The Case for Structure (and 6 Tactics That Can Come in Handy)

AgendaOne of the things I love most about the Primal Blueprint is its malleability. It’s not a hard-nosed agenda or nauseating treatise of commandments. It’s a loose set of suggestions that together take a general and dynamic shape a person can then apply in whatever way works for his or her life. The fact is, I’m a casual, go with the flow kind of person. Living in California all these decades helps that. Frankly, I chafe against too many rules. I don’t like to have my choices confined into a ready-made box of someone else’s design. I set up the PB with that point very much in mind. (If I don’t like to follow other people’s edicts, why would I expect others to embrace mine?) In understanding all this about myself, however, I also get that not everyone takes the same casual, free flowing approach to health. Some people appreciate structure. They seek it out or even depend on it, in fact. It’s never about what’s right or wrong in these endeavors. One approach isn’t better than another. It’s simply a matter of this does or doesn’t work for me.

People need or desire structure for any number of reasons. For many, it’s a matter of simplicity. The fewer choices they have to make in a day, the easier their lives feel. Although the research on “decision fatigue” is mixed, some people feel making fewer selections genuinely frees up mental bandwidth if not self-discipline. Others simply like to plan their lives and organize most if not all the dimensions of living with an eye for clear intention. Still others look to structure as a critical map to plot their course each day through the thicket of long-standing unhealthy habits and even self-destructive thinking or behavior around food. Particularly for those beginning a Primal journey or for those who have been more or less Primal for a while but hit a stressful patch, leaning on the constancy and clarity of structure can be a linchpin to getting healthy or staying the course. I’m interested in hearing what all of you may have used in the past to institute your own brand of structure for living Primally, but here are a few strategies I’ve suggested to folks in the past who ask me about putting structure in place.

Establish a systemized schedule.

A meeting gets called right before lunch. The kids’ activity schedule is all over the map. You’re on vacation or a business trip. Social events or family obligations have you on a different agenda every night. Stop the car right there. While some of us can roll with these continual shifts – particularly with ample Primal time under our belts, for others this kind of dysregulation is our continual undoing. When I work with clients who struggle with these circumstances, I explain that an established schedule is simply about realigning our bodies’ physiological rhythms – particularly around sleep and hunger cues – and about setting good social boundaries. Not everyone else’s needs in the world come before yours. If you want to prioritize your health, it’s got to be front and center – at least for a while until it’s had a chance to become woven into the natural patterns of your day. For many people, having set eating times wards off major hunger, which can send us down a spiraling path of unfortunate choices. Eating the healthy meal you’ve planned right before ravenous hunger gets the better of your thinking can keep you on track. Setting an alarm to hit the sack at your body’s ideal bedtime sets you up for the best sleep, which means you’ll be more productive and make better choices the next day.

In truth, a regimented schedule might sound like torture to some people, but it’s a lifesaver to others. While a schedule suggests confining order, to other people it’s nothing more than a functional scaffolding for the day in which everything else can work around the self-commitments they make to themselves. Setting specific non-negotiable times for eating, bedtime and exercise can feel for some people like high treason against all the other people or commitments in their lives. When you assign your basic health priorities the same importance as a work meeting or your kids’ soccer game, you might be surprised how powerful a mental shift and a logistical tactic this action becomes. How can this work, you ask? Commit to it for a week no holds barred. Have each meal (or a meal) always ready to travel. Get over the self-consciousness that says you can’t eat in a work meeting (hey, if they set a meeting for noon, this comes with the territory) or the stands of your daughter’s hockey practice. Give up T.V. in order to get things done in preparation for a 10:00 p.m. bedtime. It’s amazing what in your life can become modular when you make your health commitments the non-negotiables.

Commit (for a time) to extensive tracking, experimenting and journaling.

Again, no tactic is for everyone, but I’ve had more clients than I can count who significantly benefited from this idea. Personally, I like to consider a journal as a tool that allows me to be consciously responsible for my choices and to keep notes on self-experimentation. Yup, I even designed one, and it’s based directly on what I used for myself and with one-on-one clients.

To me, it’s not simply about what you’re eating and when you exercise. It’s tracking your choices but also how they shake out and what progress you make each day. We’re not looking for ways to berate ourselves here: remember, as Art says, “no failure, only feedback.” How did a new gym time affect your energy trajectory today? When during the day do you feel yourself craving sweet or salty foods? What is the sweet spot for heading to bed for the quickest process of falling asleep? Do you get better output in your weight lifting over lunch or in the morning? How much recovery time do you really need? When during your day do you feel the biggest physical effects of stress? When you pay attention to your body’s sensations and feedback, you can direct a relevant and effective response or simply make better choices.

