Incrementalism: The Art of Methodical Change

Change is hard, confusing, scary...

Change is hard, confusing, scary…

For some people change is HARD. It takes me a really long time to implement change. I need to think about it for days, weeks, sometimes months before I figure out how that change fits into my daily routine. For example, I want to start running again. I used to love running. My doctor (who’s also a runner, and knows what it means for a runner to not be running) even discussed a plan to get me back running again in a manner which will, hopefully, prevent a recurrence of the injury that has me side-lined. That was a month ago. I have yet to run. What am I waiting for? Time. Scheduling. The universe to help me figure out exactly when and where I can implement this in my already insanely full schedule of being a father and husband, having a full-time job, blogging, keeping up with social media, and all the other 3 million things my brain is interested in doing at any given moment.

So, when it comes to changing your diet and you’re unsure of how to start, or you can’t figure out how you can possibly make this work for you, I get that. I’ve been there. I’m still there. The key is, you don’t need to go from 0 to 60 instantaneously. The key is to recognize that big change comes from the result of many, many small changes. This is known as “The Art of Incrementalism”!

Consider that you’ve spent your entire life, or at least a significant portion of it, with the same basic daily routine. Your meals follow a certain pattern, in part dictated by the rest of your daily schedule. The foods you buy are dictated by that same schedule as well. You need to get up in the morning, deal with the kids, feed them and you, make sure everyone has something to eat for lunch, get them out the door, etc.

As Lao-tzu, the Chinese philosopher once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And thus begins our Paleo Life. This is incredibly important to realize; one does not just “become Paleo”. It takes time, patience, practice, and planning.

Even after 3 years I am still working on “becoming Paleo”. I am constantly seeking out new ways of doing things, new hacks I can use in my everyday life to improve our health and nutrition as a family, and different practices, not always related to food, which I can seamlessly incorporate into my daily routine.

Incrementalism is the process of change

Incremental change is all about the process, not about a singular event.

It’s all about the process!

When I first “went Paleo” the thing that confused me the most was the mechanics of the process. I’m an engineer, I need to know the “How To” aspect. My brain works by finding a process for everything. Buying a house? There’s a process. Learning to invest successfully? There’s a process. Even lifestyle changes such as shifting from night-owlhood into an early riser or weaning yourself off of sugar? There’s a process!

Once I’ve figured out that process, I can break it down into a series of steps from beginning to end. And since everything is a process, then everything is also a skill which can be learned. And all it takes to learn a skill is knowing the process, and applying it over and over and over until it ceases to be a process and becomes habit.

The slow, steady, and methodical change…

Inchworm, Incrementalism is natural!

Slow, but steady progress.

Let’s go back to about 5 years ago and see how my family and I moved incrementally from a SAD breakfast to a Paleo one. It’s 2008, long before I discovered Paleo. I was commuting into the city on my bike 4 days/week. My almost daily breakfast was 1 cup of steel-cut oats with raisins and brown sugar. In the fall I’d sub in fresh, chopped cranberries instead (as an aside, can you see how this breakfast consists entirely of sugar in one form or another?).

I would make 4 cups (cooked) of steel-cut oats on a Sunday and Wednesday nights and take 2 cups to work with me on Mondays and Thursdays. One cup for each day. At work I had a stash of brown sugar and raisins or cranberries. That, and a couple of cups of coffee was breakfast during the week. So even back then I was automating my meals, and planning ahead to make it as effortless and thoughtless as possible.
Meanwhile, back at the cave, CaveMomma was dealing with the CaveKids, who back then were fairly tiny little people who didn’t eat much. Breakfast for the rest of the family was a variety of things; usually whatever the path of least resistance was. If there was porridge left in the pot, they had that. If not, it was likely cereal with skim milk, toast and fruit, or some other easy-to-prepare, grain and carb-based food-product.

On weekends I’d usually cook at least one decent breakfast consisting of pancakes (usually with chocolate chips for the kids and blueberries for me) and home fries (again, can you see where this is still an all-carb based affair?).

My transition to Paleo was slow and incremental. It began one summer after reading The Zone diet which focuses more on quantity than quality. As a result, it really helped me with portion control!

A “decent” Zone breakfast was a meal well-balanced between the 3 macros; carbs, protein, and fat. My first hurdle was to figure out how to work fat into my diet. My breakfasts of nothing but porridge were about to come to an end. Though perfectly acceptable on the Zone, 1-cup of porridge was way to much compared to the amount of protein and fat I was supposed to be getting. I needed about a 1/4 cup at most, with no sugar, syrup, or raisins. Well, where’s the fun in THAT?! I had to find something else: egg-sandwiches to the rescue!

It took 3 minutes to cook some eggs up in butter (there’s my fat!), and slap them on 2 pieces of “healthy, whole-wheat bread” with a little ketchup. But 2 pieces of bread turned out to be just slightly over my carb-limit for breakfast (as an aside, did you know that the glycemic index for 2 pieces of “healthy, whole-wheat bread” is greater than that of a Snicker’s bar?!)

