A few months ago, I took over David’s old phone. (He was upgrading to a new work phone.) It was faster, could hold more data, and probably better in every way. But within a few hours of owning it, I wanted to head back to the phone store and revert to my old one once again. I had to upload the apps I needed, move all of the icons around to where I expected them to be, re-sign on to everything, and get used to the changes between old and new.
Even when there are positive reasons for change – it can feel uncomfortable. The pull of “what we’re used to” is so strong, it can be hard to fight against it.
And many of us are like that. We like to park in the same parking spots, sleep on the same side of the bed, and sit at the same places in movie theatres, classes, or restaurants. How often does Facebook change its layout and while they roll it out, you see person after person complaining about these shifts? And of course, all of these examples are on minutiae. What about the bigger stuff?
People often stay in relationships that don’t serve them or continue with habits that sabotage them, because doing what we’ve always done is the path of least resistance. And fighting against inertia is hard – even when it’s ultimately what you want. That’s why every year by the end of January the resolutions are as long forgotten and discarded as the 2017-shaped glasses you wore on New Year’s Eve. It takes stamina to commit to real, lasting change.
So it’s no wonder that when people go vegan, often the hardest part is creating new habits. Because as humans, we love our habits. They don’t take thought. We can go on automatic… Tacos on Tuesday, pizza on Friday, ice cream when you’re stressed, steak on your birthday, eggs and toast at breakfast… When you go vegan, all of a sudden those mundanities have to be questioned – again and again.
They say it takes 21 days to create a habit.
When I went vegetarian, which was a year and a half before I went vegan, I looked to that as my guide. When I woke up and felt frustrated that I no longer knew what to make for breakfast, I reminded myself that in 21 days this would feel natural. But that gauge wasn’t accurate for me.
According to one study, it actually takes 18 to 254 days to create a new habit. That’s a big gap! The average was 66 days. The variance largely depended on how big of a lifestyle shift the new habit required.
Unlike deciding to make your bed every day, for example, the thing about becoming vegan is that it’s not one habit you’re changing. On the one hand, yes, you’re not eating animal products. But that can cover a lot of habits – what cleaning products you use, what clothes you wear or don’t, what restaurants or attractions you visit or don’t, and what foods you eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
For me I’d say it took a full year of vegetarianism until I really felt in the groove, where I had a new normal.
Each season has its challenges.
Part of the reason for that is each season has its own challenges that first year. There’s the first meatless Thanksgiving, where you’re veering off the standard dishes you’ve made again and again. You’re figuring out what will be your centerpiece now that your favorite turkey lives at a sanctuary. Then there’s Christmas when you may worry what your relatives will think when you bring something different to the yearly potluck. There’s Easter without the ham, and the work cookout with a side of jokes at your expense.
That first year, not only are there day to day decisions about what your regular, standard meals are going to look like, but there are the specifics of the season and what you’ve created as your regular life up until now. With each season you have to face the question, “What is my tradition now?”
Making the leap from vegetarian to vegan was smoother for me. My dishes were almost there. They just needed a few simple substitutions, tweaks, or omissions. And I’d already gotten used to navigating social events. It probably took less than 21 days for that habit to get cemented.
Most importantly, I’d already gained an arsenal of knowledge about the animal industry, and the ways animals are treated. I knew I didn’t want to be part of that. If you want an excuse, there will always be one. But once you are truly convinced that you want to live a compassionate life, and you are committed to doing no harm, no excuse would be good enough.
This summer I celebrated 10 years of being vegan.
Over that course of time, my day to day meals have shifted. The things that I ate as a first year vegan are different from what I eat now.
That first year, I pulled out a cookbook every Saturday to figure out how to make tempeh sausages, or to see the measurements on a tofu scramble. Now I never make tempeh at all (I just don’t care for it much), and I certainly don’t need measurements for a tofu scramble. It’s something I know by heart. The first year, I took cooking classes, and waded the waters of vegan cheese (which ten years ago were nothing to write home about). But now cooking vegan meals – simple and complicated – comes easy.
These days, being vegan is as cozy as my favorite towel, fraying at the edges. (It is so soft and fits in my ears just right.) Veganism is my every day, normal, ordinary life.
It’s the difference between learning to ride a bike as a kid and riding a bike now as an adult. It’s effortless. I know how to find something to eat on a seemingly sparse menu of options. If I’m buying a new product, I can scan for non-vegan ingredients in a microsecond glance. It’s like a vegan super power – able to spot “whey” in a single glimpse.
But when you’re becoming vegan, it can feel like putting on a pair of shoes that aren’t broken in yet. It’s a little rigid, not quite comfortable.
So if you’re new to veganism and it feels strange or different, take comfort in the fact that it will get easier. It’s part of the process. Like puberty, it’s not going to last forever. It may take a little longer or a little shorter for it to feel natural, but you’ll get there. At some point being vegan will just be how it’s always been. You’ll look back at your old ways and be surprised that it took you so long to make a change.
I will be speaking at the Iowa VegFest next month with the topic, Going Vegan For Good. If you live in the area, I hope to see you there!