Set a weekly master plan that you consult each day.

This is an easy extension off of the journal. Choose one day each week to create the week’s menus for yourself with all meals (including snacks) accounted for. Write up the grocery list, hit the market and prep what you bring home to your heart’s desire. Cook a big batch of stew you’ll pack for lunches. Put together a large salad you can divvy up for the first couple days of the week. Boil some eggs, cut up vegetables you’ll use for morning omelettes, etc., etc. Keep the list on your fridge or in your phone. You will always know what you’ll be preparing or packing each day. Taking the guesswork out of the equation can also stave off temptation for many people. Additionally, write out your fitness plan for the week (e.g. gym time and goals) and any other good healthy intentions you have for the seven days.

Choose strategic repetition.

While I’d say variety is key for eating healthily and getting the most out of exercise, showing up for our general Primal intentions is more important than incorporating every diverse nuance. If it’s easiest to have the same thing for breakfast and the same mid-afternoon protein shake each day, then go with it. Some people go further than that and include more repetition when they feel like they’ll fall off the wagon without it because they hit a week of big stress or time constriction. Do what you need to do, switch out whatever you comfortably can (incorporating as many foods into, say, the same daily lunch salad as possible), and wisely supplement.

Set up a check-in system.

For people who are beginning a health overhaul, I can’t emphasize this enough. It might seem extreme, but social support is a critical part of structure for many people. Find a Primal buddy (on- or offline) or a supportive friend who you can check in with each day to share what you’ve done for your intentions that day. (Even a relevant app can be useful for this purpose.) If funds allow, enlist the services of a personal coach or The Primal Advantage. Sharing your progress with another person gives you a sense of accountability of course, but you’ll also feel like you have someone in your corner. As I’ve noted (and most of us here have experienced), going Primal is kind of a counter-cultural endeavor. Having someone who “gets” the path you’re on and can encourage you along the way will go a long way on those days when stress is high and the best choices aren’t the convenient ones.

Try the 21-Day Primal Blueprint Total Body Transformation book.

Oh, the shameless self-promotion… Seriously, however, I wrote this book with structure fans in mind. It’s literally everything you need to put Primal into action from day one right down to the grocery shopping list. For those who are looking for a straight-forward formula with meal plans and exercise protocols, it’s all there. There’s no reason why you have to stop using it at day 21 either. Carry over the foods and routines that worked for you into the next 21 days and beyond.

The idea here is to see where you hit your personal structure sweet spot. Experiment and find what gives you what you need to stay confident in your Primal change. The right choices – whether free flowing or thoughtfully organized – are ultimately the ones that best allow us to take care of ourselves in the long haul.

Thanks for reading, everybody. Do you lean toward structure and consistency? What tactics have you used in going – and staying – Primal? I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts. Have a great end to the week.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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31 thoughts on “The Case for Structure (and 6 Tactics That Can Come in Handy)”

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  1. This will be very helpful to lots of people. As for myself, I was born in Southern California and I’ve spent almost all of my life in the state, so… structure? Not so much. That’s why I love the Primal Blueprint and Mark. But an interesting post.

  2. I suspect, Mr. Sisson, and with this blog and your books as my evidence, that you have a lot more structure in your life than you’re letting on. : )

    Structure gets things done. Ultimately it builds civilizations. To the degree one is enjoying a casual life, to that same degree they are enjoying the fruits of someone else’s structured life.

    1. Structure largely falls by the wayside when you retire. While working a job, most people have two days off in which to get everything done that needs to be done. After you retire you suddenly have the entire week. When you have more flexability, structure just naturally gets looser. Actually, it’s pretty relaxing to know your formerly tight schedule has become a non-schedule. Being relaxed is a good thing.

  3. A timely post!

    Mr Grok retired one year ago, so we had all structure removed, all at once. Whilst that might seem idyllic when your nose is to the grindstone 24/7 in reality it can be truly destabilising.

    We’ve struggled to find a new rhythm. To begin within any notion of introducing structure seemed anathema having just retired, BUT, we’ve actually found it is necessary otherwise nothing seems to get done, or to flow and the biggest loser seemed to be exercise; ironic eh, all the time in the world, but it wasn’t happening.

