30 April 2014

The Spiral Upwards

La Grande Roue de Jaude // personal picture (December 2013)

Whereas it can be difficult to kickstart new habits and integrate them in our daily life, another challenge, maybe even bigger, is to actually manage to maintain them on the long term. I am still in the process of shaping my daily habits within the 4 level up areas, but among the things I have learned from my past failures, I think the most important one is what I decided to call the Spiral Upwards.

Running in Circles?

When I remember the habits I have failed to maintain for so long - food and sport - the major discouraging factor was the impression that I was running in circles. For over ten years, ever year around March I would cry over the "Christmas pounds" and decide to eat better and practice regular sports. I would be very motivated, try a certain training programme and diet, feel better about myself, enjoy the summer, and autumn, then be back to the exact same spot the next year, in March. I felt like I failed to maintain these habits on the long term - daily life happened and I sort of forgot to keep doing it more than a few months in Spring/Summer. And these are just examples, I'd feel the same about travel habits, home maintenance habits, writing and creating habits...

I believe this impression eroded my motivation over the years, and made habits even harder to maintain. But when I started questioning my life a few years ago, I realized something: I learned some things from every one of these failures. But I didn't really make the effort to apply what I learned the last time around. Maybe because I'd convinced myself I was doomed to failure anway, like every year. Or maybe because I wasn't looking for the learnings in the first place.

The Spiral Upwards

That's when I realized: I am not running in circles, I am spiraling upwards. In March of the following year, I was back to implementing new habits, but I was a bit above where I was last year, because I can learn some lessons from what didn't work last year and why. Maybe some of the daily habits did become automatic and integrated on the long term after all, maybe some of the programmes I tried to impose myself were not compatible with my daily life or preferences. Maybe I can try something new this time.

The point here, is to consider the habit making on the long term, as in, years, rather than staying focused on the day to day actions. Take a look at your current lifestyle and compare it to 10 years ago, are you really at the exact same spot? What changed? Which of your habits did become automatic, natural, maintained?

Boosting the Spiral

Now, how does this long-term concept help maintaining your daily habits? I think that we can learn from our mistakes more efficiently when we are looking for the learnings in the first place. If you just think you are running in circles and failing every time, you may learn some things unconsciously, but most learnings may escape you because you are not looking for them.

In order to boost the spiral, make it go upwards faster, I think the first step is to consider past failures in habit making, and ask yourself: what failed, and why? On the other hand, what succeeded, and why? It can help making your next habit forming in the same field easier, but it also helps knowing yourself, your preferences, sources of motivation better, helping you create better habits for yourself in general, even new ones you never failed at before.

A Concrete Example: My Food Habits

Here is a concrete example of my upwards spiral of habits, in the field of food, to make things clearer for you if necessary. I think it is a good example because we eat every day so everyone is concerned,  and because I have actively tried to change my food habits for a long time, so it's a good case study. I also added some "steps" so you can apply it to your own habits.

  • The initial "circle" situation : Like most girls of my generation in Western societies, I started wanting to lost weight right from puberty. The eternal "5 superfluous kilos" that would change my life. That was 15 years ago. Every year, I would try a new diet or variation of a diet, lost a few kgs in spring, then get back to my ordinary life, and diet again the next year in spring. Even this year, after the Easter week-end I decided to actively work on my food habits again. This sounds like running in circles, doesn't it?

  • Step 1: Consider habits over the long term -  But if I step back and consider the changes between 15 years ago and now, my food habits have changed a lot. I no longer drink sodas or eat candy regularly, I don't eat prepared, processed industrial dishes anymore, I have stopped short term diets to focus on creating and maintaining healthy habits instead.

  • Step 2: Identify your Preferences - Every year, I have learned something about my food habits and preferences. And these past two years, I have been actively identifying these habits and preferences. Examples: I don't feel guilty if I allow myself some nice meals in restaurants (pizza, pasta etc.) because I know it's punctual. I can't stop eating cheese daily. Stop trying to. I can live without soda though, but not alcohol. In moderation.

