This New Year: Be the Tortoise

By: Dr. Roger Landry, MD, MPH

Back in 2016, I had my left ankle replaced. Yes, ankle. With the marvels of modern medicine, this too is possible. After decades of mounting pain and limited mobility as the result of a winter accident, I got to be a new man! Eventually, I was walking better and longer. I had more energy as a result. I was taking more hikes and had aspirations of long trips and lots of trailblazing. But right after surgery, my inner rational voice said, “Whoa cowboy! There are a few steps before all that. Like, preventing clots and infection while I’m immobile, getting the cast off, rebuilding mobility and strength with rehab…lots of rehab…”

The Resolution Dilemma  

And so it is my friends with any change you might be contemplating in the New Year. PLEASE forget the classic New Year’s resolution. That “go for the gusto and just do it. No pain no gain. Go for the gold” type of lifestyle change you and everybody else has tried before and failed miserably at. It’s noble to want to be better. I applaud it. And it can happen, but not the way you think. 

There is one slogan I want you to adopt. NO FEAR. That’s a good one because the reason we fail at the typical New Year’s resolution is because, as a species that evolved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we, like our ancestors, are internally wired to respond to large change, whether extrinsic or self-induced, with a fear-like response that prevents us from bringing all the needed abilities we have to bear on our effort to change. We fail because we present ourselves with large, usually impractical if not impossible change within a particular, unrealistic time frame. Small steps essentially do an end run on the fear response, and we can move ahead with all our success cylinders firing. 

Our New Change Hero 

I give you the venerable tortoise. Who very un-dramatically takes small consistent steps towards a goal that may be a long distance and a long time, away. I also give you kaizen, a Japanese approach to change which is based on small steps, in fact, the smallest step possible towards larger goals. Dr. Robert Maurer, in his powerful book, One Small Step Can Save Your Life tells of a process which sounds ridiculously simple and even laughable to we overachieving Americans, but which is exponentially more successful with lifestyle change. 

So, my end-of-year, new-beginnings, brothers and sisters, yes, let’s be better in the new year. Let’s move towards lifestyles that will keep us healthier as we age, improve the quality of our lives, and make us feel confident we are more in control of our wellbeing. But let’s do as the tortoise, the kaizen way. Here are three simple tips: 

Three Tips for Successful Change in the New Year:

  1. Do your internal homework. Ask yourself, and answer clearly why and what you want to change. If that’s not clear, there’s no way you’re going to stay the course. You will be lured off course by the first miracle claim, or too good to be true “guaranteed” outcome.   
  1. Then, there’s the big adjustment to your classic way of approaching change. Ask yourself, “What is the smallest thing I can do to begin this change?” Now make that your goal for now. Not the BIG goal. Just this small first step. (e.g., I’m going to stand during TV commercials vs running five miles every day). Imagine yourself doing that small thing (this begins to program your brain for success). 
  1. When you achieve the small goal, set the next smallest goal and work towards that. If you fail to meet a goal, step back and make the goal even smaller by say, doing less or giving yourself more time. Forget the self-loathing or picture of a pig on the refrigerator response. You shot too high. Modify it and push ahead.  This way, You Cannot Fail. And meanwhile you’ll be developing confidence and competence muscles which will make you the Rocky of 2022 and beyond. 

Aren’t you better off having multiple small successes over a longer period than one short colossal failure?  Really, the tortoise brings it! Maybe slower, but HE DOES BRING IT!  

All the best for 2022!

Note: We encourage readers to share Masterpiece content. However, please see our guidelines for attribution.

This article was originally published in 2016, but has been updated in 2022.