani yogurts, and my daily vat of afternoon popcorn. Instead, I only ate grilled chicken and salads. I’d wedge in stretching before I climbed into bed.
I was not carving out any additional time for “me.” I was just trying to jerry-rig my existing life to fit within the rules of “compliance.”
This worked for a few weeks. Then I hit a wall. I became tired of “doing without.” I felt resentful that I could no longer look forward to my “comfort popcorn” at 3:00pm. I was annoyed that it always felt like I had too many stupid things to do during this Challenge and not enough time to do any of them.
Then, one day I spent an entire Sunday in the kitchen. I printed out four recipes and cooked for myself for the whole week – dishes I knew my family wouldn’t really care for. Normally, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of cooking just for myself. I would eat a bowl of oatmeal for dinner if the rest of the family was eating pasta.
That Sunday was a game changer.
Putting On Your Oxygen Mask
Every day of that next week, I ate like a queen. I’d made a delicious chana masala, a “cream” of broccoli soup, ratatouille, and a vegetable curry in the crock pot. Some days I had only the vegetarian meal, other days I’d add a little chicken to the dish. I packed it all into small plastic containers, froze some, and had interesting, delicious, healthy, compliant food for weeks. Suddenly, the Challenge felt a hundred times easier.
Now, whenever I start a Challenge, I move anything I find difficult to the top of my to-do list. Food and exercise become my top priority; other things in my life take a back seat. This has included doing laundry, making beds, and potting geraniums. I can’t do everything, so, like the flight attendants say, I put my own oxygen mask on first and once I’m taken care of, then I tend to others.
When I share this with my teammates, they tell me why they can’t do that. “My husband loves pasta.” “My kids are picky eaters.” “I have no time to go to the gym.”
No one has time to go to the gym. You have to make time.
If I don’t have forty minutes for the gym (which is often), I put on sneakers, pop in earbuds, and walk around the block for fifteen minutes. I feel two-hours worth of good after that. So good, in fact, that I usually keep walking.
Sometimes I wake up a bit early and chop vegetables for my dinner in the morning because I know if I show up in the kitchen at 6:00pm and have to start chopping, I won’t feel like it.
These activities could seem like an additional burden, but in order to add them, I’ve subtracted other things. I do fewer things for my husband and my kids. And, although it seems crazy, the world has not ended as a result.
In fact, what’s actually happened is this: I started feeling better about myself, so I became less cranky. I stopped resenting everything I did for everyone else all the time because I felt like I was well taken care of. The better I felt, the more pleasant I was to be around. And this made everyone I live with very happy!
Stop Waiting for Permission and Put Yourself First
I’m sure some people have legitimate reasons why they’re not able to move themselves to the top of their priority list, but most of us simply have a knee-jerk “I can’t” before we really explore why our priorities are what they are. Morning workouts may not make you feel good enough to warrant sleeping in an unmade bed at night, but why not try it for a week to see?
The truth is, most of us are waiting for someone else to give us permission to make ourselves more important than we’re used to being. And the sadder truth is, that’s probably never going to happen. Your kids are not going to wake up tomorrow and say, “Hey, let me take on some of your burden so you can take better care of yourself.” (Though, if they do, God bless!)
People make big changes in their lives when they stop waiting for permission.
Seven challenges later, I don’t feel even the least bit uncomfortable admitting that the reason I feel good most days – very good – is because it is now second nature for me to put my own health and well-being first. And, honestly, neither should you.