Set your mind to the planning

I’ve got into the habit when talking to people about self-care of finding myself often saying, “all we are doing here is playing psychological tricks on ourselves to get the best out of ourselves so ‘ourselves’ stop getting in the way”.

There’s a funny thing goes on in my head when I go for a run. Sometimes I head off and run a big loop but sometimes I run laps close to home. I have a route that is ‘near as damn it’ exactly a mile long and I have another route that is ‘as near as damn it’ one and a half miles long. If I want to run three miles I find it easier to run the longer route than the shorter one because I only have to do two loops and I’m done! On the shorter one I have to do 3 loops and that, psychologically, seems so much harder. Which is daft really because either way, it’s 3 miles! But it’s a very real thing. In fact, sometimes (like today) when I get to the end of the 3 miles on the 2-lap route, I think, well I might as do another lap because I usually have to! What’s that all about!

Everything we do has a psychological element to it that we can either let get in the way, make work for us, or use to trick us into convincing ourselves that something is a good idea.

Lockdown is difficult for a lot of us. Many people I sense are finding it hard to motivate themselves to do things they would usually just get on and do. Exercise is a good example of this. Lots of people seem to be finding it harder to motivate themselves to do what they know already is good for them.

How can we overcome that moment of inertia when, at the end of a busy day we know we should take some exercise but we just don’t feel like it.

Firstly, let’s give ourselves a break and in some ways identify the problem. When you are feeling stressed you don’t feel like exercising. This is a fact – well researched – well established. An American study from Yale University tested this out and found that levels of stress are a predictor for low physical activity. But it’s a double bind because exercise is a great stress buster. Indeed the same Yale University study showed that those who managed 30 minutes of exercise during the day experienced a reduction in stress.

There are lots of reasons why this might be and all have been researched. Which it is for you is probably down to your own uniqueness! For some the exercise simply takes their attention away from the thing that’s causing them stress and gives them a break from it so they can return to it refreshed.

For others it could the rush of feel good endorphins, the ‘runners high’ you might have heard of. It could be that our stress response, the fight or flight adrenaline and cortisol rush, readies us for physical activity, so in doing something physical we ‘burn off’ these chemicals and we return our body to a state of calm. We in effect ‘took flight’.

So, given exercise is good for us, how do we get past our inertia?

We need to plan for our future self – arrange what it is our future self needs to do. Then, trust our past self to have arranged things that are good for us. The just do them at the moment our past self planned them, safe in the knowledge that our future self will thank us for doing what we planned!

When we try to imagine our future we are strongly influenced by how we are feeling in the present moment. So if you try to imagine what something later in the week will be like when you are experiencing a tiring Thursday and you are just a tad grumpy and ‘down-in-the-mouth’ you are likely to think about the future event negatively. ‘That run will be hard work’, ‘Getting my gear on to do the online workout will be sooooo time consuming!’ And the same works the other way – if you are in a good place then you will think positively about the future. (See Daniel Gilbert’s book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ for more – Professor Gilbert has spent his life studying the psychology of happiness – he knows his stuff!)

So, how do we make this psychological quirk work for us. Let’s keep going with the exercise example. When on a weekend are you feeling in a good place? I find I have a sweet spot that usually occurs early afternoon on a Sunday. I’m feeling rested and I’m not yet grumpy because it’s nearly time for work again. In this sweet spot I plan my exercise for the week because I’m feeling at the top of my game in terms of motivation. I still keep my planning realistic. I bring the future into the present so I can do something with it. I plan what I will do. I remind myself that about 20 minutes a day is sufficient and if I can do more great!

Then, my week starts. And, as we know, motivation wanes as the week goes on and stress rises. So when I spot at 5.30 on Wednesday evening that my diary says ‘3-mile run’ I trust my past self, when I was in a good place to have thought, ‘I’m going to need something to pick me up by Wednesday and I’ll feel great after a run. Clear headed, invigorated, and if I get some exercise I’ll probably sleep well’. Had I left my planning for exercise on Wednesday until I got home at 5.30 I would probably have said, ‘I can’t be bothered, stuff it, where’s the wine’. Familiar?

In that moment when you think, ‘I can’t be bothered with this running thing in my diary’, you have to trust your past self to have done the right thing for your future self and thought, when in a good place, he’s going to NEED a run by Wednesday. On Wednesday his future self will thank his past self for insisting he went for a run!

There is great power in planning. And there is great power in trusting what you have planned. David Allen (productivity guru of the highest order) says you can’t plan and do at the same time and this is why. The feelings of past self, present self, and future self will get all confused. Our ‘selves’ need to find a good positive moment and plan for our future selves so when we hit that ‘present’ moment we can be fully in that present moment knowing that this must be the best thing that can be done right now or why would I have planned it so!?

Then deliver on the plan.
You’ll thank your past self in the future for knowing what will be good for you.

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