  • Step 3: Boost the Spiral - I have decided in 2011 that short term diets didn't work, and let go of purely short term habits to focus on a long term objective: implementing and maintaining healthy food habits. I started by identifying what I wanted my food habits to move forward to: I made some research, read books, decided to go low carb. Then, I selected some short term steps to implement and maintain. But of course I didn't succeed at maintaining everything, life happened, I focused my energy on other things, and pizza, rice and bread crept back into my menus. That's the time for step 4.

  • Step 4a: Check the Evolution - What worked and why? - I did spiral upwards: some habits stuck. For example I don't sweeten coffee anymore. It worked because it was a simple rule (no sugar in the coffee). By applying it every single day, my taste buds adjusted and it became automatic and pleasant. It's not a sacrifice, I don't like sweetened coffee anymore. I think I even appreciate coffee better now that the taste isn't hidden by sugar anymore. This habit is fully integrated.

  • Step 4b: Check the Evolution - What failed and why? -  Some low carb habits somehow dwindled over the past two years. For example, eating less bread, potatoes, rice. It works in restaurants, I naturally select low carb options, unless I really want a treat, but it doesn't work at home. Why? Because I don't know how to cook veggies. It is much easier to make a pan of rice or potatoes, or have a side of bread. Sometimes, I can't even think of a veggie-only alternative.

  • Step 5: Adjust the Habit - How can I apply these learnings above to adjust my habits and go low carb again this year with more success? From what worked: find and implement simple, easy to apply rules (like the no sugar in coffee one). Example: Don't stock starch at home (potatoes, rice...). From what didn't work: now that I know why, find a solution to overcome the obstacle. Example: I need to find easy veggie recipes to avoid the temptation of turning to easier starch recipes. Get information: how can I replace bread or pasta with veggies? How can I cook them easily? Solution: Find and follow vegetarian/vegan food blogs. While I am not vegetarian, since veggies are the main source of energy for them, they'll surely have easy and tasty veggie recipes to offer, and they might give me some ideas to cook more veggies, more easily.

  • Step 6: Go Back to Step 1 - You can't be focused all year long on one habit or field of habits. So there is a cycle (hence the fact that it is still a spiral, and not a straight line). It is normal that your attention will focus on another habit at some point. Over the course of a year, I pick one field every month or couple of months, and focus my energy on the 5 steps above. And then I let my attention focus on another field of habits. But, in order to keep spiraling upwards on the long term, once a year or so, I pick that habit back up, from step 1, and focus on it again for the next few weeks.

On one hand, the concept of Spiral Upwards is rather abstract. On the other hand, it is only when I became aware of it that my habits really started to change more quickly, be maintained and improved on the long term, even if they are not all maintained every single day. I hope this explanation of the concept, along with the concrete example and steps, will help you use the Spiral Upwards to improve and maintain your habits as well. What do you think? Does it make sense?


  1. I sincerely hope you never stop writing as I don't know what I would do if I couldn't read your thoughtful reflections. This was such a great read!

    1. Thanks! I'm happy you enjoy my posts, thank you for letting me know and keeping on reading :)

  2. A few years ago I decided to incorporate a lot more vegies in our diet and found the following blog invaluable for ideas.

    We buy a big box of organic vegies and fruit every Saturday and rotate a handful of quick, easy recipes during the week and experiment on the weekends. It has absolutely become a habit - I never even think about it.


    1. Thank you so much for the link recommendation! I've been exploring Stone Soup and I love both their recipes and the way they present things - offering alternatives, cooking with seasonal produce and simple ingredients... I think this one will help me a lot in my quest to cook more veggies :)

      I used to get a similar type of box every week, a sort of fruit+veggie "surprise" box with organic produce from the region, and it actually made cooking veggies easier indeed, because at least you don't have to choose among all these things you never cook. Besides, it gives the motivation to find recipes. But I haven't found a similar offer in Paris yet. I'm happy to hear it's become a habit for you, I'm hoping to say the same in a few months.

