Unpleasant changes in our lives aren’t usually those that hit us from left field. They’re those that occur from death by 1000 cuts. But you CAN stop the bleeding with these five simple strategies.
Earlier this year I was listening to the Dave Ramsey show, and he mentioned the phrase, “death by 1000 cuts.” It wasn’t a saying I was super familiar with, but it was easy enough to work out the meaning.
Death by 1000 cuts means those hundreds of actions or small decisions that in and of themselves don’t have a significant impact. However, when they are lumped together, they cause things to fall apart.
Out of interest, the term comes from a form of torture in China back around 900BC where the victim was slowly sliced up until death ensued. It was actually ridiculously horrible and I’m not going to link to the websites I looked at because the pictures were disturbing.
It’s ironic such a horrible thing is a metaphor for something powerful by virtue of it seeming so benign. You’d easily feel this form of torture; feeling the process it refers to is a lot more difficult.
Let me give you some examples.
Eating one seemingly harmless cookie above and beyond your usual dietary requirements every day for a year, will see you gain six pounds (three kilos).
Buying one cup of coffee every day for a year costs the same as a five day vacation!
Criticizing your husband every day for a year is 365 times you’ve let him know he’s below your standards.
Finally, not putting stuff away after you’ve used it is the fastest way to see how death by 1000 cuts can turn your tidy home into a hot mess.
In all areas of our lives, death by 1000 cuts can be carrying out its sneaky methods, ensuring metaphorical death is the end result of your well-meant intentions.
Luckily, there are several strategies you can try to avoid its effects. Because the process works by you being largely unaware of what you’re doing, the first three techniques focus your attention on your actions. The second two keep you going with something when you feel like giving up or giving in.
Avoiding death by 1000 cuts with the strategy of monitoring
Simply monitoring a behavior can lead to you to increase it or decrease it.
In my free marriage challenge, for example, the task of the first day is to record when you criticize your spouse in any way. When I did the challenge myself, I found that I hardly criticized at all. Noticing how often you do it makes you much more conscious of the process.
In another example, research shows that writing down the food you eat in a day for at least six days a week can lead to you to lose double the weight lost by those who only record their food intake one day a week.
You can monitor it in various ways. Making a tally mark on a piece of paper is the most simple low-tech method. There are also various apps, including the free My plate calorie counter or this, also free, Productive: Habit tracker.
Avoiding death by 1000 cuts by the strategy of multiplying
The strategy of multiplying works by (oddly enough) multiplying what you are doing by the number of days in a week or month or year to create a larger sense of impact.
In the examples I gave above, for example, the coffee is one. It’s easy to justify a small amount of money, but when you think to yourself, if I do this every day for a year, that will be X number of dollars.
It also works with calorie counting. I know I truly didn’t believe my weekly consumption of a king size block of chocolate was doing me harm, despite the fact I kept on gaining weight. Yet if I added up the calories in that chocolate over the course of a year, that would equate to about 10 pounds or 4.5 kilograms of weight gain.
Avoiding death by 1000 cuts by the strategy of condensing
The strategy of condensing also works by thinking about what you are doing on a different scale, but this time, by shortening the time frame. For example, let’s say that you’ve been accepting extra unpaid tasks at work. Because they’ve been small and haven’t taken too long, you’ve said okay.
If you made a list of all those demands over the course of a month or year, and imagined that you had been asked to do them all at one time, what would you have said? Would you rethink these seemingly small decisions?
Avoiding death by 1000 cuts by the strategy of keeping the schedule but reducing the scope
This genius idea is the brainchild of James Clear. The idea is that if you are finding it challenging to do what you said, reduce the amount but keep to the schedule. This enables you to keep the momentum of your habits going.
Running is a great example of this. Particularly when you are a beginner, you can easily get derailed with things like tiredness, poor weather and overall “I just can’t be bothered.”
Imagine that you were planning three runs this week: two 5 kilometers runs on Tuesday and Thursday, and a 10km on Sunday. Sunday comes around and your friend calls to say she’s popping over at 10.00am. You don’t want to say no, but there’s no way you can manage your run in that time. Instead of giving it away all together, you decide to do 5km instead, which you can achieve in half the time. You keep to the schedule, but reduce the scope.
(If you are a beginning runner facing these problems then check out Motivational mantras for the beginning runner).
Avoiding death by 1000 cuts by the strategy of one day at a time
It’s easier to say that for today you won’t eat any bad food, or that you’ll go to sleep at a decent hour. But when you think about doing that all day every day for the rest of your life, it starts to feel pretty overwhelming.
One day at a time is a strategy I used when I quit drinking (and will be totally familiar to anyone that’s got sober, I’m sure) because you tell yourself that you just have to manage it for today. The next day, you tell yourself again. Before you know it, enough time has passed that doing or not doing it feels natural and requires much less effort to achieve.
Most life changes aren’t those that hit you from left field. They’re those that occur by the death by 1000 cuts method. Those ten pounds you gained, or the gym sessions you gave up. The growing distance between you and a family member. But you CAN stop the bleeding with the five strategies of monitoring, multiplying, condensing, by keeping the schedule but reducing the scope, or by focusing on one day at a time.
How have you been affected by death by 1000 cuts? Share your experience in the comments.