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Does the Tortoise Always Beat the Hare? by Lynn Johnston

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Her Online Bookshelf is proud to welcome our guest blogger, Lynn Johnston. 

We’re giving away a copy of The Kaizen Plan for Healthy Eating by Lynn Johnston! Read this post and comment (answer the questions at the end of this post) for your chance to win the book! 

Does the Tortoise Always Beat the Hare?

I'm sure you've heard Aesop's fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, in which the swift but erratic Hare loses a race to the slow but steady Tortoise.  

When I was a kid, I found this particular story annoying.  I didn't want to plod through my life like a boring old Tortoise.  I wanted to be fast and bouncy like the Hare!  And I wanted the Hare to win.  

Fast should beat slow all the time, shouldn't it?

As an adult, I've come to appreciate the meaning of that fable.  The Tortoise and the Hare symbolize the two basic strategies that human beings use to achieve a goal or make a change:  innovation (the Hare) and incrementalism (the Tortoise).

Innovation is what we normally think of when we contemplate change.  It's drastic, sweeping change that attempts to replace what already exists with something completely new.  

Most diets are like this.  You throw out or hide all the food in your house that isn't allowed on the diet, you stock up on all the foods you're supposed to be eating, and you put yourself on the new regimen of unfamiliar meals, intending to change your eating habits overnight.  

Most plans for getting in shape are like this too.  You sign up with a gym or buy free weights or an exercise DVD, and you set your alarm an hour earlier so you can work out first thing.

Change through innovation is exciting, and that excitement can carry you through the initial phase of the change.  When you're innovating, everything is fresh and new.  It's also fast; a lot of change is crammed into a relatively short period of time.  You expect to see results quickly when you're innovating.

But innovation is based on the assumption that you're determined to change your habits overnight, that you've got the discipline to follow the new program to the letter, and the mental energy to be constantly vigilant against the old habits, which sneak back in whenever you're tired or distracted.

Innovation can also be disruptive, because the learning curve for innovation is steep.  You may have to drop everything else while you're learning how to adapt to the new process and monitoring yourself for lapses.  Innovation can be stressful.

Because of this, many attempts to change through innovation fail miserably, after a short but intense period of effort.  After two weeks of eating nothing but celery sticks and vegetable soup, the diet goes out the window.  Sore, strained muscles make a second visit to the gym torture, and the third visit never happens.  Your resolve weakens, and you fall back on old habits.

Innovation is successful when the person making the change is highly-motivated.  Unfortunately, this level of motivation can be hard to muster unless you've had some sort of wake-up call.  Your boss threatens to fire you if you're late again.  You have a heart attack and your doctor gives you three months to live unless you stop eating bacon and start eating broccoli.  Your husband refuses to kiss you again until you've quit smoking.  

When your motivation is more along the lines of "Gee, it would be nice to fit into my skinny jeans," chances are you're going to run out of willpower after about a week of dieting.  Because even though it would be nice to fit into those jeans at some unspecified time in the future, it seems even nicer to eat that cupcake with the vanilla buttercream frosting right now.

Does that mean we're all doomed to be chubby and out of shape and forever failing to achieve our goals?

Thankfully, no.  There's a second approach to change that doesn't require a life-or-death, all-or-nothing mentality.  It's called incrementalism.

Incrementalism is the strategy of taking small, consistent steps toward a particular goal.  Incrementalism assumes that you are not a juggernaut of willpower, and that habits formed over a decade or two are not likely to be changed overnight.  It allows you to break your goal down into easy, doable tasks that fit into your current schedule.  It recognizes that the bigger the change you're trying to make, the more likely it is that you'll backslide.

Let's say your goal is to eat healthier.  That sounds like one goal, doesn’t it? But it requires a lot of willpower because it’s really a lot of little changes that you have to stay on top of all the time. (That, incidentally, is why it’s so darned hard to go on a diet.)

The incremental approach lets you separate that big goal into all its little changes and lets you focus on one at a time.

Let's contrast the two approaches:

Innovation:  You could swear off sugar, throw away all the junk food in your house, go grocery shopping for healthy food, buy a cookbook of healthy recipes, and then try to learn how to cook (and enjoy eating) healthier food next Monday. But that’s going to make next week pretty stressful, because you're going to be tackling a new learning curve while, at the same, time, exhausting your willpower by resisting cravings. Plus, you'll have spent money you hadn’t budgeted for, so you’ll feel even worse if you're not successful in sticking to the new diet.

Incrementalism:  Deciding that you're going to buy several pouches of frozen veggie mixes and eat one each day is a simple, affordable change that doesn’t require you to adjust any other aspect of your life.

