Let’s Be Realistic! It’s Okay to Scale Back

70percentOver the last week or two, I didn’t get in all of my workouts. I skipped a couple of swim sessions. I missed a bike class. I didn’t attend all of my run clinics.  I did virtually no weight training.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. I moved.  So in the run up to moving day, I spent many days packing. And in the days following the move, I’ve been many more days unpacking and trying to figure out where to put things in my new, smaller space.

The decision to move from a house to a condo is part of a larger plan that my partner, Renald, and I have to simplify our lives.  We feel positive about the change. But it’s also brought with it some emotions.

After I packed up the last box of stuff (oh, there was stuff!) from my cozy home office at the house, complete with a gas fireplace and lots of windows that looked out onto our treed lane way, I sat on the floor and wept.

When I went downstairs to make myself a cup of tea, I stood in the kitchen that I had played a major part in designing over a decade ago, insisting on an island large enough to accommodate any dinner guest who said, “what can I do to help?”  Again, while the kettle was boiling, I sobbed. I will miss that place.

Downsizing can come in all forms. What Renald and I are doing is a rather big picture shift for us. We are going from living in a house and having tenants in other units to living in a condo on the 23rd floor with a tiny storage locker in place of the boundless storage we had in the basement, two garages, and a shed. It’s putting us in touch with how much useless stuff we have, a good deal of which is now in the hands of others.

The impact the move has had on my workout schedule forced a different kind of paring down for a couple of weeks.  It’s not realistic, at least for me, to balance work, a major move, a full workout schedule, and — lest we not forget what is just around the corner — holiday prep and think that it’s all going to get done perfectly.

I want to be kind to myself.

This week I’m experimenting with getting in the full slate of swim-bike-run workouts. That’s two swims, three bike sessions on the trainer, and three runs. But what that has meant, and that I need to be realistic about going into 2015, is that it probably means I can’t do three weight training sessions a week. I could squeeze them in, but then I get no recovery time. That strikes me as inviting in injuries and the exhaustion of over-training.

Sam has blogged about the impact that life events can have on your plans.  Sometimes we have to make tough choices in order to free ourselves for other things.

A lot of us face this over the holidays. I have seen so many bedraggled, frantic looking people rushing from here to there over the past month. And I haven’t even stepped foot in the mall yet! People are making quick appearances at parties so they could make it to the next event.  Sometimes, friends I’ve talked to about fitting in all the holiday commitments are close to tears with fatigue.

I felt heartened by a recent article Sam passed my way, “Why giving just 70% can be better for your life.” 

I’m a big advocate of doing less, and not just when life happens. See my post “On Doing Less.” Life is always happening.  No, we’re not always moving and it’s not always the holidays and a family member isn’t always sick. But in a typical week or month there is an early morning meeting that disrupts the finely tuned schedule or a vacation or a wedding or a car accident or a crisis at work. We face deadlines — taxes, Christmas, work assignments. Or we just feel tired and need to take it easy.

So the idea that doing 70% might be better works for me. Author Adriana Barton writes about the 70% rule:

The idea, promoted by fitness and work-life-balance gurus, is to stop “giving it your all” in every area of life and see what it feels like to devote 70-per-cent effort in most areas, most of the time. And since the pressure to be all things to all people is linked to anxiety, sleep disorders, irritability and other forms of psychological distress, a 70-per-cent approach could be a strong defence against these all-too-common health concerns (when there isn’t an underlying mental illness).

The 70-per-cent rule, based on a somewhat arbitrary ratio, is not the same as the Pareto principle, well known in business circles, which dictates that 80 per cent of the outcomes come from 20 per cent of the inputs. It’s better aligned with the principle espoused by fitness gurus who know their clients are more likely to stick with a goal, and less likely to get injured, if they give up the idea of pushing themselves to give maximum effort all the time. With the 70-per-cent rule, the focus is not on maximizing returns but on achieving reasonable goals, with well-being top of mind.

As you can see, one of the main motivations for the 70% rule is that it is achievable.  I have seen myself and others set themselves up for failure by basing their goals around unrealistic expectations.  Just the other day I counseled one of my students to stop treating every waking hour as if it was a time that she could be working. That is a soul-destroying approach to work that often brings out the defiant procrastinator in us.

It leaves us feeling like failures, stressed out all the time, and generally unhappy.  According to the article:

Constantly pushing ourselves to go the extra mile can have a negative impact on all areas of life, said Scott Schieman, a University of Toronto professor who researches the interface between work, stress and health. People who never take the time to recharge tend to feel overwhelmed and inadequate both at work and at home, he said. Stress may cause us to disengage from the people we love, and “you need those quality relationships to offset the demands and pressures of everyday life,” he pointed out.

This idea works for me. I like to think about the areas where “good enough” will do.  I find that approach promotes consistency and allows me to enjoy what I’m doing (even Christmas shopping, even unpacking, even writing a book review that is — wait for it — over a year late).  This “good enough” mantra can reduce stress:

As daily demands send more of us to the brink, the concept of living “smarter, not harder” is dovetailing with the mindfulness movement and a new proliferation of life-balance books, such as Christine Carter’s The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, due for release in January. Common themes include scheduling mini-breaks, defining the limits of a project at the outset, being clear about what you won’t take on and identifying areas where a B-plus effort is adequate, saving energy for projects that demand an A-plus.

Even before I read this article, I didn’t feel bad during that hectic week when, for both of my early morning swims, I shut the alarm off and went back to sleep.  Not one blink of guilt.  And when I backed out of a bike class the day after the move, I rather wondered why I hadn’t made that decision the week before (remember: let’s be realistic!) instead of waiting to see how things were going just 24 hours after the movers left and I was still surrounded by towers of boxes.

