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Putting Off Healthy Eating and Exercise: Is Time Management the Answer?

It’s also about emotions, attitudes, experiences, awareness, and learning. 

Key points

  • Time management involves making lists, setting priorities, and deciding what to do first.
  • People have many reasons for not putting eating right and exercising at the top of the list.
  • We need to take stock of the emotions involved and the skills needed, and to put self-care as a priority.
wildpixel / iStock
Source: wildpixel / iStock

Time: We all have it, but we all don’t have it.

At one time or another, we will all say, “I don’t have time.” Or, “I wish I had more time.” Or “There aren’t enough hours in the day.”

To the many of us who frequently feel pressed for time, healthy eating and getting enough exercise can take a back seat.

We may start to conclude that we need to manage our time more efficiently to be able to accomplish those health goals. In fact, we may even decide that once we figure that out, we will be on the road to getting those things (and more) accomplished.

It’s Not That Simple

Research into the methods for time management shows a preponderance of list-making, setting priorities, and putting your work into time blocks. In the popular book, Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy, the message is to compile a list of what you need to do and then do the nastiest one first.

Perhaps we can leverage this thought into taking a hard look at what healthy eating and exercise mean to some of us. It could be that many of us actually don’t want to figure out a better diet or spend more time exercising. In the world of priorities, healthy eating and getting exercise often go to the bottom of the list. “I’ll do it if I have time,” can become the mantra. Eating right and exercising can easily be seen as a perk, rather than a priority.

If that is the case, should we put exercise and planning for healthy eating first, and then slot in the rest of what we have prioritized? Maybe not for the noble reason of becoming healthier, but just to get it done?

Why Getting It on the List Doesn’t Work

Actually, Tracy may be on to something. As he fleshed this out, Tracy also points out something that we probably all know. That is, people will avoid doing a job they have struggled with in the past.

To expand on this, here is a list of why people may not want to put healthy eating and exercise on top of their list:

  1. They do not want to risk another failure. Many people have tried in the past to eat well and get more exercise and failed. It can feel like an endless loop.
  2. Delayed gratification is involved. It can take a period of time before an individual will notice a difference in how they feel after adopting healthy eating and exercise habits. This includes realizing that they actually enjoy healthier foods and exercise. People may truly miss their previously favorite unhealthy foods. Exercise may not feel great at first. Most people experience soreness when starting out or doing a bit more of it.
  3. We are not good at predicting how we will feel in the future. Putting off healthy eating and exercise is actually a form of situational procrastination. This comes from procrastination researchers Timothy Pychyl and Joseph Ferrari. We may know at some level that healthy eating and exercise are good for our future selves, but we are easily distracted by attractive short-term rewards.
  4. It may be difficult to sort out our thoughts about healthy eating and exercise. There may be negativity there from past experiences, attitudes that are learned (“I don’t want to be a health nut”), or even what is behind thoughts like “What’s the point?” Often, negative thoughts can be pushed aside and replaced with, “I know I should.” A “should” may rise to the top of the list, but it will not stay there for long unless there is a better reason.

Using Lists to Our Advantage

It’s easy to see why the best-laid lists can lead nowhere when it comes to healthy eating and exercise. Instead, let’s consider some other ways to approach it. Ironically, all of these approaches can involve making lists! The difference is that the lists are used to address the four items above.

  • Start with awareness. When we are looking to change some of our behaviors, we first have to stop and consider what we are doing that can change. Then we need to consider why we are choosing not to alter our eating and exercise habits. On a micro level, this means learning to take a breath before following a knee-jerk response that we always resort to. We can even make a list of common situations in which we find ourselves at a point of choice. We can then watch out for those occasions and consider a healthier alternative.
  • Find out what new skills will be needed to pull off the change. Start slowly building those skills. This can make it much easier to dive in. Breaking it down into smaller, more doable tasks and making a list of them can make the change much more manageable. The shift involves learning about the choices available for healthy eating and finding exercise options that fit in with your life and that you can enjoy.
  • It’s about self-care and that is about the future. Many of us are in denial about what is needed to keep ourselves healthy. It can be difficult to imagine how good it would feel to know that we are doing what we can to maintain our health. Denial can include an inner dialogue that says, “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow.” Using self-care as a priority changes that. When self-care becomes the first thing on the list, other decisions follow.

The Issue May Not Be Time Management at All

In short, it’s about emotions, attitudes, previous experiences, awareness, and learning. Finding the time is one part of the equation, but it is not a magic bullet. Finding more time is just the beginning.

References

Tracy, B. (2017). Eat That Frog! Action Workbook: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Sirois, F. & Pychyl, T. (2013). Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self. Social and Personality Compass. Vol. 7, Issue 2.

Behnagh, R.F, & Ferrari, J.R. (2022). Exploring 40 years on affective correlates to procrastination: a literature review of situational and dispositional types. Current Psychology. 41, 1097-1111.

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