  3. When I think at major habits that I have implemented effectively, becoming vegan and writing regularly for my blog would probably be the two main ones. They have both worked really, really well - I've only eaten something that's not vegan once in over a year, and published something on my blog at least twice a week every week (at least I so)
    I think what made these habits fit were a few things:
    - I was clear about why I wanted to do these things. It wasn't just because I thought I should or because other people seemed to be doing it.
    - I set a time period for trying it out so I had a concrete period of time in which I would give it my best effort and see if it worked for me, rather than feeling like I had to do this for the rest of my life and being demotivated to give it my all (initially 1 month for veganism, but obviously I've stuck with that. And 1 year for blogging, although I can't imagine not continuing now)
    - I really focused on the process rather than some goal. So instead of saying, I want X number of readers, I focus on each post as I write it. I think there is value in setting goals, but if we think we can only be happy when they are achieved it's a pretty miserable road getting there, which isn't very motivating.
    I'm not sure if these apply to other habits, and maybe this comment responds more to your initial habits post, but I did enjoy reading this post! The idea of spiraling upwards is a motivating way of looking at things and continuing to try to develop habits that are important to us.

    1. I totally understand you in focusing on the process and the every day effort rather than the end goal. I think I wrote about this some time ago with the specific example of sports in mind. As you say with veganism, when I'd imagine myself practising sports every other day for the rest of my life, it seemed daunting. Same if I focused on the long term goal of having a fitter body shape. But focusing both on the purpose, and the everyday process made it easier indeed.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I always wondered how someone can radically change their food habits and never stop, as do vegetarians and vegans, thanks for sharing your own experience!

  4. I really love your blog. It's so inspiring. I'm trying to write a novel at the moment. I'm waking up at half five every day and writing for an hour before work. I've been doing it for two weeks now and it's still so hard to wake up, it still feels like a chore! But I know it's important to reward yourself once you've kept up the habit for a while. I might buy myself a nice meal out after I've stuck to it for a month. Hannah x

    1. Thanks for the kind note! Writing a novel is a gret example as it necessitates to write every day. I read somewhere that a habit becomes integrated after one month, so hopefully in a few weeks it won't feel like a chore anymore :)

  5. Hi Kali,

    I've been reading your blog for a couple of years now, and I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoy these personal reflections and food for thought posts. I find your honesty and dedication to self-development really refreshing. I also feel that the topics and issues you touch upon really mirror the reflections and experiences I've had with trying to find balance and navigate myself towards higher meaning and purpose in life. It's comforting to know that someone else is on a similar journey.

    The concept of "Spiral Upwards" actually reminds me of Prochaska and DiClemente's transtheoretical Stages of Change model, especially in regards to their description of relapse, which they describe as a non-linear process that is also conceptualised as a spiral process. I highly recommend looking at some of their papers on this if this area interests you.

    In terms of my own personal goals, I have found that questioning my motivations for achieving them, and then finding a way to situate them towards a higher purpose helps me to keep motivated. For example, I think there's a different intention and energy behind trying to lose weight because one wants to conform to a beauty standard (self-focused), as opposed to wanting to lost weight because you want to be healthy, which in turn, helps you to better foster growth in other areas of your life and give to others (serving-focused).

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you for sharing your own thoughts, it is always interesting indeed to discover other people who are following a similar self development path, and I'm happy that kind of post can foster discussion and reflections.

      I never heard of the "Stages of Change" model, but it sounds similar indeed, probably more thorough and documented, I'll definitely go take a look at their papers, see what I can learn, thanks for the recommendation.

      I see what you mean about finding a higher motivation for fostering a habit. Maybe it is also about finding an "inner" motivation, something beyond the simple objective, something bigger that participates to our overall growth as humans, and toward the meaning we want to give to our life and who we want to become. To echo your example of food habits, my food habits have really started to change when I gave up on losing "the eternal 5 kgs" and focused on getting and remaining healthy instead, so I could focus my energy on other areas of my life and relationships. However, I'm guessing this only works if we did find a higher motivation for what we do in our everyday life. Maybe that's the real challenge...