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Gen Y Speaks: When my childhood willpower deserted me, I ‘nudged’ my way to better health

As a child, my reflex reaction to any challenge was to bear down on it with the sheer force of my willpower.

Gen Y Speaks: When my childhood willpower deserted me, I ‘nudged’ my way to better health

As she often remains sitting all day long at work, the author (pictured) wanted to improve her fitness by waking up at 5am every day for a half-hour run and cutting all sugar from her junk food-heavy diet. Despite being a determined person, she struggled to do so.

As a child, my reflex reaction to any challenge was to bear down on it with the sheer force of my willpower. 

My family moved from India to Malaysia when I was a kid. Living in Johor Baru, my twice-daily school commute involved a two-hour journey crossing the border into Singapore and back. 

When traffic piled up on the Causeway, this stretched to three hours. 

I became so comfortable doing my homework while travelling that you could put me on the bumpiest bus and hand me a pen, and even today, I’d be able to turn out impeccable handwriting.

This general attitude to life bore me well through adolescence, even after I moved to Singapore for good in 2006. “Just grit your teeth and get to it,” I’d tell myself, and it usually worked. 

When I met a classmate from junior college recently, she recalled asking me to join her on a rest day out during our June holidays. 

I had politely replied that we could go after our A-levels, which were still many months away. 

“I don’t know how you had that much focus,” she tells me now, shaking her head incredulously.

In the intervening decade since my junior college days, grit has remained my default approach in life. 

The author addressing her secondary school, Bukit Panjang Government High School, during its 2010 Speech Day. Photo courtesy of ​Pratyusha Mukherjee

After a minor health scare last year, I decided to turn some of this willpower to improving my fitness. 

Spending long hours at work, I often remained sitting all day long. With work-from-home arrangements, most days went by with barely a few hundred steps, let alone the 10,000 recommended. 

I declared that I would tackle this situation by waking up at 5am every day for a half-hour run and cutting all sugar from my junk food-heavy diet. 

I dragged myself out of bed for this endeavour a grand total of one time. My sugar fast met a chocolatey end within the week. 

I was shocked. What had happened to all my willpower? 

As I approached the big three-oh, was I losing what I considered to be my very essence?

While reprimanding myself for this sudden “weakness”, I realised that I would have responded very differently if a friend had shared similar struggles with me. 

Instead of the harsh self-criticism I was subjecting myself to, I would have heard my friend out with sympathy and encouragement, and probably suggested taking things easier at first. 

After all, studies of behavioural change show that lasting change often starts small. 

A common concept in the field is a “nudge” — a small, simple change to help people achieve their own goals. 

To work, the nudge has to make it easier to choose positive behaviour. 

Turning these insights to my personal life, I wondered why I expected myself to behave any differently from others. 

Instead of forcing myself to grit through big changes, I decided it might be worth trying smaller “nudges”.

I started with food. At the table where I worked, I had built up a “snack drawer”, full of treats to reach for whenever my stomach began to rumble. 

I replaced the snacks in the drawer with stationery, and put a bowl of fruit by my computer. 

To get a less nutritious snack, I would have to stand up and head to the kitchen. This was just a couple dozen steps away, but much harder to do while sitting in on a virtual meeting.

My nudge-inspired reorganisation extended to the kitchen too. 

Chips and instant noodles were relegated to the back of the topmost shelves. The ice cream that greeted me when I opened my freezer got buried under a bag of frozen peas. 

I hid all my cans of Coke in a corner of the bomb shelter. If I wanted to drink it chilled, I would have to take it out and leave it in the fridge for a couple of hours. 

Often, by then, my fizzy drink craving would have faded and I’d simply drink some more water instead.

Exercise was more difficult. 

I tried dressing in my workout gear the night before, so that when I woke up, I’d just need to pull on my sneakers and go out for a run. 

Unfortunately, sleeping in the synthetic material proved rather uncomfortable. Besides, when the early-morning alarm rang, I still found it too easy to snooze.  

Instead of fretting over my lack of self-discipline, I decided to switch to more flexible home-based exercises. 

I’d roll out a yoga mat and arrange my weights ahead of time in front of the sofa, blocking the path to lounging until my daily workout was done. 

I also tried shorter high-intensity interval training (“HIIT”) workouts which were easier to squeeze in, no matter how busy I became. 

The author says that instead of fretting over her lack of self-discipline when it comes to exercising, she switched to more flexible home-based exercises.   Photo: Ili Mansor / TODAY

The nudge that helped the most though, was doing the exercises with my husband. 

In becoming accountable to each other, we could push each other through the workouts when either of our motivations began to flag.

A year on, these healthier habits have made me considerably fitter. 

The most important change from this experience, however, has been to my mental health. 

On visiting the dentist last year, I received a stark demonstration of the flipside to my long standing “grit your teeth” approach to life. 

I was informed that I had been doing this gritting quite literally — grinding my teeth into their very roots. 

My dentist prescribed a mouthguard and left me with strict instructions to “destress more”.

Taking it easy has, quite ironically, been the hardest work of all. 

Every time I slipped back into my old ways, my natural inclination would be to beat myself up for it. 

After all, the high standards to which I hold myself are precisely what helped motivate me all these years. 

I needed to consciously remind myself to draw on the same kindness that comes so naturally in dealing with others, and turn it inward too.

Nudges helped me on this journey towards better mental health as well. 

Instead of going straight from bed to laptop each morning, I carved out an “artificial commute” for myself. 

Some days I use this time to listen to an audiobook, to write in my journal, or simply sit still. 

Meditation apps such as Headspace provide bite-sized exercises to help quell my thoughts. 

I have also set an hourly “nudge alarm” on my phone, which reminds me to stand up, stretch for a minute and take a quick mental refresher. 

Now, when I’m faced with a challenge, instead of gritting my teeth and plunging into it headlong, I strive for the opposite. 

I take a pause, breathe in, breathe out, and consciously relax my jaw. 

This calmer, mindful approach to tackling problems hasn’t compromised my performance, and indeed, often steers me away from impetuous actions that might later backfire. 

In being kinder to myself, I can feel my progress to a better self. 

That is a lesson that all of us could use in these challenging times — a little kindness goes a long way.  

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Pratyusha Mukherjee is a 27-year-old Singaporean. She works in the financial sector.

Related topics

resilience exercise healthy lifestyle

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