My friends and family like to tease me about how stubborn I am. I’ve been this way ever since I was a kid and I really don’t have much of an issue with it. Generally speaking, my stubborn tendencies have served me well and are probably the primary reason I am still in graduate school. Sometimes though, if I’m not careful, I can sabotage myself.Whether it’s sticking too strictly to a particular diet or refusing to take a break from exercise despite being tired and injured, there are times that I need to step back and acknowledge that whatever I’m doing might not be serving me well.
The key, I’ve found, is to recognize when obstinance is helpful and when it runs counter to productivity and well-being. Sometimes this is in the form of food and movement, and sometimes it’s related to writing and working.
I was working on my dissertation the other day and being more productive than usual. I was totally into what I was writing and wasn’t becoming too brain-melted or infuriated by the task. Taking a step back, I tried to identify why I had been so productive for the last week or so. Then I realized that it was technically spring break and I had told myself that if I wanted to take a break at any point I could do that. Whether it meant taking a full day off to go for a hike or just a couple hours on a rainy afternoon to zone out and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Strangely enough, I didn’t take all that much time off. Instead, I dove back into my (almost finished!) dissertation and worked on the edits I had been putting off for weeks. I didn’t resent it and was able to get a lot of work done, and probably in a much shorter period of time that I would have otherwise. I even got back into some of the blogging I have been neglecting since I really delved back into serious dissertating mode.
The real challenge has been figuring out when I need to set a schedule for myself and when I need to lay off and just give myself a break and see where that gets me. I found that, for me, I really needed structure at the beginning stages of writing. I blocked off 2 hours every morning, removed all distractions, and just word vomited onto the computer. Getting started can be challenging for me, so sometimes I need to really force myself to just do it.
Once I reached a point where I was getting closer finishing my dissertation, however, I really needed to take a step back. The problem was that it took me a long time to recognize this. I was so used to setting up my pre-determined writing time that I kept up the habit. By this point, however, I was so tired of looking at my document that I would just get frustrated and a bit hopeless about the whole thing.
Then this week came along and I figured that I would just let it go and not worry too much for a few days. And, in what feels like a miraculous turn of events, I’m actually tolerating (maybe even enjoying?) writing and editing. If I get tired of it, I just take a break and walk the dog or make some muffins. No forcing myself to keep on trudging through.
Why is this working for me? I think I had gotten to the point where I was rebelling against my own productivity plans. I wanted to get work done, so I stubbornly refused to do so. Once the mandate was no longer there, it was like I was free to actually work again because I wasn’t being “forced” to. It sounds a little weird but, knowing my personality and the way my brain works, this is really the best way I can think of to explain the process.
It applies to food, too
For most of my life, I had some pretty iron-clad willpower. If I set food rules for myself, you could stick a plate of fresh cookies in front of me and I wouldn’t think about even touching them. As someone with celiac disease, this often served me really well. Except when it didn’t. The problem was that once I told myself some foods were off limits, I downright refused to eat them no matter what. And when I found out gluten made me sick, I used that as an excuse to eliminate a ton of other foods in the name of “health”.
When I stopped eating gluten, I also went back to being vegan, which I had been on and off for a few years. I told my roommate about my decision, and her immediate response was “yeah, let’s see how long that lasts.” Cue long-lasting, health-sabotaging, mega-stubbornness. The fact that she questioned whether I would actually stick with veganism flipped a switch in me and made me absolutely determined to stick with the diet no matter what. I also ventured into more strict territory, eschewing anything with sugar or too much fat or carbohydrate. I also got way too judge-y of what other people ate, but I’ll save that conversation for another post.
I was already pretty set on staying vegan, but stubbornness kept me with that diet long after I realized that it was seriously detrimental to my health. I think a lot of people could probably relate to this. It can be hard to question a particular diet or lifestyle path when we are often barraged with people telling us that if we’re not getting results, it’s because we’re “just not doing it well/hard/correct enough.”
In reality, I was definitely vegan-ing “hard-enough”. I didn’t touch animal products, and dutifully turned down my nose at what I now know are some unbelievably health-promoting foods. And I continued to stay sick and anxious. Until one day I just decided to stop. I don’t even remember what exactly made me do it, but I went to the store, bought some chicken sausage, and cooked it with cabbage. I haven’t looked back since. Sure, I might “give in” and eat a gluten-free cookie from that plate every once in a while, but I’m pretty confident that my overall health is way better than when I refused to let a bite of sugar pass my lips.
Since then, there have been times when I restricted food options. Most notably, I went on a very low carb/ketogenic diet for a while. As usual, I was extremely good at sticking to it, even when my health started to decline. Fortunately, I was able to recognize and reign in my stubborn compliance relatively quickly, but it’s something I constantly need to keep an eye on to make sure that I’m doing things because they serve me well and not because it’s what I “should” be doing or just because I said I would.
Oh, and exercise
I recently wrote about my approach to fitness and how it has transformed over the last 10 or so years. Once again, stubbornness was keeping me in an unhealthy cycle of exercise and restriction. It wasn’t until I recognized that I was being stubborn that I could loosen the reins a bit. Once I realized I didn’t have to stick to a self-imposed strict workout regimen, I started to enjoy movement again.
When I was strict with myself, I really hated working out. I did it because I thought I had to, and my brain rebelled. I still exercised, but I didn’t enjoy it, and I probably experienced much more mental stress than I needed to when I fought against myself in my head.
Once I took away the rules, I started to move because I enjoyed it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that I move a lot more now that I don’t “have” to. I craved autonomy in my behavior and, as strange as it might sound, I was robbing myself of that autonomy by giving myself rules. Once I removed them I could do what I wanted, which turned out to be a lot of really fun movement-based activities.
Perhaps even more importantly, it doesn’t actually matter if I moved more, less, or the same amount as I did before. What matters is that I took the pressure off myself to do things I didn’t want to do and that ultimately weren’t benefiting me physically or psychologically. Maybe some of us do need “rules” for ourselves. I know that they are helpful for me in some situations, as I mentioned above. It can be very person- and situation-specific.
But ultimately I think we really need to just let ourselves live. We already experience a world with a seemingly endless number of rules. Why give ourselves more restrictions and impose more stress when we don’t need to?