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

One of the things I love most about the Primal Blueprint [1] is its malleability. It’s not a hard-nosed agenda or nauseating treatise of commandments. It’s a loose set of suggestions [2] that together take a general and dynamic shape a person can then apply in whatever way works for his or her life [3]. 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 [4]. (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 [5]” is mixed, some people feel making fewer selections genuinely frees up mental bandwidth if not self-discipline [6]. 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 [7] and even self-destructive thinking or behavior around food [8]. 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 [9]. 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 [10]. 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 [11] – 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 [12], 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 [13] can keep you on track. Setting an alarm to hit the sack at your body’s ideal bedtime [14] 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 [15]. 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 [16].

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 [17], 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 [18] 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 [19] 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 [20], 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 [21] 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 [22] 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 [23] 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 [24] as possible), and wisely supplement [25].

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 [26] 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 [27] or The Primal Advantage [28]. 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 [29]. 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 [30] 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 [31]list. For those who are looking for a straight-forward formula with meal plans [32] 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 [33]. 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.