It’s good to know when to abandon a plan

I learned that in order to write, I could not depend upon the muse to inspire me but instead had to have a regular writing schedule that would compel me to write every day. That experience resulted in me even writing an article titled Seven Suggestions for Becoming a More Productive Writer in which the first suggestion was to set aside time every day to write, whether one wanted to or not. I like to quote Peter de Vries who said, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

It is similar to exercise. For most people, physical exertion is not pleasant but seen as a necessity. We are told that having a regular exercise routine, or ‘plan’, is a good thing. Having a steady daily routine is a good way of maintaining discipline. Ad hoc exercise, where you do it only when the mood strikes you, tends to not work well because other things that are more interesting or seem more important can easily distract you, whereas if you prioritize a set time for exercise, you are more likely to stick to the plan.

But while having a plan is a good thing, whether it be for writing or physical exercise, there are also times when you need to ditch it, rather than power through it. Phil Daoust would be considered a highly disciplined exerciser, almost fanatical in his determination to stick to his plan. But he writes that he has realized that there are benefits to quitting when you are ‘just not feeling it’.

I don’t record every single run that I do, so I can’t tell you precisely how often I have laced up my trainers, or how far they have taken me in the last 10 years. But I track enough to know that I have run more than 1,849 times and 13,948km. That’s 8,667 miles, or about a third of the way round the world. Go me! If I wasn’t trying to eat less sugar, I would give myself a biscuit.

After all that sweating and chafing, you would think I’d have it down pat. I would have my pre-run pee, head out of the door and simply stick one foot in front of the other until I had finished whatever distance I had set out to do.

Not a bit of it. After a decade of running three or four times a week, I still stop early because I am hating it, I am more tired than I realised, or something just isn’t right. Two weeks ago, having started my morning commute with what was supposed to be a brisk 10-11km, I bailed out after 2km and got on a bus. The reason? All I can say is that I wasn’t feeling it.

Most of my runs are circuits, beginning and ending at home; I have lost count of the times I have finished them by bus or train.

According to many fitness freaks, however, this is Not The Way To Do Things. Whether it is leg day at the gym, or a tempo run in the park, the plan is sacred, and to stray from it is to risk all the hard work you have done to get where you are today. It is weak, it is stupid, it is a foot on a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you will be welded to the sofa, barely strong enough to pop open another tube of Pringles.

Hence the popularity of the “streak”, in which you attempt to work out every day, from here to eternity. I have gone down that rabbit hole myself, to the point where I was still doing my scheduled press-ups despite such terrible food poisoning that I couldn’t stray more than a few feet from the toilet.

Now that I have realised that sometimes the best thing to do with a plan is to ignore it, I have been delighted to discover a lot of experts feel the same. They just don’t make a fuss about it. Take Michael Ulloa, an Edinburgh-based performance nutritionist and personal trainer. “We’re constantly told that if we can’t stick to a plan 100%, then we have somehow failed,” he says. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is messing people up. When we deviate from a plan, we shouldn’t overthink it. We should ask why this deviation happened and what we can do to limit the chances of it happening again. Did we try to take on more than we can chew? Are we not enjoying our current training programme? Or maybe we were just tired and we needed to give ourselves a day or two.”

Due to my physical limitations, I have a very modest exercise schedule consisting of walking a certain number of steps per day, a routine that I started after retiring and did not have the daily walking that occurs during a normal work day. At one time, I set a daily target of 8,000 steps, broken up into smaller amounts done throughout the day. But I found myself towards the end of each day dreading the amount I still had to do to make up the quota. I was just not enjoying myself and there was a danger that I might give it up altogether, and for a few months I did. So I reduced my daily goal to about 5,000 steps and find that it is just about right in that I do not dread waking up each day and wondering if I can complete my quota. Is 5,000 steps enough? Who knows? It is better than nothing, which is the danger that threatens when you force yourself to do something your really dislike.

And sometimes, when I am on holiday or have visitors or am doing some activity that prevents me from reaching my 5,000 step goal, I accept it. I don’t feel guilty and don’t try to increase my quota the next day to try and catch up, as I used to do before. That has made me feel relaxed.

After all, we should not seek healthy bodies at the expense of healthy minds.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Anthony Burgess on writing;

    The practice of a profession entails discipline, which for me meant the production of two thousand words of fair copy every day, weekends included. I discovered that, if I started early enough, I could complete the day’s stint before the pubs opened…

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Planned exercise has been an important part of my life for about 50 years. I never cared for the ‘every day’ thing; it could easily make it more like a dreaded chore. But as long as I had four or five decent workouts a week, I felt fine. These days (the last 10 years or so), it’s more like three a week, and I’m OK with two if it doesn’t happen too often. But I am much more likely to say “nah, just not feeling it today”. Like today.

  3. John Morales says

    [I did wait]

    It’s better to have plans that account for contingencies than to have inflexible plans.

    Also, to not be so determined to stick to a plan that one becomes stupid by mulishly persisting beyond sense.

    (Anyone who wants to be healthy should be aware of the concept of ‘recovery’ after illness or injury)

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