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Small habits compound - Sasha High MD

Nov 15, 2020

Have you ever tried to develop a new health habit, but given up after a week or two because you didn’t see any benefits? I want to talk to you about the law of compounding returns and why you need to understand this to live your healthiest life.

Before I get into that, let me tell you a little story about how I started thinking about this topic this morning. I got my Sephora order in the mail yesterday from the recent VIB/Rouge sale and I got this new facial scrub and cream. So I tried them last night and this morning woke up and was literally examining my face expecting to magically see my skin looking totally new and fresh and all imperfections gone. I’ve used the products one time, once last night, and already my brain is like – okay, am I seeing results yet? … And as I was internally laughing at myself for this, it made me think of many patients in my clinic who will do this exact thing.  

They’ll come in after 2 weeks of trying a new eating plan or setting behavioural goals and say: “It wasn’t working so I just stopped and went back to what I was eating before.” And it’s like – it’s only been 2 weeks?! Let me give you another example, have you ever decided – okay, I’m going to lose weight. So you start a “diet” and maybe eat a salad one day, and the next day you’re jumping on the scale expecting to see a 5 lb weight loss and then disappointed when it hasn’t moved.

Yeah? Anyone? I’m guessing there may be some of you who can relate. Well I want to share a quote with you from James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits. I was listening to a podcast where he was featured and he said:

Small habits compound. With any compounding process the greatest returns are delayed.”

Essentially, we live healthy lives when we daily, live out those little habits, little health behaviours that don’t give us any immediate gratification or results, but over time, weeks and months and years they produce good fruit in our lives if we’re patient. Think about it, the scale isn’t necessarily going to move if you eat a salad today instead of a plate of pasta. But if you consistently eat salad over pasta for months and years – you’re going to be much more likely to see the results you’re hoping for. Going to the gym and lifting weights isn’t going to make you sculpted and muscular overnight, but if you’re consistent and you stick it out over weeks to months and years – you’ll see gains, you’ll be stronger, you will get the results you’re hoping for. 

I know it seems obvious, but I think in reality many of us have these unrealistic expectations when it comes to the weight loss journey and we don’t appreciate the concept of compounding returns. We’re so used to living in an immediate results, fast-paced culture that we want to see results and we want to see them now. And this is why so many people go for these crazy restriction, fad diet weight loss programs because you do get results quickly. But we all know that most of those fad diets work in the short turn and result in weight regain in the longterm.

The fact is, unhealthy behaviours often give immediate reward, but healthy behaviours take longer to produce reward in our lives. I’ll give you an example – eating a chocolate brownie gives you immediate reward because sugar triggers the dopamine pathways and you feel good. But eating vegetables doesn’t give that same immediate reward, but over the longterm is going to produce better health. It’s like that with activity too – sitting on the couch watching Netflix feels better right now than going outside in the cold for a walk, but going outside for the walk will give better longterm returns.

That’s part of why healthy behaviours are hard. Because they require us to live for the future, when everything about our primal brain wants us to live for right now. Let me give you 3 tips to help you apply this principle of compounding reward.

1)   You need to have a clear vision of where you want to go. Know what’s important to you in the long run (your values) and what you want to accomplish (your vision) so that you can focus on those things when the going gets tough. Be mindful that you are doing all these little healthy habits to honour your future self.

2)   Reframe what success looks like for you. Instead of making success about the scale, make success about hitting your goals for the day, and taking care of yourself the best way possible. At the end of each day, take a moment to reflect on your wins. Do a daily reflection and ask yourself – did I live out my values today? If yes, give yourself affirmation. If no, then non-judgmentally try to learn from the day and see how you can improve for next time.

3)   Stop quitting. Seems simple but so many people quit in their weight loss journey and then wonder why they aren’t seeing the results they want. Instead of quitting when you hit a snag, just trouble-shoot it. Maybe you need to adjust your sleep schedule, or your eating plan, or your medications, or your exercise routine. If you stop quitting, and instead allow your brain to focus on problem-solving, you’re going to be able to re-align yourself to keep living toward your vision.

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