I’m giving myself a break on the holiday expectations too. The tree is up, but only because I love it and I find it gives me joy. But nothing else is on deck yet. I’m venturing into the mall today, but I noticed with relief that my wonderful nephews all included “money” on their Christmas lists. So if it comes to that, money they will get.

Keeping things simple and manageable will continue to be my mantra for 2015. I feel much better about life when I play the long game — consistent effort, not trying to do the impossible.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. When I was searching for a good image for this post, I came across several versions of “Be Realistic. Demand the Impossible” and “Being realistic is the most common path to mediocrity.”  I’m not sure I believe that realism leads to mediocrity. I’ve achieved far more since I started taking small, consistent steps and adopting a forgiving attitude towards missteps than I ever did when I drove myself into the ground as a younger woman.

To read the rest of the article about giving your 70%, go here. Doing less and lowering your expectations may seem counterproductive, but in fact, it’s not. It’s good for your health.





14 thoughts on “Let’s Be Realistic! It’s Okay to Scale Back

  1. >>”Doing less and lowering your expectations may seem counterproductive, but in fact, it’s not. It’s good for your health.”

    I don’t know, I think this surely varies by temperament, no? I worry about this kind of non-indexed general statement that purports to be objective. ‘Scaling back’ sends me into a serious depression and doesn’t work for me at all. It’s best for me to just accept that regardless of what else I am doing – traveling, moving, whatever – making at least some time to exercise seriously is as non-negotiable as drinking and sleeping. But I wouldn’t universalize that either.

    1. Maybe you’re right that different things work for different people. But scaling back doesn’t mean doing nothing. I skipped a couple of swims but I still ran a few times, including a couple of 13Ks, and I didn’t skimp on the exercises my physio had assigned me for an injury I’ve been taking care of. Obviously getting active is good for your health, both mental and physical. I do think the idea that we are always required to go all out and do everything perfectly is dangerous and unhealthy (and not just for me, but for lots of people). It’s not all or nothing. 70% is not nothing. The idea that we’re either going all out or we’re total slackers doesn’t strike me as particularly kind. The wide-spread idea that people need to whip themselves into action with a stick or be complete slugs is not conducive to getting more people out there, pursuing physical activities they might enjoy (or pursuing anything else they might enjoy).

      1. I certainly agree that the alternative isn’t being a ‘total slacker’ and I very much agree with your last long sentence above. I am just pointing out that different people need different things to stay motivated and feel good about themselves and healthy. In principle I worry about the tendency in the fitness world to come out with general pronouncements about what people’s attitudes should be, for purportedly objective reasons. But this is not a major disagreement between us.

        I think my bristling came some from the fact that not infrequently, when I work to make time for exercise despite an overloaded schedule, people who mean well and care about me start telling me that I need to “cut myself some slack” and “relax” and that I can “afford” to skip working out. This is not their call to make, and it is not helpful, and it is unresponsive to my psychological and chemical reality – it feels undermining.

      2. Ah now I get it. I too am more likely to make time for the pool or a run or a bike class than some other things because these are necessary for me as ways of taking care of myself. I can see how I may not have given the whole picture in the post. And people should mind their own business. *And* we should be able to give ourselves permission to roll with it once in awhile. Enjoy!

  2. Hi Tracy– wow, this post is coming at a good time! I re-read your “Doing Less” post and it has inspired and heartened me. Right now I’m late with an article (why did I think a Dec due date was a good idea?), up to my ears in grading, and still haven’t mailed packages to family for Xmas. My resolution for next term is NOT to take on anything new (sabbatical is coming up starting in May, so I can plan for projects to start then), and devote some time to exercise: squash 1–2x/week, xc skiing on weekends when there’s snow, or biking/trainer when there’s not, and 10 minutes of yoga stretching each day. Congrats on the condo and the paring down– we can all use some more open space, physically and mentally.

  3. “Keeping things simple and manageable will continue to be my mantra for 2015. I feel much better about life when I play the long game — consistent effort, not trying to do the impossible.” — Absolutely! This plan is great!

    WOW! I just came across your blog, looking for some inspiration. I don’t know you of course, but it’s wonderful that you are taking some time for TLC. I think people get so caught up with their outer physique and people pleasing that they forget to take care of themselves. What you’re doing, I think, is doing just that. The 70% is a reasonable approach. Like, just because the opportunity is there, doesn’t mean you have to accept. 😉


    Christie McG.

  4. I think you’re talking about giving yourself permission to scale back when it’s best for you to do so. The type of people who need such permission, to my mind, are quite likely very driven and very hard on themselves, and some might even be of the “over-acheiving” sort. But I agree with you completely that we all have to actively think of what is really best for us as individuals – sometimes we just get trapped in habits and attitudes that become counter-productive. We get in our own way. Maybe that’s when good habits are not so good.

  5. Reblogged this on Life Journal and commented:
    came across reading this interesting blog post by Fit Is a Feminist Issue, which made me rethink my view of living my daily life and setting goals. It’s really worth reading 🙂

  6. i enjoyed reading your post and reflecting on your thoughts. I see myself always needing to give 101% persent most of my life, but it hasn’t worked well for me. It rather drove me to the ground. I constantly feel stressed and anxious, ending up not wanting to do anything or talk to anyone anymore. I’m going to try giving the 70% and see how life goes.

    Thanks for this post

  7. When I scale back on cycling lots, I end up doing more blogging (at least I write in advance since I don’t post very frequently) and more art –2 activities I enjoy a lot.

    I actually consider these other passions..a form of mental life insurance for myself also: I won’t be so cycling fit / physically able forever. So I need to be happily engaged in other ways on a long term basis.

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