Plan for Chaos: How to Stick to Your Health Goals When Life Gets Crazy

I played baseball in college. During the offseason, my teammates and I would battle through friendly Strongman competitions where we would flip a giant tractor tire, drag a sled full of weights, and generally push, pull, and throw heavy, oddly-shaped things.

Occasionally, there would be an event where someone would complain about “not being built for this” or about “not training for this type of thing.”

Eventually, my roommate responded to the whining with a simple phrase: “Train for chaos.”

“Train for chaos” was a simple way of saying, “Don’t tell me that the circumstances aren’t ideal. Tell me that you’re going to make it your responsibility to be better prepared next time.”

You may not find yourself flipping tractor tires anytime soon, but you can adapt this philosophy from “train for chaos” to “plan for chaos.” I find that this mentality can be incredibly useful when it comes to sticking to your goals and living a healthy life — especially when life gets busy.

Here’s how you can use this idea…

Plan for Chaos

Let’s say that you have a goal that you want to stick to consistently. For example, working out three times per week or meditating for five minutes each morning.

If everything goes as planned, then sticking to your goal isn’t too difficult. If you wake up on time, then you should have the extra five minutes to meditate in the morning. If rush hour traffic isn’t bad, then you should be able to make it to the gym before going to your kid’s performance tonight.

Basically, if there aren’t any unexpected interruptions, then it just comes down to getting started.

But when life gets busy and chaos starts to happen, that’s when we start to come up with excuses. Phrases like “I wasn’t expecting X to happen…” start creeping into your life and you end up pushing off the goals that you said were important.

The chaos and unpredictability of life is one of the factors that makes sticking to your goals difficult. Which brings us to the important questions…

How can you stay consistent when day-to-day life is so unpredictable? How can you plan for chaos?

Reduce the Scope, Stick to the Schedule

As you probably know, my writing schedule is to publish a new article every Monday and Thursday on JamesClear.com.

Last April, I was traveling internationally when I had a terrible case of food poisoning. I wanted to publish a good article that day, but this unexpected sickness made things difficult. So, I told myself, “If I don’t have a post written before 11pm, then I’ll publish one letting people know that it’s coming later this week.”

A few hours later, I published an article that said, “This post is coming!” I hated publishing something that wasn’t useful, but I still proved to myself that I could stick to the schedule even when the circumstances weren’t ideal.

I’ve written previously about adopting the mentality of “reducing the scope, but sticking to the schedule.” The basic idea is that on any given day it is more important to stick to your schedule than it is to meet your expectations.

For example, my expectation is to write a useful article every Monday and Thursday. But it’s more important that I stick to the schedule and maintain my habit for the long-term than it is for every post to be incredible.

In my experience, the If-Then Technique is one of the best ways to stick to your schedule when life gets crazy.

The If-Then Technique

The If-Then Technique is the perfect way to plan for chaos and stick to your goals even when life gets crazy. Why? Because it forces you to create a strategy for reducing the scope, but sticking to the schedule before you actually need to do so.

All you need to do is complete this phrase: “If [something unexpected], then [your response].”

For example…

  • If I don’t wake up in time to run tomorrow morning, then I’ll run after work.
  • If I can’t make it to yoga during my lunch break, then I’ll take a stretching break this afternoon.
  • If I buy something unhealthy for lunch, then I’ll cook a healthy meal for dinner.

The If-Then Technique forces you to consider the unpredictable circumstances that so often enter our daily lives. And that means you have fewer excuses for doing nothing and more options for sticking to your goals.

You can also use this technique as a way to plan for poor performances as well. For example, a basketball player could say, “If I miss 10 free throws at practice, then I’ll visualize myself making 20 free throws before I fall asleep tonight.”

It’s a useful way of forcing yourself to consider how you will practice deliberately rather than just putting your time.

Where to Go From Here

Having a busy day, dealing with unexpected delays, getting sick, and traveling for work are just a few of the thousands of tiny emergencies that prevent most people from sticking to their goals. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

If you choose to plan for chaos and use The If-Then Technique to outline ways that you can “reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule,” then you can find options for staying on-task even when your day gets off-course.

When you can’t do it all, do something small.

26 Comments

  1. This is incredibly well-timed. My life has thrown me a ton of curveballs lately: shocking family death, long work hours, unpredictable work emergencies, change of school for little daughter, a tree fell on my house and did substantial water and structural damage. And a lot more. Just this summer. I’m proud of myself for at least figuring out to find a walking time (first thing in the morning). AND for walking out on time from work, because I really do need to go home and feed my kid. Not take her out again because I’m exhausted and didn’t have anything planned or defrosted. Just. Go. Home. It’s a start.

