Why the “Pause-Button Mentality” is Ruining your Health and Fitness
“I’ll resume healthy eating after my holiday/once the baby is born/after Mum gets out of the hospital/in the New Year/on Monday.” While this kind of pause-button mentality seems reasonable, it could be ruining your health and fitness. Here’s why, and what to do about it.
What’s the harm in letting your nutrition and fitness plans take a break when you’re:
- leaving for vacation;
- completely swamped at work;
- pregnant, or just after delivery;
- injured; or
- caring for an ailing family member?
The thought process usually boils down to:
If I miss some workouts, eat the wrong things, skip the homework from my trainer… I fail.
Aren’t I more likely to succeed if I take a break, just until I have the time to do it right?
This is what I call the ‘pause-button mentality’.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
I think it’s normal, even commendable, to want to do your best, to consider taking time to regroup and then resume (or start over) when life feels easier.
At the same time, this completely natural and well-meaning impulse is one of the fastest, surest, most reliable ways to sabotage your plans for improved body shape, energy levels, and health.
Here’s why (and what to do instead).
Starting fresh after you lose your way is a really comforting thought.
That’s probably why New Year’s resolutions are so popular, especially following the indulgence-fuelled holiday season. In fact, the idea of a do-over is so alluring you don’t even need to mess-up for the pause-button mentality to take over.
But here’s the problem: The pause-button mentality only builds the skill of pausing.
Whether it’s tomorrow, Monday, next week, or even next year, hitting that imaginary pause button gives you some sense of relief and allows you a little respite from what can be a really tough slog (and the middle is always a tough slog, it doesn’t matter what kind of project you’re working on.)
This perceived relief is compounded by the illusion that if we “start fresh” later we can find the magical “right time” to begin.
Listen, I get it.
It can feel absurd to try to improve your eating and exercise habits while you’re in the midst of chronic stress/looking for a job/starting a new job/going on holiday/caring for ageing parents/raising small children.
That’s probably why there are so many 21/60/90-day challenges/kick-starts out there. What adult has more than 90 days to go after their fitness goals with an all-out effort?
But what do these intense fitness sprints teach you?
They teach you the skill of getting fit within a very short (and completely non-representative) period of your life.
What don’t they teach you is the skill of improving how you look, function and feel (and staying that way) in the midst of a normal, complicated, “how it really is” sort of life.
This is why these short term challenges and yo-yo diets have become such a phenomenon.
It’s not about willpower. It’s about skills.
In most fitness scenarios, you learn how to get fit under weird, tightly-controlled, white-knuckle life situations.
You build that one, solitary, non-transferrable skill — to slam the pedal to the metal, drive the needle into the red, squeal down the road, burning the rubber off your tyres until you (quickly) run out of steam and crash.
What you don’t build is the ability to get fit and healthy under real-life conditions.
That’s why it doesn’t stick and you inevitably go back to where you were before you started. You did you develop the skills and habits. It’s not because you suck and lack motivation, it’s because the natural and predictable consequence of having a limited skill set is short-term progress, followed immediately by long-term frustrations.
What will be different next time?
I was having coffee with a friend who swore that their low-carb diet plus daily running and moderate gym session was the secret to staying fit and healthy.
I had to follow up with a painful question: “Well, why are you?”
After a long pause: “Uhh, I’ve had a hard time sticking with it. The holidays just ended. I just switched jobs,” (blah, blah, blah).
“But, once everything settles down, I’ll get with the program and get in shape again! I guess I’m just on a little break.”
This story illustrates the point perfectly.
Here’s someone who’s built their fitness on a house of cards. They know only one thing: How to get in shape by following a very challenging program when the conditions are perfect.
And whenever life isn’t perfect, which is most of the time, they hits the pause button. They wait for a better time and while they wait, they are losing the health and fitness they previously worked so hard for.
Life is… happening. And it’ll happen again in January, or after the baby is born, or after Mum gets better, or at any other arbitrary point you pick.
And then what?
