I Can Get There: 365 Days of Tiny Steps

In 2022, I lost ~20 pounds of weight, read 29 books, and moved out of my family’s home.

I hit some professional and financial goals, devoted time working on our non-profit organization, tried new things, and had the privilege to travel.

I also found myself and lost myself – and learned that life will inevitably be a cycle of losing myself then working to find myself again.

It’s a ‘new chapter, new me’ kind of year, a landmark, a period of growth that I will always remember and be grateful for.

And, looking back, the things that really made the biggest difference were the smallest ones:

A checklist. A watch. A journal. And “atomic habits”.

The Aftermath

As the terrifying panic of the pandemic started to give way to gradual levels of normalcy, and as society began to comprehend the damage wrought by quarantine and economic standstills and ailing public health policies, I also started noticing the impact of the pandemic on my body and my habits.

Circa 2021 to early 2022, I couldn’t fit into my clothes and had to buy new ones 1-2 sizes up. My confidence was at an all-time-low, and for somebody who has struggled with body insecurity issues all her life, this period was extremely difficult.

Around the same time, I knew I’d gained new routines that were far from good.

Because of a busier schedule, I’ve started to order all my food – the faster and cheaper, the better. This usually meant I was eating junk. There was a time I was ordering so much food that I thought my credit card got hacked because there were 30 consecutive transactions from GrabFood in one billing statement. I wasn’t hacked; it was just all me.

Netflix became such a mainstay in my schedule that there were entire days in 2021 in which I literally just watched TV in bed from sunup to sundown. And when Netflix wasn’t on, I was on my phone scrolling endlessly on whatever social media app was open.

Exercise was only a wisp of a suggestion. Most days involved prioritizing work and thus sitting in front of my laptop from 8AM to as late as 8PM, with only bathroom or food breaks in between. If I somehow had the will to have an exercise session, it was usually not enough.

This was definitely not my optimum state, but I also can’t blame myself for turning into a work-driven potato. The pandemic was tough, and though I consider myself extremely lucky in a time of crisis, it was still tough on me too.

But I had had enough.

The world was getting better, and I needed to take back control of my body and my life.

The Turning Plane

There was no one moment in which I decided to work harder to improve my daily habits. It wasn’t a turning point but – to borrow a geometric concept – more of a turning plane.

It was a compounding of optimistic mornings, self-help books that actually taught me something, encouraging words and actions from my partner, and useful tools. But all in all, it was an upwelling of that pesky sense of hope – that “I can get there” feeling – that was pushing me forward.

And I had tried so many different ways to realize the changes I wanted to see in myself. Some worked out, and some didn’t. Some cost more than others. Some were effective for a while then not anymore. Some were hard to start. Some were hard, period.

But thanks to that persistent “I can get there”, I started finding my momentum – losing a bit of weight, eating healthier, making a better exercise routine, feeling better about myself – and filtering the actions that were making the most sense for me at that time.

Here’s what I learned along the way.

The Lessons

1. You can’t control what you can’t measure.

This is where my FitBit watch came in.

As I started rebuilding my exercise routine, I realized that what worked best for me and my body was a lot of daily movement and walking with some weightlifting sessions (ideally) 2x a week. My watch records how many steps I take and how many Active Minutes (minutes of vigorous exercise) I earn in a day.

When I started setting a goal of at least 10,000 steps a day through just walking more (at home, at the gym, at the mall and outside), my weight started to kick down. When I set another goal of at least 60 Active Minutes a day, I started seeing faster changes in my body.

And it felt great. It felt great not just because I was fitting into my clothes again. I was feeling more mentally sharp, getting better sleep, consciously enjoying my food more, and generally having more energy throughout the day.

I used a weighing scale as well to check how much weight I have lost, but now that I’m down to a near-optimal number, I’m not using it so much. (Warning: The number on the scale is not the end-all, be-all of weight loss. You can be relatively heavy for your height but still have a good physique because of other factors like muscle gain.)

Bonus: You can also control negative habits that you can measure. Because I spent so much time browsing social media on my phone, I activated app timers on my phone. I started to limit the time I can spend on social media apps to a total of 1 hour per day across all apps, and – thanks to Samsung’s digital wellbeing features – each app automatically closes and can’t be opened right away once its time is up.

Screenshots from the FitBit app: Left is a pretty good day, right is a not-so-good day

2. Your daily habits matter.

Enter the checklist.

After reading Atomic Habits by James Clear and learning that tiny, tiny changes in how you do things everyday can have massive impact, I realized that I did have a daily checklist running in my head that I mentally tick every now and then. But because it was invisible, it wasn’t “required” so even if I hadn’t ticked anything for the day, it was fine.

To make myself more accountable, I formalized the process by having a checklist. I tried doing it on a notepad and paper, but it wasn’t sticking. Then I downloaded an app on my phone called Habit Tracker and it actually worked. I can set every habit-related task that I want to do everyday and check it.

I’ve been using this app for 8 months now, and I still get a feel-good shot every time I tick something off my daily checklist (e.g. “Read 1 book chapter every morning”). According to my tracker, I’ve actually only ticked 40% of all the daily listed habits throughout those 8 months so far, but even that 40% has improved my lifestyle by leaps and bounds.

There are days I don’t tick anything at all for various reasons – weekends, sick days, or just not feeling productive at all – but the app encourages me to try a bit harder on the next day, or the next next day. In the end, it’s not about perfecting each day’s list, but about setting a routine – however imperfect – for as many days as you can. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Words and images precede actions. Actions precede reality.

All I’m saying is that to liberate the potential of your mind, body and soul, you must first expand your imagination. You see, things are always created twice: first in the workshop of the mind and then, and only then, in reality.

Robin Sharma, “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari”

This is why I have a journal.

Last year, I bought one of those nice expensive Moleskin notebooks to obligate myself to write on it. In the past months, this journal has become my confidante, my reflection space, my memory bank, and my “workshop of the mind”.

There are many goals written in that journal that I haven’t accomplished, but most of the goals I wrote – and rewrote and rephrased and reimagined – for 2022 actually became true.

By writing my goals, I forced myself to imagine what it would be like to actually achieve these things, and I consciously and subconsciously pushed myself in that direction.

Most of our dreams may never come true, but if we don’t dream it in the first place, we’ll never have the chance.

The Challenge

This system of sticking to “atomic habits” is something I will continue to use and tweak and refine as needed in the years to come.

But the next phase for me is to build on hope.

I know now that someway, somehow I can tell myself that “I can get there“, but now I need to ask myself: “How far do I want to go?”

The first days of 2023 has gotten me thinking about courage and the audacity to dream and act on even bigger things. I don’t know what comes next, and I’m still piecing it all together, but for now, I’d like to share this Litany Against Fear from one of my favorite books.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Frank Herbert, “Dune”

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