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.





cycling · fitness · motivation · running · yoga

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.