I don’t naturally eat well. Maintaining a diet free from sugar, artificial ingredients, and bread is not something I would ever do were it not for knowing the hidden, long-term health consequences. Truth be told, I didn’t want to participate in the first Whole Life Challenge — because I didn’t want to have to come face-to-face with the fact that my diet sucked.
On the outside, things looked great. I was fit as a fiddle and had maintained my bodyweight at a consistent 160 pounds for about twenty years. But that wasn’t because of particularly good eating habits.
I drank up to six Diet Cokes each day (plus a Red Bull or two); cereal, muffins, and bagels were a staple of breakfast (with pasta or rice at dinner); and I would almost always finish the entire bread basket myself when out at dinner. My wife would have to remove the basket from eyesight to get me to stop eating it before dinner arrived.
And sugar? No limits. An entire box of Girl Scout cookies? no problem. A pint of ice cream? Easy. A container of mini chocolate chip cookies from Trader Joes? While I never finished the whole thing in one sitting, I came close.
The biggest problem for me — and the reason I didn’t change my diet — was that I didn’t perceive any consequence to my behavior. I didn’t exhibit one visible sign or symptom of my crappy eating. Sure, I might not have slept as well as I could have, but as far as how I looked and performed? Nothing was wrong.
So at the start of the first Whole Life Challenge in 2011, I was confronted with the internal dialogue, “Well I guess I really should do this since I am the co-founder and all, but I really don’t want to!” Seriously, the absolute last thing I wanted to do was to rock my own nutrition boat. You can ask any of the coaches who worked at my gym at the time. They created a little competition among us: we put in a hundred dollars each and the point winner would take all.
I was the last to join — and I did so kicking and screaming.
How the Whole Life Challenge Went for Me
As it turned out, my experience wasn’t nearly as bad as I made it out to be in my head. I didn’t get a perfect score, but I was able to fend off most of my regular poor nutritional habits. As a consequence of reducing the sugar, keeping off the stimulants, and eliminating the bread and pasta, I felt significantly better by the end of the Challenge.
And then I went right back to eating like I always had.
Over the next six years, I participated in each Challenge. I was willing to change my eating habits and “turn on” accountability, as long as I knew I could go back to “normal” and turn it off during the weeks between.
As a result, what occurred over that time period happened completely by accident. My diet, ever so slowly, started to improve. Without really trying to hang on to any of the 7 Daily Habits that I practiced during the Challenge, I started to make different choices between Challenges. My choices were still not “perfect” in any sense of the word, but they were better choices than I had previously made — and, best of all, the changes felt nominal, like minor sacrifices, and were totally doable every step of the way.
I inadvertently developed an on-off practice that allowed me to create a general trend upward over the years. Since I never strove for perfection, and continued to consistently show up, the changes occurred naturally, on their own, almost in spite of me. In fact, I didn’t even realize changes were happening until I took a moment to look back.
At no point along the journey did it feel like I was making life-long commitments or changes. I never strove for perfection; I just let the shifts come as they did. But ever so slowly, the crappy food started to have much less control over me and I found myself able to powerfully choose, and more importantly, I had the desire to opt for healthier options.
5 Things I Learned About Making Lifelong Change
So, what can you learn from my accidental discovery of my gently sloping, long-term nutrition improvements?
- You don’t have to be perfect — at all — ever. In fact, it’s probably better if you’re not. Being so rigid with your diet that you never allow yourself some of life’s little joys isn’t something that is sustainable or fun. The key is to set up boundaries that keep you from slipping all the way back down the slope. For me, those boundaries are the six-week periods of accountability (i.e. the Whole Life Challenge) that I’ve already calendared out and committed to for the entire year.
- Improvement doesn’t usually happen all at once. As a kid, how long did it take you to learn how to ride a bike? How long did it take you to earn your high school or college diploma? In both cases, it took a long time. And you didn’t go at either one with reckless abandon, powering through without breaks. In fact, breaks, rest, and time off are part of the process (remember summer vacation and winter break?) Taking time off from being 100% accountable is good for you and allows you the time your psyche needs to recover.
- It has to be hard, and you must be disciplined and steadfast during your six weeks of accountability. While it might seem that this system is easy, it’s never easy to be strict about eating well every day, every meal, for six weeks. In order for your six weeks “off” to feel like recovery, your six weeks of accountability must feel like a challenge. If your approach to playing the WLC feels too easy, it probably is.
- You don’t have to go crazy during your six off weeks, but if you want to, have at it. It’s nice, maybe even necessary, to feel like all the pressure is off and you can eat whatever you want. If you feel this way, do it! But you can strategically choose your vice(s). Choose the type, quantity, and frequency, and set some boundaries to follow so you don’t find yourself at Yogurtland, 31 Flavors, or Blaze Pizza every day for six weeks.
- Make your decision to commit to an entire year of the cycle once. Yes, I know, the specific dates of the next year of Challenges might not be available, but you know we do one per quarter — starting in January, April, July, and September. Commit in advance — and don’t falter, especially when life “events” come up. Unexpected things are going to happen. Part of your training and development in this healthy lifestyle is to keep at least some of your habits in place despite these events (and learn how these habits can actually support you through these times).
You Can Make the Choice to Change Your Life
Look, you could dip your toe in the water and try the Whole Life Challenge just one time. You’ll probably make some changes over the six weeks and, with luck, you’ll find a way to hang on to at least one of those changes.
But if you really want life-changing results, it takes long-term, consistent progress that is, perhaps, so slow you might not even see it happening.
Those changes only come with your willingness to commit to showing up long term. And with a six-week on, six-week off strategy, it can be fun, easy, and truly life-changing.