If It's Not Working For You, Don't Do It

The other night in class, one of my favorite yoga teachers cued a pose and then said, “Now if that’s not working for you, don’t do it.” And that pose—rotating my arms behind me while lying on my back—wasn’t working for me. So I didn’t do it.

Cathedral Falls, West Virginia--Photo by Chuck Reback--@2015--All Rights Reserved

Cathedral Falls, West Virginia--Photo by Chuck Reback--@2015--All Rights Reserved

I was struck by that advice—good advice for life as well as yoga. 

It reminded me of something that happened with a coaching client a few months ago. My client was working on several goals including the mega-goal of getting more control over her daily life. The universe had dealt her some pretty heavy blows in recent months, and she was struggling just to see the positive things her life. I suggested she try keeping a gratitude journal.

The idea of the gratitude journal comes out of research in positive psychology. In the last couple of decades, psychologists have given a good bit of attention to the question of how to increase our overall happiness, and they have found that one of the few conscious way we can become happier is by raising our awareness of all the good things in our lives—all the things for which we can be grateful. The gratitude journal is a tool for creating that awareness, and it’s a common implement in the coach’s toolkit. I often suggest it to clients, and several have reported on its benefits. From time to time, I’ve kept my own gratitude journal, and I found that it helped me keep an eye on my blessings at times when I was preoccupied with my curses.

So I asked my client to set aside a notebook and to take a few minutes each morning or evening to record three things she was grateful for that day.

My client tried. She really tried. She was the kind of person who follows instructions to the letter, and so each night, she sat down and wrote in her gratitude journal. And each week at our coaching session, she reported that she was struggling with the journal. It was not so much that she didn’t have anything to be grateful for.  Instead, it was that the gratitude journal had become yet another item to be crossed off her “to do” list. Her gratitude journal wasn’t making her feel grateful; instead it added to the seemingly endless catalog of things she felt she had to do every day. 

After about three weeks of discussing her struggles with the gratitude journal, a light bulb finally went on for me. I laughed and said, “Well, maybe the gratitude journal was the wrong assignment for you. Why don’t you stop doing it?”

In other words, “if it’s not working for you, don’t do it.”

And so she stopped keeping her gratitude journal. 

Life is an ongoing improvisational performance, and we are all figuring it out as we go along.  We do a lot of things in this life because we think we should do them.  But sometimes it pays to remember my yogi’s advice: if something is not working for you, don’t do it. Maybe it’s a particular exercise routine. Maybe it’s a creative project. Maybe it’s a relationship or a job. Maybe it’s not working for you right now.  Maybe it’s never going to work for you. But if it’s not working for you, it makes little sense to pour energy into doing it. Not everything is as easy to quit as an exercise routine or keeping a gratitude journal, but if it’s not working for you, it’s probably worth the time and effort to figure out how to stop doing it.

Next time my yoga teacher cues a pose that isn’t working for me, I think I’ll remember that bit of advice.

And to read more about the research on increasing your happiness, you might want to take a look at Martin E. P. Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness.