Year for the Planet Week 39: The Strategy of Competition

Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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For this post, I shall discuss one common strategy for change—competition.

Not to get all neoliberal up your butt (a system that, by the way, I’ve come to loathe in the course of my work), but a healthy competitiveness in some aspects of life can be very beneficial. Competition helps us set a bar and makes us work harder to be better than our previous state. If you compete with yourself and aim to do 20 pushups today instead of your usual 10, you’re already 100% better than the person you were yesterday. I’ve thought of this since going through the past weeks of writing—incrementally, I’ve come a long way and feel like I’ve completely rewired my brain when it comes to thinking about eating for the planet.

A caveat is that competition has worked best for me when I competed against myself. If your immediate community doesn’t want to change their plastic-consuming, waste-producing, resource-inefficient, planet-polluting lifestyle, this strategy will not work on them—they have to actually want to be in the game. But if you want to, there’s no reason why you can’t play on your own. And anyway, your worst enemy is usually yourself, so to defeat your inner demons is likely the hardest game to play. Here are some tips to thinking about sustainable eating as a competition:

1. To begin is the biggest hurdle.
Like joining a game, the hardest thing to do for me was to start. But once I did, there was no stopping, even though I did encounter so many hiccups along the way. I never thought I had the willpower to stop eating meat altogether, to cook for myself, or to give up refined sugar (except for that brief visit to Brazil where I just inhaled almost everything, but I do give myself a break when traveling to the other side of the world).

2. Winning takes small, seemingly insignificant steps.
Each day felt like I could do better, and I did. And when I looked back, I couldn’t even recognize my old self. It’s like how I was with taekwondo. When I finally got my black belt, it wasn’t some huge life-changing event. Training continued as always the next day, no big deal. I think this is crucial—because the lifestyle has become so important, it became an essential part of me and no amount of medals or pats on the back could make me feel like I had enough.

3. Getting there is reward enough.
When I have goals, I usually have some reward to look forward to. When you’re younger, scoring well on a test means a shopping spree, graduating from high school means some present from your parents, and even when we transition into adulthood, we are given little treats like bonuses, tips, and other material things to incentivize us to do better each day. Not so with this. When I finally got my sh*t together, it brought on so many other unexpected benefits that I didn’t feel like I should ever stop.

4. But also reward yourself from time to time.
Usually for me this means buying clothing, but more out of necessity than anything else—I’ve dropped at least four dress sizes since the beginning of the year so a couple of weeks ago I had to buy some essentials because I was literally drowning in my underwear. Or I would add another recipe to my arsenal to diversify my diet. These little things can be fun and also remind you of how far you’ve come.

5. Remember that you are in a competition where everyone wins.
Ok, I lied. Companies that sell highly processed food or restaurants that keep giving me plastic straws lose out on my money (and think of how much of an impact that can be if an entire city chooses not to buy from them!) But I win because my health is no longer in danger. My work wins because I have more energy to devote to it. My family and community win because even though they can’t imagine eating the way I do, that’s one less citizen who is producing enough waste that will end up in the ocean.

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