Article in the Mindscape Section of the April 2016 Issue of Stayfit Magazine by Vinesh Sukumaran
There was this incident that a friend narrated to me about the first time she went to live with her grandmother for a week. Now her grandmother was an independent old woman who lived alone ever since she was widowed and on the day of my friend’s visit, there were other guests there too. At the dinner table, on the spotlessly clean table cloth, first of all there was a spread of delicious food, there was awesome cutlery, the appropriate wine glasses, hand towels, beetroots and carrots cut in the shape of flowers, also actual flowers on side tables that sent out a wonderful fragrance in the room and so on. The next day there were no guests and it was just my friend and her grandmother for dinner but all these arrangements remained. And the next day and the next. So on the fifth day, my friend asked her grandmother why she went through the trouble of making all these special arrangements for dinner even on days when they didn’t have any guests. Her grandmother replied, “It all starts with one small slip my dear. At first you think the fresh flowers aren’t necessary. Then you wonder why you have to cut those carrots and beetroots into designs if nobody else is going to see them. Then you use regular wine glasses instead of goblets. Eventually even the food you cook gets reduced to the “easy to cook” and run of the mill dishes until you are finally eating takeaway sandwiches or cup noodles in your couch”.
The insight from her grandmother’s advice is what I call the Gradual Slip Effect. First and foremost, it is a phenomenon that comes into play only when a person already has an established positive behaviour or habit and when the slip happens, that gradually starts to fade. It is applicable to wellbeing as much as it is to the overall quality of life and various dimensions of it. You never move from having a flat abdomen to having a pot belly over night. The slip happens very gradually. So gradually, that even if you put a camera in front of the person, it’ll be weeks before you notice any change. If you’re a person who’s been working out regularly, it’s quite unlikely that you stop cold turkey. You know the gradual slip effect is at work when you move from working out every day, to taking Sundays off, to taking the whole weekend off, to taking a mid week “recovery” break, to working out at least twice a week to eventually justifying to yourself that if you’re working out just once a week, you might as well not do it at all and then you quit altogether. The same is true with the start of various other behaviours including the usual suspects like drinking, smoking and eating junk food. It starts with being a teetotaller (your established positive behaviour), then shifts to being a social drinker, then an “only weekend” drinker, and I think you know the rest. People develop new behaviours (both good and bad ones) gradually. It is a really precious minority that is able to change a behaviour in one shot. The idea is to catch yourself with a slip that could be ever so slight and ensure that you bring yourself back on track before things go spiralling downwards. If you are a calm and composed person who’s been noticing of late that you are developing a short temper, it would do you good to catch yourself when you are experiencing even an iota of an irritation and correcting that behaviour before you are screaming your lungs out at someone and burning precious relationship bridges.
By the way, there’s no hard and fast rule that you need to workout every single day or that you must drink only socially or even that people must always be calm and composed. That’s clearly not what I am prescribing. People must have the freedom to do what they want to in life. Awareness of phenomena like the “Gradual Slip Effect” and using that awareness to your advantage ensures the development of positive behaviours and healthy habits far more easily.