Healthy Habits: Starting to Stick

by Valerie Peralta

In the early months of the pandemic, I indulged in BOGO ice cream deals. Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy and Half Baked one week. Häagen-Dazs Rum Tres Leches and White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle the next. Talenti’s Caramel Apple Pie and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup the week after that. At half the price, I felt no need to deny myself the comfort of any flavor. In return for supporting my grocer’s bottom line week after week, I acquired high blood sugar and cholesterol—not to mention a larger pant size.

My doctor was not pleased with my gains, but she agreed to let me fix the damage through exercise and better nutrition rather than a regimen of daily meds. My octogenarian mother has kept her type 2 diabetes to a non-diabetes glucose level through diet and moderate exercise for years. Surely, I can too. And it’s not like I’ve never broken a sweat. At 40 I completed two half marathons to keep a promise I’d made to 20-year-old me to run a marathon (in my mind ½ + ½ = a full). I transitioned to sprint triathlons because swimming and cycling were favorite childhood pastimes. While training for my first triathlon I shed enough inches I could pull my jeans over my hips without unzipping them. Unfortunately, those same jeans became so tight I no longer needed a belt to keep them up in the year I let pass between races. Now, to keep my blood work where it should be—must be—I have to commit to more than bucket list activities.

Khaden Hayward, founder and CEO of Coach Hayward, helps busy professionals achieve their fitness goals. He claims permanent change requires a plan I’ll follow long term. In an Instagram video titled Overcoming Binge Eating, he says, “If you’re too strict on a diet and you restrict yourself too much, then eventually what’s going to happen is you’re going to fall off and give it up.” He encourages his followers that the number one place to start a lifetime habit is to “find a sustainable approach that’s going to work for you.”

As I contemplate trading a tub of Häagen-Dazs for a single square of eighty-percent cocoa dark chocolate and a cup of fresh strawberries, it dawns on me that finding the right nutrition and exercise routine is much like discovering the process that fits me as a writer. I might write a thousand words a day for two or three days in a row, but if on days four, five, six through twenty-seven I don’t open my laptop or pick up a pen, I haven’t established a writing habit. I’ve simply done my cardio and eaten salads all week just to spend the rest of the month on a barstool inhaling bacon burgers, pizza and beer.

The same personality trait that allows me to eat ice cream with abandon keeps me from sticking to a regular writing schedule. But if I’m ever going to compose anything longer than a tweet, I have to commit myself to the task of transcribing the words floating around inside me to a physical medium. And a single poem, in my experience, takes longer than a day to create. A chapbook, then, will take however many days writing one poem requires multiplied by however many poems equal a collection, at a minimum.

There are strong arguments for the “write every day” rule. Mary Oliver explained in A Poetry Handbook what’s necessary for any writing to happen:

“The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem….learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be.…If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.” Showing up consistently ready to write, she concluded, “is the first and most essential thing to understand. It comes before everything, even technique.”

In From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Robert Olen Butler provides equally convincing evidence for writing every day: “because the nature of this place where you go [to write from your unconscious] is such that it’s very difficult to find your way in.…But even though it’s terrible getting in, once you’re in, if you keep going back every day, though it’s still always daunting and difficult and scary, it’s not nearly so much so.”

Writing a few days, stopping a few days, and then starting and stopping again over and over is akin to the yo-yo dieter/exerciser who regains more pounds than they lost every time they quit a program. But how do I go from writing, ahem, haphazardly to writing every day at an appointed time? Again, Coach Hayward offers advice for making lasting change. “Do little things that are going to help you build up your discipline.” In my fitness life, this has looked like walking a mile a day and, once that habit was established, adding short high-intensity interval training (aka HIIT) workouts four times a week.

In an interview on his Creative Live show, Chase Jarvis asks Jericho Brown, the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry (The Tradition, Copper Canyon 2019), to give advice to the person who isn’t pursuing their dream because it sounds audacious or scary or vulnerable. Brown responds, “What would a day look like if you were living your dream? What would a week look like? What would a month look like? What would a year look like?” He then recommends making a list of your practices, of what you would do when you first got up, before you went to bed at night, of what life would look like if you were living the dream.

Writing is episodic for me. A line presents itself as I walk along the man-made lake in my neighborhood or while selecting snacks at the grocery store. So part of living the dream is to collect these snippets as they come and then spend at least twenty minutes a day working with the words on the page, searching for more words to join them so together they can become a poem or an essay. Once this habit has become routine, I’ll move on to the next step—writing thirty or forty minutes or even an hour every day.

And with a month left before my next round of lab work, making better food choices consistently needs to be my reality, not a dream, one bite at a time.

<strong>Valerie Peralta</strong>
Valerie Peralta

Valerie Peralta is an intermittent exerciser who’s striving to be more tortoise and less hare. After copy editing for two decades, she’s finally placing her own words on the page. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University; her work has been published by The Blended Future Project and CausewayLit. She lives in South Florida within running distance of the Everglades.  

2 responses to “Healthy Habits: Starting to Stick”

  1. This is so well written… And helpful to the intermittent exercise buddies who love to be with you and hear your poetry before or after a ride! You inspire us. Keep writing.

  2. This is a remarkably tasty article, carefully crafted to be fully satisfying and yet light enough to read repeatedly so that these habits of discipline can be ingrained. Thank you for sharing your gift with the world.