    In the last few months we’ve tried to bring back a structure for the week, nothing too prescriptive, but it is helping to bring life back to some kind of order.

    What I’ve found is a total lack of structure/timetable has led to mindless eating.

  4. Just some food for thought…..

    Stop trying to “Do Your Best” everyday…. that leaves so little room for improvement 🙂

    Commit simply to “DO” every day…. if you “DO’ every day… it will truly become a part of you. A little “DO” every day, that’s all.
    Don’t worry so much.

    That being said… a journal is very effective as it can keep you “accountable for your daily just DO” plan, but……

    I do believe that all this planning/worrying/scheduling is NOT a free and optimal way to live.

    If you keep not doing it over time…. perhaps it’s simply something that’s not all that important to you… you have made yourself believe it is… but it’s NOT TO YOU…. and that’s totally ok too.

    Be gentle with yourself.


    1. Nicely put. It’s too easy to become obsessive compulsive. I have kale salads every day because I actually enjoy my mishmash recipe. When I’m too lazy to make it I find something else I enjoy. The key is to enjoy it otherwise it becomes a second job and 90% (or more?) of the workforce is unhappy at their job. So why have 2? I’ve researched many different diet/lifestyle plans and kept what works for ME. And it works.

    2. “I do believe that all this planning/worrying/scheduling is NOT a free and optimal way to live.”


    3. Love this! This is what works for me on my low-energy days. Accomplishing one “DO” merits a pat on the back, and often encourages completion of a second “DO”. Thanks for the reminder to be gentle with self.

  5. This is a great post! I know for myself that I was trying to go without journaling and established times for exercise, but that was leading me down a path of just not doing it. So, about a month ago I bought myself a spiffy new food journal and decided that every evening after my husband got home from work I would go to the gym. However, telling myself I have to stay below a certain number or carbs or eat more protein than I feel up to is counter productive. I still need to be able to write it down or else I go nuts on my food without realizing it. Subconsciously, I must limit myself, but consciously I think, whatever. I feel like eating it. Besides, I like to see the progress I make each week written down in front of me. It also helps me notice patterns that are maybe unhelpful, or things that I am doing really well. Some structure is good, but being military about it is not helpful. Great post!

  6. Journaling was key for me, and still is as I continue to maintain my primal lifestyle. When I feel things just aren’t right, opening the journal, whether online or paper, is essential to getting back on track.

  7. For those of you that are not huge fans of structure (like myself):

    Recently I’ve started working with a personal trainer once a month at my gym. I never liked the once weekly personal trainer gig because it felt like a chore an I was on someone else’s schedule. I’m using this once a month session as a “checkup”. Each month I do a fitness assessment and get all my measurements, its great because I’m too lazy to track and write all that down on my own 🙂

    It also serves as a “breakthrough workout”. They’ll push me harder than I can push myself.

    Lastly it touches on accountability for me. I always want to impress my trainer and show that I improved over the month before.

    1. Thank you for sharing this!! I really like the idea…

      I’ve been thinking about trying out the personal trainer avenue, but I don’t like the thought of a weekly appointment. I already have a couple of tentative “appointments” set up with friends one night each week after work pending weather and whatever else might come up (bike, run, walk), and sometimes the thought of these can “stress” me out a little on days when I don’t “feel” like going, but I know I need to be moving….my body is up for it and I always feel great during and after the activity, but my mind gets in the way sometimes after sitting in my cubicle all day (trying to stand more, I promise).

      I have a gym membership which I don’t use much in the summer time because of all my outdoor activities :), but I’d like to get more comfortable around the weights so I can starting WANTING to get in there and do heavy lifts especially knowing that those workouts won’t take me too long once I know what I’m going in there to do. I feel like working with a personal trainer even once a month would be a great way to get that ball rolling!! Workout videos and the bodyweight exercises that I do at home are only getting me so far right now…..I’ve been maintaining for quite a while now despite my “efforts” to build more muscle and lose fat. I want to be able to do just one unassisted pull-up by the end of this year. I keep getting in my own way of achieving that goal, though… I guess today is a good day to really re-commit to that goal. Five months left to get there if I really want it THIS YEAR!!!

  8. Strategic repetiton works strangely well for me! My life is much less structured than most (freelance artist, my work & schedule can change radically from day to day) & if I let the day decide (especially about exercise) I know all I’ll ever do is hoop dance or garden or walk, because those thing are fun for me.