So, after a while, I moved to having a couple of eggs and 1-piece of toast. Then I started thinking that toast really wasn’t doing it for me. It was yummy, but really, I could do without it. We started buying fresh fruit instead, and I could have a huge bowl of fresh strawberries and blueberries without even coming close to the glycemic load of bread! And it actually took less time to dump a bunch of berries in a bowl than it did to make toast!

By the fall my main breakfast had become eggs of some sort, usually in the form of an omelet with sautéed veggies inside. In fact, this is pretty much what I eat still to this day! And with fall came yet a new job where I was able to be home in the mornings with the family. Thus, I began cooking breakfast for everyone. Eggs all around!

We were eating so many eggs we were buying 5-dozen count flats at the local Warehouse Club. This lasted a few months, but introduced a new logistical problem: fitting the 5 dozen eggs in the fridge. We knew we had to figure something else out when my wife and I both bought eggs on the same day not knowing the other had gone shopping. Now, along with all the other food we had each purchased, we had to squeeze 10 dozen eggs in our already over-stuffed fridge!

This led to us buying our eggs from our local dairy farmer, a great family down the street that’s into its 3rd or 4th generation running the farm. The re-sell eggs from another local chicken farmer. The eggs are all pasture-raised, organic, yadda, yadda, yadda. And they’re more expensive. But we drive by their house no less than 4 times a day! Which means CONVENIENCE! I can now have all the eggs I want, when I NEED them, and the only interruption to my life is pulling off the road on the way home from work. No more squeezing 5-dozen count crates of factory-farmed eggs into my fridge. We do pay more, but the convenience and quality is unmatched! Plus, we get to support 2 different local farming families to boot!


Incrementalism is all about being Better Than Before!

The goal is simply to be better than before!

Incrementalism: Allow the change to creep up on you!

Lunches and dinners have changed incrementally as well. The kids have almost always brought their lunches to school, and my wife and I have always brought our lunches to work, even pre-Paleo (I’m also a lazy cheap skate, why waste time going out and spending money when you can toss it together yourself, be guaranteed to enjoy what you have, and not waste time or money in the process?!). The CaveKids used to bring sandwiches, Goldfish or graham crackers, and some fruit. CaveMomma and I would often bring leftovers from the night before. Now, CaveMomma and I almost always bring salads with homemade salad-dressing and the CaveKids usually bring a couple of slices of deli meat, and some fruit. Sudsy McDoo, the oldest loves black olives. She takes precisely 17 with her for lunch. The Chooka loves tomatoes, so she’ll take a bunch of cherry tomatoes, or if we have them, one small vine-ripened tomato.

Dinners have moved from things like pasta (which would be made in huge batches and eaten for several lunches and dinners in a row) to things like bean-less chili, beef stew, crock pot rotissery chicken, steak or pork chops, etc., all with sides of things like roasted root veggies, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower rice, etc.

Over time we’ve seen our basic meals shift from heavily processed carb-based to meat and veggies-based. We’ve seen some old favorites like porridge, pasta, and white potatoes get pushed aside for eggs, roasts, and sweet potatoes and various varieties of squash. Our meals, and our family, are significantly healthier and even happier with our dietary changes. I don’t know too many kids who get excited over veggies (except for other paleo kids), but mine can’t get enough of them. And who has a kid that BEGS to take half a can of black olives to school for a snack?

Overnight success takes about 15 years

Success is the residue of skill. Skill is the residue of practice. Practice IS Incrementalism!

Overnight success is a myth!

It didn’t happen over night. It’s been a 3+ year journey at this point, and I feel like we’re just getting started!

I’d love to hear how The Art of Incrementalism has helped you to get to where you are today. Or, if you’re just beginning your Paleo Adventure, how you think The Art of Incrementalism might be able to help you on your way. Have questions? Need help making some small adjustments? Want suggestions on different incremental changes that might be helpful? Post a comment below of ask us on Facebook or Twitter! We want to hear from you!

Here are some great resources for starting or continuing your journey:

  • The 21 Day Sugar Detox, by Diane Sanfilippo (see my review here)
  • The 21 Day Sugar Detox Cookbook, by Diane Sanfilippo
  • Practical Paleo, by Diane Sanfilippo
    These three books are a great way to learn how to change your diet slowly by just giving up sugar for 3 weeks.  By the end, you’ll have changed your taste buds and your life by eliminating sugar; the first steps to easing into the Paleo Lifestyle. Diane is a master teacher who is able to break complicated tasks down into incredibly simple steps, complete with colorful pictures to guide you every step of the way. The 21 Day Sugar Detox is a great “Intro to Paleo”, and “Practical Paleo” is exactly what the beginner ready for the next steps needs for the second stage of lifestyle transition.
  • The Food Lover’s Primal Palate
    Bill & Hayley have hands down, the best books on the Paleo publishing circuit.  Their photography, indices, tables of contents, and incredibly simple recipes are unparalleled.  Of the 3 books below, I have only Make it Paleo.  It is by far my favorite cook book in the Paleosphere!
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