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Strength Versus Structure

Why routine, practice and habits are so important to our success.

I had a cold last week. In fact, I’m still getting over it.

My energy levels have been incredibly low, and I’ve had no motivation. I really resent that feeling, as I’m typically focused and goal directed. The cold caused me to step back and think about my goal pursuit in relation to my typical energy levels.

It may not come as a surprise to you given my research interests in goal pursuit and procrastination that I set goals every day. I typically get them done as planned as well. However, when I was feeling low and unmotivated it was tempting not to do stuff.

I don’t mean that I wanted to push myself instead of resting when my body needed rest. I mean a sensible approach to giving my body what it needed to heal (rest, plenty of liquids, taking zinc, maybe some chicken soup, that sort of thing), while still moving forward. It was a cold after all, not a life-threatening illness, and even light exercise has been suggested to enhance immune function as your body fights the infection.

What became clear to me was that “I didn’t feel like it.” Of course, this expression just jumps out at me, because it’s what we all say, even when we’re feeling our best, when we face stuff we really don’t want to do. “I don’t feel like.”

What I realized when I lacked energy was that I rely on it to “push through” when I don’t feel like it. In fact, it wasn’t until I didn’t have this energy as a ready resource that I saw how much I rely on it. So, I needed an alternative, and I had one at hand.

When we don’t feel like doing something and we also don’t feel we have the energy to just “muscle through it,” structure and routine can come to our rescue when little else can. This structure or routine can take many forms, but it basically comes down to our habits.

Habits are those pre-potent responses that we readily engage in. Of course, there can be good habits and bad habits. My focus today is on our good habits that serve to structure our lives and allow us to use less energy. Good habits can include a regular bed time so that you get adequate rest, specific dietary choices that nourish your body, exercise, oral health routine, meditation, as well as the usual tasks in our days; everything from packing lunches to preparing meals.

This mundane structure in our lives and the habits that both grow around this structure and serve to support it provide crucial environmental affordances for our goals. This structure and our habits support, rather than hinder, our successful goal pursuit, even when we don’t feel like it.

If we wait until we feel like it, we may never get very much done, particularly those necessary but otherwise aversive tasks that all lives involve. And, if we have to exert energy to muscle through these tasks, we’ll soon find that this self-regulatory effort is exhausting – something psychologists call ego-depletion. Just how ego-depletion works is still up for debate, but there is little doubt that we all know what it feels like!

So, my cold taught me something important. Something I should have learned a long time ago really, but it was easy not to learn this lesson when my energy levels always let me “muscle through.” Interestingly, years ago when I taught whitewater canoeing, instructors often tried to teach a similar lesson to moving water newbies who wanted to muscle through the current instead of learning to use the water to get where they wanted to go. Surf instead of struggle. Find downstream chutes instead of punching holes.

Ok, not to digress too far into the metaphor of moving water, the message remains the same. We need to develop and use the structure and routines in our lives to help, not hinder, our goal pursuit. Cultivating healthy practices and habits on a daily basis will pay dividends throughout our lives, particularly on those days when, for whatever reason, “we don’t feel like it.”

My cold is getting better, but I’m still motivationally challenged. My energy level still doesn’t match many of the tasks at hand. I’m glad I’m learning to use the currents in my life that my habits have created to get stuff done when the going got tough.

More from Timothy A Pychyl Ph.D.
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