    A few months ago when Mark posted about the importance of squats, I decided to really focus on this exercise. Since then I start every day with squats– just body weight– & boy do I feel the difference! My reps have quintupled (admittedly I started small) & I’ve even added in some upper body stuff & lunges to the morning routine. I was NEVER a morning exerciser, I thought the very idea was abhorrent. (Morning was sacred for journaling, coffee & sketchbook only.) I can’t believe I’ve done this now for 4 months!

    1. Yeah, same here – and I’m also a freelancer. It really helps to have rituals like that. My exercise ritual is micro-workouts every hour on the hour. It’s usually Shovelglove and bodyweight squats. I’ve built up some nice muscles that way.

  9. Effectiveness is the ultimate measurement. If it works for you, helps you reach your goals, then keep going. Structure is just another tool. I spent to long following things that didn’t work and blaming myself when they didn’t work. When I finally decided to do something radical (at least it seemed so to me) and it miraculously worked and worked consistently, I realized I was working the wrong program. Effectiveness is now my only measurement.

  10. When I decided to switch to a Paleo-type diet I didn’t bother with journaling, making shopping lists, scheduling my meals, or any of that stuff. What I did do was bone up thoroughly on the Paleo way of eating, which, for me, means eating as close to nature as possible. I already had a fairly good idea of proper nutrition, so it wasn’t difficult. Then I did a little soul-searching to pinpoint the real problem areas. For me it was grain products and sweets. Not just sugar, but all sweets. Otherwise, I was already eating a pretty healthy diet with a lot of fruit and veggies, so all I did was increase my fat and protein intake slightly. The result was a loss of around 40 pounds and a vastly increased sense of health and wellbeing.

    I did a little trial-and-error tweaking from time to time. I eat rice and white potatoes occasionally and sometimes enjoy a small glass of orange juice with my bacon and eggs (minus toast). I also allow myself a cheat day now and then. Most of the “cheats” are fairly healthy, but there’s this nearby bakery that makes the most wonderful French pastries using real cream, butter and sugar…

    I can’t stand wheat/sugar/gluten-free pastries, so once in a while, on average of once a month or so, I will cave and pick up a cupcake, Napoleon, or chocolate mousse that I split with the spouse. It ends up being about three guilt-free bites apiece. Not remotely Primal, of course, but it isn’t enough to trigger sugar cravings, cause weight gain, or knock me completely off the wagon. It also keeps me from becoming too rigid about what I can or can’t eat.

    1. The point I may have failed to make here is this: If you’re going to do an occasional unhealthy cheat, make sure it’s something that you feel is really worth it. Also, if you think (or know) that even a bite or two of something sweet will derail you for days on end, then don’t do it.

  11. It seems improving your routine and structure is a hot topic nowadays (actually wrote an article about it last week on my blog). Some changes I’ve made that I found helps me immensely is getting up earlier (5:00 – 5:30), making my to-do list for the next day, and writing down what I’ve done, eaten, and exercises performed for each day. Helps me stay on track and accountable.

  12. Super timely post as my life is about to get super structured, whether I want it to or not. I’m taking on a second job that will be 2-3 hours after my 8-5 job, Monday-Friday (I’m coaching volleyball, so I’m banking on the rewarding aspect balancing out the long days). I know I’m going to need some epic planning in order to stay Primal while having little cook time during the week. I’ve always been a less structured kind of person, but this new endeavor is going to force me to plan plan plan. I’m looking forward to the challenge, though.

  13. I find that having some sort of rigid rules to follow – not necessarily a “structure”, but just simple rules – allows all the “healthiness” stuff to just recede into my subconscious and allows me to concentrate on the other stuff in life. I’m very much a creature of habit, and I function best when I have habits that help me do the stuff I need to do. So, one unbreakable rigid rule is that I do not keep non-Primal food in the house. I am flexible about “cheating” when I go out, but when I’m at home I’m 100% compliant. Another unbreakable rigid rule is that every hour that I’m at home, on the hour, I get up and Lift Heavy Things for about a minute. I work at home and my job is sedentary, so I find that the micro-workouts really help.

    I do this sort of rule-based thing for the other stuff in my life, too. There are two simple rules I follow to get my work stuff done: every morning, I make a to-do list for the day, and I do every single thing on the to-do list by the day’s end. Sometimes it’s a lot of things, sometimes it’s not so many, but the point is that they all get done by the end of day. This requires no tracking and no logging and no journaling – just two ongoing habits. The more I do them, the stronger they get.

