The Case For Phoning It In

It shouldn’t always require your maximum effort to maintain a good habit.

When Habits Get Hard

A few years ago, I started exercising regularly for the first time in my life. I began with several short runs each week, and steadily progressed from there. These days, I run typically run five or six times every week, and do strength training about three times each week on top of it.

It’s a lot of exercise — far more than I need to stay healthy — but I’ve come to love it. Not only am I in the best shape of my life, but my mental health has drastically improved as well. Regular workouts help me manage my depression and maintain a relatively good mood throughout the week.

There are times though, when I just don’t feel like working out. The past week has been one of them. I can’t pinpoint the cause, but for some reason I just have not been in the mood to exercise.

When I’m faced with these feelings, I have three basic choices:

  • Choice #1: Force myself to exercise just as much as usual.
    On a surface level, it might seem like this would keep my exercise habit on track. The trouble is that going down this path would lead to me dreading exercise, and it would probably make my anti-workout mood last for months. I might even get so burnt out that I stopped exercising completely.
  • Choice #2: Take a few weeks off from exercising.
    Taking break from working out could help me “reset” and come back to it with more energy later. I think this is a better option than choice #1. Unfortunately, I truly do rely on exercise to help manage my depression, and going a few weeks without it presents a real possibility of my mental health going downhill. I also know from past experience that I can easily let a few weeks turn into a few months.
  • Choice #3: Phone it in.
    The last choice is to phone it in. I could keep exercising, but cut down on the frequency and not put in much effort. This is exactly what I chose to do, and it worked wonders.

“Try Your Best”

We live in a culture that encourages us to always put in our maximum effort. I remember hearing a hundred times that “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you try your best.” The sentiment behind this is nice, but it doesn’t always hold up. Sometimes the outcome really is more important than the effort.

Phoning in my exercise goes against everything I’ve been taught about trying hard, but it’s exactly what I needed to do. For the past week, I’ve continued to exercise, but I have put very little effort into it.

I cut out one of my barbell workouts, and only ran every other day. The runs themselves were slow and short. On my most recent run, I only made it about a third of my usual distance before throwing in the towel.

This was enough to keep me from falling out of my exercise habit (and into depression), but it wasn’t so much that I felt burnt out or exhausted. What’s even better is that this short low-effort break has already helped me to enjoy exercising more again. Today, I did my first hard workout in over a week, and was truly excited to do it.

I don’t know whether I’m out of my funk yet or if today was a freak occurrence. Either way, putting in minimal effort has helped keep me from abandoning my exercise habit, without causing unnecessary stress.

Low Energy

It’s completely normal to go through periods in which you lack motivation or energy. We all experience it, and with the pandemic going on this year, these feelings seem to be even more widespread than usual.

Instead of beating ourselves up about it, the healthier choice is to accept that we don’t always need to try hard. Sometimes, doing just a little bit is still enough to get the job done.

This strategy isn’t just about workouts. It’s helped me with other habits, like writing, and it’s even helped me get through work.

I hope that this is the year that we all learn to be more forgiving of ourselves, and to accept that sometimes it’s fine to phone it in.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at

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