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On Doing Less


For a long time my main two fitness activities were Iyengar yoga and walking.  I wanted to establish a consistent yoga practice at home, not to replace my weekly class but to get the most out of it. In Iyengar yoga, students are encouraged to practice regularly on their own at home.

One weekend I had the opportunity to do a workshop with a senior teacher from another city.  When I spoke to her about my failed attempt to get a home practice going, she suggested I do less than I thought I should do.  “Set your timer for 20 minutes,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that you don’t have 20 minutes.” She asked me if I could back down from my lofty goal of one hour of practice a day and instead commit to that for 30 days.  Even though I thought 20 minutes wasn’t nearly “enough,” I made and kept the commitment.

Every morning I showed up at the mat for just 20 minutes. For the first ten minutes I did whatever I felt like that day, and for the last ten minutes I did five minutes of headstand, five minutes of shoulder stand, and then added a couple of minutes of savasana.  The time flew by. Some days, I found myself wanting to do more. I did more. By the end of the 30 days I had a solid habit, and a dramatically stronger headstand.

It was the commitment to doing less that got me to the mat.

I’ve had similarly ambitious goals about writing and have learned that aiming to do too much doesn’t work for me.  When I recently met with publication coach, Daphne Gray-Grant, to get back on track, she immediately had me scale back the hours a day I thought I should be spending on writing.  Instead of 2-3 hours, she suggested I aim for 25 minutes. Instead of aiming for 2 hours a day working on a revision (that I was in fact avoiding daily), she suggested I spend an uninterrupted 15 minutes on it. Set the timer. Don’t work a minute more on it.

Scaling back like that made me feel as if was setting the bar too low.  But the more ambitious goals left me cold. I wasn’t doing anything when I aimed high like that.

Taking Daphne’s advice, I got a solid first draft of a paper written (25 mintues a day of new writing) and that dreaded project revised (15 minutes a day, no more, of editing/revising) in 10 days, with 2 consecutive days off from writing and plenty of time during the work days to do other things.

I needed her to remind me what I’ve known for a long time: my first instinct is to set  unreasonable goals, and I get more done when I set reasonable goals.  The yoga teacher and Daphne both brought me back to reality on that point.

The 25-minute increment comes from a wonderful time management tool called The Pomodoro Technique.  Whenever I am putting off anything, I can get right back on track with pomodoros — 25 minutes chunks of time where I’m focused on one task (no email, no phone calls, no getting up, no moving to another task, just for those 25 minutes). After that, I take a 5 minute break and then get right down to the next pomodoro (which might be a new task or continuing on the same one).

This can work well for activity. Like the yoga teacher I spoke with said — go for 20 minutes, not an hour. When I started running, I felt good if I could just get myself out the door for 15 minutes.  Even today, if I don’t feel like doing something, I give myself permission to scale back and do less that day.  Less is better than nothing. It keeps the habit in place, or helps to build a new habit, and doesn’t overwhelm me.

If a pomodoro is too much, you could think in terms of Sark’s “micro-movements.”  Sark says:  “I’m a recovering procrastinator and perfectionist and I have a short attention span, so I invented Micromovements as a method of completing projects in time spans of 5 minutes or less. I always feel like I can handle almost anything for 5 minutes!”   You don’t have to be a Sark fan to agree that you can do most things for 5 minutes.

Or even less than 5 minutes, as Samantha discusses in her post about the “thousand cuts fitness program.”

Now, it may be that 5 minutes isn’t enough to get a lot of benefits from exercise. But on a day when you feel like doing nothing, it’s something. And if you’re choosing activities you enjoy, it’s very likely that once you get past the initial inertia of doing nothing, 5 minutes isn’t going to feel like enough.  My experience with the yoga practice was that after a couple of weeks, I was routinely doing at least 30 minutes, often more.  And my experience with running has been similar. I want to do more.

The valuable idea here is that IF you are struggling to get motivated (you might not be! Yay for you! Go do some deadlifts!), then doing some shorter-than-you-think-will-be-helpful timed sessions of uninterrupted activity might be just what you need to get the flow going again.

This is not to say we should never set big goals.  But as we have discussed before on the blog, the big goal (I want to run a marathon by the time I’m 50) needs to be broken down into smaller performance goals (e.g. I want to run three times a week; I want to increase my distance to 10K gradually over the next three months). If we’re not meeting these smaller goals, chances are they’re too ambitious (for the time being).