      1. It’s compensation for the lack of outside “regimentation” in my life – I’m a freelancer and I work at home, as does my partner, so our work hours are completely flexible, and we can basically do whatever we want. In the absence of externally-imposed structure, we make our own.

        But yeah, I’m not saying this works for everyone – just that it works for me.

  14. I am trying to break the chains of bondage forged over 27 years of counting exchanges, points and calories. I seek structure like a bee seeks a flower. It’s gotten to be really not only annoying but possibly damaging. So… I get the journaling thing and at some point I may check my macronutrients…but not this day.

  15. As someone with ADD, structure is often greatly appreciated in everything I do. It’s definitely good for folks to keep in mind that structure can be a very useful tool, even if you DON’T have ADD. I am sure a lot of care and effort went into your 21-day PB transformation book and I can appreciate that endeavor, as well as this article!

    I definitely benefit from creating my own structure. I haven’t stuck to it very consistently over the long-term, but anytime I engage in it, I may plan what to cook for the week, when to shop, develop the grocery list specifically on the meals planned for the week, and even prepare the veggies or separate out meal-sized portions of meats and so forth when I get home. This is undoubtedly the most beneficial part of structure in PB for me right now, next to better planning when to lay down and getting enough sleep!

  16. When I was working, the gym visit was right on my way home, so it was part of the routine and guilt-free. In retirement, I still needed that routine to be there and for about three years, it was. At one point I began doing floor exercises at home to stay limber between gym workouts. I seem to like that movement, so I added hand weights and saw enough improvement to suspend my gym membership until winter! I’m not usually a self-starter, but I willingly perform to keep the arthritis at bay. Whoda thunk it!

    I keep a food log with fitday for a few weeks two or three times a year. Without that, my natural portions grow little by little. Nuts are a good example. Dark chocolate is another. When I start cheating, it’s back to keeping track. It’s not so much about putting on weight, but controlling blood sugar without meds.

  17. I buck structure almost like a badge of honor, but my most productive moments were under serious regimens (military college, USMC, etc). When I cheat or try to wing it, things go horribly wrong, uncontrollably so.

    I think society celebrates the ones who seem naturally adept at [insert desired attribute here] and some of those of us wanting it want both the trait and to seem we, too, came by it as naturally.

    Good article at the right time.

    1. So true. I can relate to this point. I recall some of my most productive points in life occurring with a more jam-packed schedule such as college, working multiple jobs, preparing for multiple races while working my 40-hour-week job….etc. The last couple of years I’ve been thinking that I don’t want to over schedule myself so I have time to do things that I want as they come up (i.e. TRAVEL more), but a friend of mine recently reminded me that “there are always slivers of time to make things happen.” 🙂 AND, when we know what we truly want we all have the power to make time for those things.

      Here’s to us working on finding a good balance between structure and “winging it” so things don’t go “horribly wrong, uncontrollably so,” as you stated when we do need a break from structure/restrictions!!!!

  18. I do organizing for other people. One of the things I try to take into account is how their brains work. For example, a number of people in my family have ADHD, so I know that organization and structure work differently for them than for me. There isn’t judgement about it–just trying to figure out how to do the clearing and organizing to make life simpler.

    Years ago in education, there was a way of looking at kids/peers/self that included brain styles like “Abstract Random” or “Concrete Sequential” (which many teachers are). The idea was to understand the operational/learning style of the kids, instead of trying to squish them into the style of those working with them.

    So I think the varying need for structure has a lot to do with how our individual brains are designed.

  19. I had a period of severe depression at the start of the year and realised that a lot of it was down to the severe structure and rules that I had in place in all areas of my life. I found that my main focuses were diet, exercise, work, study and budget. I found that my rules were so strict that I could really focus on one of my categories but it would be to the detriment of the rest of my life, resulting in a constant feeling of failure. Since I started getting well again I have moved away from rigidity as much as possible for fear of returning to this obsessive behaviour. The PB has really helped with this, way different to weight watchers; I have memories of jumping on my exercise bike for 45 minutes to earn enough points to have a decent meal at night! I am gradually accepting a little more structure now, such as meal planning for the week but not assigning each meal a specific day.

    That’s the beauty of the PB, it’s customisable. If you need structure, you can put some in place. As long as this doesn’t lead to obsessive behaviours than, as somebody above said, it’s just another tool in your arsenal.