Why Thriving Is Easier Than Surviving

Survival mode is exhausting.

Posted Dec 30, 2020

S O C I A L . C U T/Unsplash
Source: S O C I A L . C U T/Unsplash

We’ve all felt what it’s like to be in survival mode. For example, you’re focused on how you can get through...

  • just today, or just this week, at work. 
  • juggling bills.
  • to the end of the day when your children are asleep.
  • the night during a period of insomnia.

Or, you’re thinking...

  • How can I keep up with my peers who seem to be racing ahead in life?
  • How can I get some food into my system, no matter how junky it is?

In contrast, thriving is about planning for the future, creating, being your best self, living your values, and doing the most meaningful work you could be doing.

Survival mode has its place in anyone’s repertoire of coping. For example, sometimes we need to retreat and hibernate a bit to process emotionally difficult situations. However, being in survival mode for a long time is a problem.

When people are depressed, they’re often in survival mode for weeks, months, or even years. The person gets stuck in a Catch-22 where being in survival mode makes their depression worse, but it’s all they feel they can cope with. But, this could be a problematic assumption. Many times, thriving is easier than surviving.

Behaviors that seem harder are often easier.

A topic I’m fascinated by is things that seem harder but are actually easier.

  • Author Gretchen Rubin has pointed out that sometimes it’s easier to abstain (cut something out completely) than moderate. It’s often easier to not eat any cookies than to eat only one or two. 
  • Likewise, it can be easier to keep up a daily habit, rather than a habit that you do twice a week. Why? Daily habits become more automatic, which reduces the self-control we need to perform them.
  • The book Good to Great argues that trying to be great is often easier than trying to be good. Why? There’s less competition. When you’re trying to be good, you’re competing against everyone else with the same game plan. Fewer other people are attempting to be great.
  • Folks who take part in the FIRE movement (FIRE = financially independent, retire early) often save 60 to 70 percent of their income. This can be easier than saving the typical 5 to 15 percent of income for retirement. Why? Aiming to save the larger percentage makes some decisions easier, similar to the idea of abstaining vs. moderating.
  • Big goals can be more motivating, exciting, and help get other people onboard compared to modest goals. Think about how many people who start running suddenly have a desire to run a full or half marathon. 

(Note: The above list isn't meant as examples of surviving vs. thriving. It's merely examples of seemingly harder behaviors that are actually easier.)

Surviving vs. Thriving

Surviving vs. thriving often works the same way as these other examples. For example, being highly organized (with meals, finances, etc.) is easier than being disorganized. It takes a lot of effort to decide what you’re going to eat at every single meal vs. doing that once a week.

How are you trying to just survive?

As I write this, it’s the last few days of 2020. Now is a great time to assess in what ways you’re in survival mode in your life. How are you trying to just survive? Are you trying to: Just keep up? Just get through today or this week? Just get your minimum work done without thinking about whether that work is the most important work you could do? Just not gain weight vs. attempting to be in the best shape of your life?

How might a thriving approach be easier?

You can and should get creative with this. Choose any domain of your life:

  • Could it be that your friends aren’t the best fit for you? You clash with them because of differences in values or directions. How could you get friends who are the absolute best fit for you?
  • How could you improve your sleep, not just tonight but for the long-term? For example, there are lots of little hacks that can improve your sleep quality, like making your room darker, quieter, or a better temperature (usually cooler). How can you work through a bunch of little optimizations to get your sleeping environment optimal? 
  • If you’re struggling financially, how could you build up a 5K emergency fund in the quickest way?
  • If you’re focused on keeping up with your peers by cranking out the same volume of work, could you do a project that’s much more meaningful than your current projects so you care less about your volume of work?

Is thriving all about big goals?

No. Watch out for that trap. Thriving may sometimes involve setting a big goal, but not always. For example, for many people, running two miles a day vs. training for a half marathon will both be consistent with thriving. If you think you'd run the race and never run again, then the former might be the better choice.

What constitutes thriving will differ from person to person. 

If you’re not sure what thriving means to you, go back to my earlier definition. Thriving is about planning for the future, creating, being your best self, living your values, and doing the most meaningful work you could be doing. You can also create your own definition of thriving.

Is my premise true?

Rather than taking my word for it, experiment. For example, is trying to get 8.5 hours of sleep easier than trying to go from 6.5 hours to 6.75 hours? Whatever "thriving" goal would excite you, try it and see for yourself.

Should people who are in survival mode self-flagellate?

No, self-criticism is a very ineffective strategy for regulating behavior. As I said earlier, survival mode has its place. Sometimes it's a helpful coping method. But, being in survival mode is exhausting. If you're in survival mode and you're exhausted, the last thing you need is to be told to try harder. You're already trying too hard. My argument here is to find the ways that thriving feels easier than surviving. There's no universal list that will apply to everyone, so you need to find examples where this is true for you.