  2. Perfect timing! My friends from California just surprised me with a plane ticket to Vegas for my 21st birthday in December. Trying to get in better shape for the trip (and for healthiness of course!) but I can see myself getting derailed what with such a crazy schedule (classes and interviews) this semester. I’ll be sure to think of this post in those moments! Hope you’re doing well, thanks for another great read!

    • Vegas! I’m sure you won’t have any fun at all.

      Good to hear from you, Cathy. Thanks for reading and good luck with the interviews! :)

  3. Agreed. Backup plan should always be ready. But there can be some circumstances as well, where your backup plan also fails or you are unable to follow backup plan too..

  4. Hi James!

    Wouldn’t the If-Then technique make someone prone to always procrastinate thinking that there will always be a plan B or excuse to not do the planned task?

    • I had the same thought, James. I can see myself falling into the trap of using ‘emergency’ plans instead of the planned tasks. But I guess it’s a matter of common sense and being true to yourself and your goals. Balance is everything, as always.

  5. I love your practical advice for staying motivated and sticking with it through life’s challenges. Thank you for sharing the benefit of your experience. Oh, and the pictures are pretty awesome too. :)

  6. I like the “So What?”-question (think it was in the last post). Why should something that happens unexpectedly stop you from archieving the goal you want to archive? Don’t let anything stop you, no excuses! =)

    Thanks for the great post.

  7. Interesting post, as usual.

    I’d also talk about the concept of redundancy. It’s part of being “prepared for chaos”.

    Ever wonder why there are practically no cases of accidents of lifts in buildings? It’s partly because more than 6 different, independent and very stable systems have to fail for some tragedy to happen.

    In your publishing schedule example, a better solution would probably be to have a buffer of written articles you can fall back on, if for whatever reason you can’t write on a given day.

    Keep up the great work! :)

  8. James — I have a saying that I believe someone even referenced it on my LinkedIn profile. It sticks with people and is a great tool for me.

    So what….now what?

    Achievers can get way to serious about goals and being late and missing commitments. Even with good reason. We “imagine” all this stuff that is going to happen because we didn’t make the commitment to ourselves and others.

    The truth is Achievers could really use more laugh time and especially be able to laugh at ourselves.

    Laughter releases stress and brings an earthiness back to your presence… then you can see straight again.

    Think I will YouTube me some Richard Pryor right now. :)

    Karin

  9. Chaos is the way of life in this day and age. It is never a question of will my schedule get interrupted, but when. Chaos is a daily occurrence. I like your suggestion for not letting the interruptions negate the primary objectives. I ofter lose site of that. Thanks for the article. They are always helpful in some way.

  10. Dude this site rocks!

    Your posts are second to none. I admire your ability to continue pumping out practical and thought provoking brain food. The way you write so simply and clearly is a breath of fresh air. Keep up the amazing work!

    Cheers,

    Simon

  11. So true. I have a day job where little things crop up that get in the way of well-timed day. Emergencies during lunch break, late meetings, early meetings, etc. Just getting my one post per week done on Fridays can be a challenge because of schedule fluidity. Usually, planning for chaos means staying up later or getting up earlier – both of which are OK. I have learned that keeping my own schedule fluid is the only way to combat it.

  12. Great write up James. The If-Then technique has worked wonders for me too. I’ve resorted to caring around a tiny notebook in my back pocket and often write down my if-thens in it as they come. At the end of the day I’ll review it as a way to have it all sink in.

    Thanks for the great writeup.

    With gratitude,

    Justin

  13. James — I love your positive and inspirational blog posts, but PLEASE do not rely on spelling/grammar checkers.

    In the last line of the last paragraph you wrote “…saying on-task…” Your spell/grammar checker either changed this from what you intended it to read or you mistyped it and the spell checker assumed it to be correct.

    Thank you and keep the inspiration coming.

    Tom

  14. This is a really useful, however I’ve found that, even though I’m a practitioner of this very technique, that life can get to a point where you start getting into your sleep time. You usually can’t say I will just sleep later. That’s how we get locked into a cycle that eventually takes our health down because sleep deprivation will (trust me!) catch up with you.

    I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with that. I’ve already cut out all the non-essentials and there still aren’t enough hours in the day.

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