Everything the Publication Coach says here about the kaizen method applies equally well to fitness goals.

It’s not every day someone will encourage you to do less, scale back, aim lower.  But it works. I’ve had great success with setting less ambitious goals in my writing.  I wrote a full draft manuscript of my book that way, using 30-minute increments of uninterrupted time, no more than 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Try doing less.

27 thoughts on “On Doing Less

  1. You’re so right! My whole life I’ve been thinking “I should do as much sport as possible”. Maybe every day run before work, do a gym class (or two), machines and swimming in the evenings. And that only turned me into a coach potato. I joined gyms.. and never went. Then I gave up. This year when I joined again I told the guy at the counter: “I don’t think I’ll be here for more than one class or twice a week”, and guess what, now I look forward my step class every monday, and sometimes join yoga on thursdays too!

  2. Loved this. I do the same thing with writing though not as well as you. I love the micro moments idea though. Reminds me of the ‘fitness by a thousand cuts’ plan which I blogged a bit about, Some days–when I’m writing sitting down at a desk especially–I try to use the five or ten minutes between bouts of writing for exercise. At home I keep the kettlebell in my office for this purpose.

  3. Lablasco — you’re a great example of how this works! So good to hear you’re enjoying your time at the gym now.

    Sam, I knew you’d posted about something similar but couldn’t remember which post. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. I just really like the general idea of fitting it into your life. Can’t get to the gym? Fine. Do push ups and sit ups as breaks from writing, or run up and down the stairs. That stuff adds up fast.

      It’s interesting too seeing the connections with writing.

      1. I like that idea too. I added a reference to your “my whole life is workout time” post. And right now I’m going to go do as many push-ups as I can do in a row.

  4. I agree completely. As someone prone to being both obsessive-compulsive and naturally lazy, I understand the desire for balance, which is surprisingly difficult to achieve in life, or at least it is for me. Sometimes it’s not about committing to a hard 2 1/2 hour workout at the gym; sometimes it’s about just getting my foot in the door, and maybe just doing some interval training on a bike for 20 minutes or so. Sometimes I’m charged, and sometimes I’m not. It really is as you say – about just making it possible in your mind to do something – anything – somewhat regularly, and the more you get used to thinking this way, the more you actually end up doing.

  5. More support for this here, Paul D. Loprinzi and Bradley J. Cardinal (2013) Association Between Biologic Outcomes and Objectively Measured Physical Activity Accumulated in ≥10-Minute Bouts and <10-Minute Bouts. American Journal of Health Promotion: January/February 2013, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 143-151.

    The under 10 min bits of exercise turned out to be just as effective…

    "Engaging in nonbouts, as opposed to bouts of PA, is just as strongly associated with several biologic health outcomes, suggesting that adults who perceive themselves as having little time to exercise may still be able to enhance their health by adopting an active lifestyle approach."

    from Go Kaleo.

  6. Excellent ideas – I shall put them to good use. I have certainly worked on the premise that a little of yoga practised is better than none!! But may I comment that yoga practised on the mat is just that – practice for living our lives anywhere doing a whole miriad of things with all the benefits that yoga brings: strength, flexibility, balance to name but a few! Thanks for your ‘like’! Now I’ve visited your blog, I’ll be revisiting!

    1. Thanks for your comment and for re-posting on your site. You’re quite right that yoga is more than the physical aspect on the mat. I appreciate the reminder.

  7. It begs the question of why one might set “wonder woman” goals for herself in the first place? I do exactly this, thinking I’ll writing for 8 hours a day, go to gym, raise my child, teach and mark papers, travel, and, well, “juggle” like a circus clown! I really like the Pomodoro technique but find that I still don’t allow myself to just use that to organise my thesis writing time, so have a week (like this one) where not much gets done, I fall into worrying about it, etc, vicious cycle.
    Also with yoga – I totally get that! I’ve had an injury that meant I had to scale back my practice over the last few months but I kept a brief “salute” routine – very basic down-dog, plank, uttanasana – and it has kept my legs “yogic” and strong and stretchy calves are great things to take to a class!

    Anyway, I loved this post and really get where you are coming from! Yay!

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