I just finished reading a stunning article in the New Yorker magazine entitled “The Heroism of Incremental Care.” In it, the writer tracks the journey of Bill, a 57-year-old man who has been suffering from crippling migraine headaches since adolescence. Desperate for relief, Bill did what most of us generally do–he searched for the magic pill, the One Heroic Solution that would save him. There was the dentist who fitted him with a mouth guard, the Botox injections in the muscles of his forehead, hypnotism recordings, high-dosage vitamins, herbal treatments, promising new pharmaceutical drugs. Occasionally, a remedy would help for a brief period, but nothing made a lasting difference.
Finally, he met a new primary care physician who suggested a different approach. Instead of reaching for a fast, dramatic “cure,” she lowered expectations and opted for a long-term outlook for improvement–Prevention and Maintenance (how novel!). Together, they embarked on a non-dramatic, non-heroic strategy called Incremental Progress. It would take patience and trust. Bill was all in.
It took three long years–three years of listening closely to the body, keeping a tedious headache journal, titrating drug dosages by miniscule amounts, measuring and adjusting, and enduring the frustration of “one step forward, five steps back.” And then, finally … (drumroll) … the headaches became less frequent and ultimately stopped.
I’m not a doctor, but I imagine many doctors (and yoga teachers) are drawn to the aura of heroism, by the chance to charge in and solve a dangerous problem. For a doctor, it may be performing a life saving surgery or delivering a baby. For a yoga teacher, it may be swooping in to “fix” a student’s lower back pain. To be sure, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with these intentions. These are worthy aspirations, and they’re often born from a place of great integrity.
But while one-off procedures garner much of our resources, it’s the valuable, unglamorous work of steady, Incremental Progress that gets starved.
Ayurveda, by its very nature, is incremental and non-invasive in its approach. When I teach the habits of Ayurveda (Dinacharya), successful habit change requires allowance, patience, and longevity. If you want to be that person who wakes up before sunrise but you are currently waking up at 8:00am, don’t set your clock for 5:30am (yet). Set your alarm for 7:45am three mornings a week, and progress from there.
A great example of this philosophy is Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps. His daily grind of small routines was the key to his success. We, the audience, only saw the Heroic Moment when the gold medal was placed over his head–the music swelled and so did the tears. It was an awesome sight to behold! Bravo!
But what we didn’t see were the many private, smaller, incremental “wins” Michael earned every time he got out of bed before dawn and practiced his strokes or measured out his food portions. By the time we witnessed his very public victory on TV, he’d already claimed hundreds of smaller, mundane victories.
“Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We’re proud of you for having them. But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you–the shift in daily habits that would mean a re-invention of how you see yourself.” — Seth Godin
So set your lofty goals and resolutions for 2018 for overall guidance. They are important! But a huge body of research has shown that small wins have a compound and durable effect.
Don’t be a Hero. Focus on the daily victories. That’s where the gold is.