You could go a step further, and decide that steamed veggies will be the first course of dinner, so you fill up on nutritious food and have less room in your stomach left over for lasagna or dessert. This is a little bit bigger change, but it’s doable. You're not denying yourself lasagna or dessert, you're just arranging the meal in such a way that you're eating the "good stuff" first.

Doesn’t that seem easier?

Of course, you still have a dozen other small changes to make.  But you’ll make them after eating veggies first has become an automatic habit.  Maybe that takes a couple of weeks.  Maybe it takes longer.

Once it seems normal to start dinner with a helping of vegetables, then you can add another small step, like swapping your afternoon M&Ms for a healthier snack, or taking a multivitamin, or going for a walk after lunch.

True, the incremental approach to change does take longer.  But when change happens gradually, it's also more likely to stick, because smaller changes require less motivation and are less disruptive to your current routine.

So the Hare does occasionally beat the Tortoise—when the Hare is seriously motivated.  But the rest of the time, the Tortoise wins the race.  

What would you most like to change about your life?

What small change could you make right now that would get you started on the path to that larger change?

13 Responses so far.

  1. Thank you for having me here today, Tricia! I love your tagline for this blog. Reading has opened up so many worlds for me personally. :)

  2. holls says:

    I would change the fact that i don't have a cleaning lady. Extra time and a spotless house would be awesome.


    Hollybwright at

  3. LYNN: Isn't it amazing how reading expands our view of the world infinitely and how it lets us escape, question, analyze, challenge, and engage ourselves in many wonderful experiences?.. I love how it lets me enjoy the world around, not only n my own point of view, but also n the eyes of people from all walks of life! <3

    Thank you too, Lynn! I am glad to have you here!

  4. HOLLS: I am with you!!! Wouldn't it be great to have someone help us with the "extra stuff" we have on board just so we can save some extra time for ourselves or for things that are more important.??.. ;) (entered for drawing)

  5. Teresita Sanchez says:

    I agree with what Lynn Johnston said in this article. I guess, most people don't really reach their goals because they always tend to jump right ahead taking a huge step without even preparing themselves. I admit that at some point in my life, I just want to get my goals done so I always ALWAYS took huge steps that didn't really help a lot. Instead of reaching my goals, I made it even longer for me to reach those. She's right, small steps are more than one far leap! Atleast with these baby steps, we will be prepared for the next step as we take it... slowly... but surely.. :) - Teresita


    PS: I love your tagline too tricia!

  6. Hi, Holls! That would be great! I don't have a cleaning lady either. :) Most of my housework gets done in small bits -- 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. I set the timer and focus on a very small area. It's easier to get it done when I know it'll be over soon.

  7. Hi, Teresita! I used to leap first and ask questions later, and I accumulated a lot of unfinished projects before I figured out that attempting to take huge steps wasn't actually getting me anywhere. :)

    You're so right about how baby steps makes it easier to prepare and avoid a lot of obstacles that we might otherwise run right into. It took me a while, but now I feel it's better to get there at a slow, steady pace, because I know that the alternative is often to not get there at all.

  8. Teresita Sanchez says:

    @LYNN: "it's better to get there at a slow, steady pace, because I know that the alternative is often to not get there at all." so true! BTW, I read another H.O.B post about your book! I can't wait for the drawing day! Sounds like your book is pretty much beneficial to almost everyone, not only those who are struggling about keeping up with healthy eating goals.

  9. Robert Collins says:

    " "Gee, it would be nice to fit into my skinny jeans,"....."

    this made me laugh! it reminds me of my late wife...She often tell me that she wants to lose a few pounds to fit on her dresses and jeans. While she has that want to do it, she didn't take any action to make it happen. This article is a good wake-up call!

    PS: I would also like to enter the drawing --

    Thank you, Robert

  10. Casey says:

    A friend of mine showed me a tweet about this blog when I was whining about being disappointed! :)) Indeed, this gave me a knock on my head! If the book giveaway is still open, I would definitely love to be on the list! my email is -

    I would like to lessen how I often say more about what I want to achieve, and just execute actions that will bring me there! It is frustrating in part how I keep on blurting out words and will later on end up disappointed... I think the only way I could address that is by writing my goals down and REALLY do something to achieve it.

  11. Thanks for your kind words, Teresita! :)

  12. Hi, Robert! I'm so glad you found the article helpful. Today is always a great day to take a step in the direction you want to go.

  13. Thanks for stopping by, Casey! I'm delighted that your friend referred you here. Yes, do take a few minutes to write down your goals. And -- here's a trick -- once you've got a list, choose one that's high priority to start with. Having too many goals that you're pursuing all at the same time results in feeling overwhelmed. It's better to start with one and get some momentum going on it before you add another.

    Also, you're more likely to stay with it if you start small and keep taking baby steps than if you try to jump in and make big progress right from the start.

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