This content was originally posted on the US News & World Report’s blog.
We’re all different in how we approach planning, including when it comes to fitness. Some of us are more comfortable knowing we have a well-structured routine, some of us prefer a free-form approach and others mix it up – with some days planned and some days left open. All of these approaches can be successful, especially if you know how to be resilient in the face of setbacks.
But do you?
If you feel guilty when an unexpected call on your time prevents you from getting your planned workout, or you keep saying you’ll get to it tomorrow (yet tomorrow never seems to arrive), you may benefit from becoming more aware of the pros and cons of your approach – and making a strategy adjustment if necessary. Here’s how to know what mindset you have and how to make helpful changes:
Fixed Planning Mindset
You have this type of mindset if you are happier knowing what you are supposed to do every day, and you take pains to stick to your schedule.
- Pro: When we automate our approach to life, we use fewer cognitive resources – and this is a good thing! If you get joy out of having a schedule and sticking to it, and are successful at finding ways to meet your self-imposed obligations in the face of adversity, this approach can keep you on track.
- Con: Society teaches us to aim at a perfect target and hit it, or consider ourselves failures. Most people feel like this planning mindset is the “right” or “best” one, even though it doesn’t make them happy and doesn’t work for them in the long term. If you get anxious being obligated to meet the perfect goal (say, that exercise must be at least 30 minutes or make you sweat to be worth doing), even when you clearly have no time, this approach is not helping you. Research also shows that people with extrinsic goals (like exercising for appearance reasons) tend to use this approach more and experience more self-doubt.
- Strategy: Without flexibility, your plans will inevitably fracture because that’s the nature of life. Be sure to have alternate plans in place that you can call on when you hit a pothole. If you miss your typical morning workout, for example, give yourself permission to do something different (say, taking steps for 10 minutes at work or walking with your family after dinner) instead of feeling frustrated. Consider the change of plans a good way to mix things up, give yourself a break, use different muscles or renew your body and mind for your regular workout tomorrow. Keep in mind that everyone gets sick sometimes, and everyone has work and family emergencies. And, even though you prefer being “perfect,” having compassion with yourself when things go awry is an evidence-based strategy for staying motivated to continue.
Flexible Planning Mindset
You have this type of mindset if you like to adjust your physical activity schedule based on what you can fit in to your available time and what you feel like doing. For example, you might have planned a 40-minute intense workout at the gym, but when the time arrives to leave, you are exhausted from a stressful day. You listen to your body and take a 20-minute leisurely walk instead.
- Pro: Studies show that people who can be flexible with their behavioral plans and goals tend to be better at managing themselves over time and sticking with it. Interestingly, having a flexible mindset is also linked to being happier and healthier, and is thought to reflect a more committed and values-based approach to behavioral goals. Being flexible (rather than rigid) with our behavioral plans (like around eating) even seems to help people maintain weight loss over time.
- Con: Having boundaries can give our aspirations shape. If you take flexibility too far, plans can easily fall by the wayside – if you even make them at all. Also, when we feel we need to totally reinvent the wheel by planning a different workout at a different time every day (instead of just doing it reflexively), we can use a ton of cognitive resources. Too much thinking and too many choices can become overwhelming and, instead of giving us momentum, freeze us in indecision.
- Strategy: Try making one firm physical activity plan for the week. For instance, take a walk during lunch on Monday, park in the far lot at work on Wednesday and take every opportunity to move on Friday. Whatever you plan, commit to it as an opportunity learn and then evaluate how it goes. Use this new data for future weeks.
To get started, it’s important to be aware of your behavior. Ask yourself these questions in order to gather key data about the approach that has (or hasn’t) worked for you:
- Have you tended to display a fixed or flexible planning mindset when you’ve tried to adopt a new self-care behavior like exercise?
- What strategies (of any sort) have actually worked to keep you consistent long-term?
- Do you want to try a new mindset and approach if the ones you’ve been using haven’t yielded long-term results?
The bottom line: Resiliency allows us to bounce back from challenges rather than be flattened by them. Building resiliency into your fitness approach will help ensure that you can more easily navigate challenges, whether a fixed or flexible planning mindset works best for you. Adopting a learning perspective toward what you do allows you to take charge, enjoy the process and evolve creative solutions when you need to.