I recently read (well, actually devoured) Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives. It was a book all about the process and pitfalls of developing habits, and it has helped me get back on a journey toward better health and fitness (more on that in a later post). One of the things that struck me as I was reading the book was how much my process of becoming vegan mirrored the habit-development process she discussed in the book. There were 5 major aspect of the habit-developing journey that have really stuck with me on my current journey towards better health and wellness but also very much reminded me of my journey towards becoming vegan. You can read a more detailed account of my vegan journey here, but here are some of the ways in which veganism has gone from moved an obsessive focus of my everyday life to simply being a habit:
The Beginning of Change:
In her book Rubin lists 3 ways to start to develop a habit: When it came to being vegan I definitely took the slow route. I started by being pesco-vegetarian for health reasons, and then soon found that giving up dairy made me feel far healthier. But even after cutting back on dairy (not giving it up entirely) I still see-sawed back and forth, often bingeing on cheese when I would eat out and then feeling horrible about it the day after. It wasn’t until I discovered Colleen Patrick-Goudrou’s award-winning podcast “Food for Thought” that I started to consider being vegan for reasons of compassion and ethics. At that point I made the official vegan transition in March of 2009. Once I decided to stop eating meat, dairy, and eggs because of the ethical implications of that food (rather than health reasons), I found the full transition much easier.
According to Rubin, when you first start developing a habit, the practice of monitoring your progress and dedication to the habit will help the transition from thinking about the habit, to doing it without thinking. I never did a food journal when I was vegan, but just existing in a non-vegan world was enough to force me to monitor my habits. I was constantly checking ingredients, figuring out which new foods to buy, etc. However, just as monitoring becomes less necessary as a habit develops, so to did my obsessive food checking begin to wane after just a month or so of being vegan.
When discussing ways to stay motivated while building a habit Rubin discusses the idea of treats (as opposed to rewards). Treats are essentially the simple but pleasurable things that you do on or get on your path towards developing the habit. These treats should not detract from the habit however. For example, having a big slice of chocolate cake after eating suger-free for the week would be counter-productive, but letting yourself buy a magazine to read during the time you would usually have your afternoon sugar craving would be a treat that supports the development of the habit. When I made the official transition to actually being vegan, I was quick to reward myself with treats. If there were baked goods I couldn’t eat at a work event, I would pick up a box of Newman O’s on the way home. I would splurge on vegan gourmet cheese (this is before Daiya existed!) for a pizza at home. Knowing I had access to these treats reminded me that vegansim isn’t about deprivation, but is instead about living out your values.
For most people, having others hold us accountable makes us more likely to follow through on our promises to ourselves. A few months after my “official” vegan transition I started a new job. When we would have lunch or breakfast brought in for meetings I would bring my own food, which inevitably led to discussions in which I identified as vegan. I was lucky to be in a place where people (a) knew what vegan meant and (b) were positive about it. This also meant that, if I had the urge to eat a non-vegan muffin “just once” it would have looked strange, so it was even easier to stick to my values.
When I think about my transition to actually identifying as vegan (as opposed to someone who simply “ate vegan” a good portion of the time) the big change for me was my reasons for doing so. Once it was about doing the right thing as a compassionate person who truly didn’t want to hurt animals, I found it much easier to be vegan. From that point forward veganism started to become simply the way I figured out what I was going to eat. There were some bumps along the road, but just like brushing my teeth every night, being vegan quickly because something I was, not something I had to remind myself to do. Now being vegan isn’t actually something I think about much – it just is the way I live my life. And it is a lovely habit to have.