Let’s accept that life has no pause button.
The key lesson here is that, like it or not, the game of life keeps going.
There is no timeout. There’s never going to be a moment when things are magically easier. You can’t escape your work, personal, and family demands. Nor can you escape the need for health and fitness in your life.
Here’s a thought experiment:
What if you tried to hit pause in other areas of your life?
Imagine you’re up for a big promotion at work. For the next two weeks, all you want to do is focus on mastering an upcoming presentation, and winning over your boss.
Trouble is, you’ve got two young children at home who tend to grasp, koala-like, onto your legs and demand your full attention.
You say to your spouse, “I’m just gonna press pause on being a parent for now. I’ll be staying at a hotel while I prepare for this presentation. Don’t contact me.”
Not going to happen, right?
You can’t really press pause — and you definitely can’t hit reset (You’ve thought about it, though – right?)
Just like you can’t stop showing up for work and expect not to get fired.
Generally, when it comes to life, we know we’re not always going to be on our A-Game: sometimes we’re superstars, but most of the time we just do our best. We muddle through. We keep going.
So why do we expect it to be any different with your health and fitness?
Perfectionism is not the point.
Completing a fitness challenge is not the point.
Being the “best” for a tiny window of time is not the point.
The point is to keep going. Sometimes awkwardly, sometimes incompetently, sometimes downright half-arsed. But to keep going nonetheless.
The “all or nothing” mentality rarely gets us “all”; it usually gets us “nothing”.
Wouldn’t it be better for an “Always something” mentality?
Perfection never happens in real life. We’re always going to be doing the best we can with what we have. And that’s okay.
We can still make progress toward our goals and still improve how we look, function and feel – whatever’s going on in our lives.
That progress doesn’t happen if you “press pause” and wait for a better time.
In my opinion, pressing pause is buying into an imaginary ideal: a “perfect” time when everything will fall into place; a beautiful, linear trajectory from total suckiness to an apex of awesomeness.
Asking for a restart because you don’t want to mess that line up is deluding yourself that somehow, next time will be easier. Next time will be perfect. No interruptions, no distractions… no… life.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect time.
We may have magical moments, of course. Short periods of time when things seem to “click” and come together. But then the dog craps on the rug, or one of the kids throws up on the lounge, or the kids throws up on the lounge because the dog craps on the rug and then one or the other tracks it all through the house!
If you keep pressing pause, your progress looks like this.
Or, worse yet, you end up flatlining, stuck on a never-ending (maybe eternal) pause.
What to do next.
Health and fitness in the context of real human life is just like the rest of life.
We’re all just doing the best we can in challenging, complicated circumstances. We are all living messy, imperfect lives. We are all human.
If we can just keep moving forward, no matter what happens, no pause buttons, no do-overs, we win the game.
Here are a two strategies for getting out of the pause-button mentality and into a more realistic, effective, sustainable way of thinking.
1. Aim for a little bit better
An all-or-nothing approach usually doesn’t get us “all”. It usually gets us “nothing”.
You know what actually works? Small improvements done consistently over time work.
You might be spending hours awake with a newborn in the middle of the night, or stuck in yet another full-day meeting.
These aren’t ideal scenarios, but they’re not necessarily hopeless either.
Look around. Get creative. See if you can find some small — maybe minuscule — improvements.
2. Anticipate, strategise and plan
Since we already know that stuff is going to go wrong, the best thing we can do is anticipate and make plans for how to deal with when it happens.
A simple way to do this is by answering two questions:
- What’s likely to get in the way of what I hope to accomplish?
- What is something I can do today to help me keep going when I face those obstacles?
For some people, that might be a Sunday ritual where they prep food for the week so they won’t be scrambling for healthy meals on busy weeknights. For others, it might mean having a healthy meal-delivery service on speed dial.
Don’t be surprised and dismayed when things go pear-shaped. Just arm yourself with the best tools and strategies so you can stay in the game when someone turns on that bloody fan and shit starts to fly!