Stories from Healthy Mind

Take a Note From ‘Cheer’ and Use Structure to Win the Grand National Championship of Your Own Life

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsFebruary 5, 2020

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The six-part Netflix documentary Cheer follows the Navarro College cheer team along its journey to compete for the annual Grand National Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. To lead her team, coach Monica Aldama leans heavily on principles of fierce, structural rigidity. No spoilers here about whether her tactics—which often land her squad members in the hospital—end up working (but, frankly, her championship-winning record can speak for itself). Aldama’s regimen of blood-sweat-and-tears-level intensity begs the question, though, of whether structure can also answer the question of how to plan success in your own life, landing you on top of your proverbial pyramid. Or, is it more likely that an unwavering relationship with structure becomes a hindrance that sends you tumbling backward, with no spotters (or stunters) in sight?

First, know that structure is a necessity for living a fulfilling, healthy life. “Structure is fundamental to physical and mental well-being in humans,” says life coach and physician Anna Stratis, MD. In her work as a physician, Dr. Stratis career focuses on helping people create healthy habits that eventually form their backbone for living well. For example, something as simple as knowing that a daily bowl of oatmeal keeps you full until lunchtime can make you feel more productive and happy overall.

Structure is fundamental to physical and mental well-being in humans.” —Anna Stratis, MD

But regardless of how heavily or lightly you lean on structure to design your life, coping skills are crucial for being able to handle unforeseen changes. Lucía García-Giurgiu, LMSW, a holistic psychotherapist and life coach, points out that how you react when the office microwave breaks, and you suddenly can’t heat up or eat said oatmeal is equally as important as having the ritual to eat it in the first place. “Imagine that you’re taking a route to a different city. You find a road that’s under construction, or there’s an accident, so you have to be flexible, adapt, and take a different route,” she says.

This process of being able to make the habits you adopt work within the constantly shifting realities of the world certainly requires some trial-and-error experimentation. But with proper professional coaching, every single one of us can identify a structure-spontaneity sweet spot that can help us become pros at knowing how to plan our lives for the best chance at success. To that point, below, learn about the benefits of integrating structure in your life, and also how to plan your structural framework in a way that uniquely works for you.

5 psychological benefits of adding more structure to your life

“Time is our biggest asset—and we can’t get time back,” says García-Giurgiu. “We really love freedom and resist structure, but your routine allows you to flourish and thrive,” she says. Specifically, having a routine can help you know how to plan and supercharge your life in five major ways.

1. Structure can improve productivity, increasing free time. A common misconception about living a structured life is that it doesn’t allow for freedom in your calendar. But García-Giurgiu contends the opposite scenario actually rings true. If you make a point to say, work out, between 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. without procrastinating before heading to the gym, you may find that you make it home in time to watch a handful Great British Baking Show episodes without accidentally staying up past your bedtime.

2. Routines can alleviate decision fatigue. “More structure allows you to have less stress, because when you have too many options and too much time, you end up in analysis paralysis mode,” says García-Giurgiu. So, consider your petition to stop the great what-am-I-having-for-dinner debate granted.

3. Prioritizing long-term goals over short-term desires is easier with routines in place. Let’s say you want to learn to speak French. If you decide to log on to Duolingo every morning at 7 a.m., you’ll eventually work your way up to ordering escargot in its mother tongue. If you don’t design a specific time and ritual around doing it, though, you might end up choosing to hit snooze over getting up.

4. Structure can improve self-esteem. Following through on a goal you promised yourself you’d reach is satisfying, right? That’s why García-Giurgiu says that your self-esteem also gets a boost from careful planning.

5. Sticking with habits allows you to look forward to things: Sometimes it’s fun to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to hit up a concert. But scheduling something far ahead of time—and anticipating the fun in your future—can provide for a happiness boost every time you see it on your calendar.

How to plan for optimal productivity and happiness…without overdoing it on structure

The potential issue with structure isn’t so much using too much of it, but rather implementing it in ways that don’t work in accordance with your personality type. That’s because, says organizational psychologist Katy Caselli, structure isn’t a one-framework-fits all personalities. “Some of us feel very comfortable going with the flow, whereas others will anticipate the actions they take and the conversations you need for success,” she says. So, knowing whether you thrive on spontaneity, love a jam-packed calendar, or fall somewhere in between can will help you gauge how much structure will help you feel free and accomplished—because those are the ultimate benefits to reap.

For example, if you’re the spontaneous, free-spirited type, you might choose just one ritual to provide structure, because too many routines in your life might make you feel stuck—which is not a goal. But if you’re someone who was known to plan their own childhood birthday parties down to the minute? You might thrive with having set habits in place.

Knowing your personality type will help you gauge how much structure will help you feel free and accomplished—because those are the ultimate benefits to reap.

Beyond knowing your personality type, García-Giurgiu suggests taking stock of what you value most in life. “I always encourage people to start connecting to their values—to their ‘why.’ Is it health, relationships, professional success? Based on that, start a value-based goal,” she says. No matter your personality type, value-based goals provide a framework for synergistic structure that provides guardrails for helping you reach goals you set for yourself, whether that means waking up 20 minutes early to stretch, having a standing weekly call with your grandma, or anything else—and introduce each goal slowly.

For the record, “slowly” is the keyword here. The quickest way to overdo structure from the outset, says García-Giurgiu, is to institute an Aldama-esque regimen at once. One strategy for safe-guarding against this is to use SMART goals (which are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-focused). However you go about it, though, she says, “it’s always better to break it down to baby steps.”

As you add more regularly-scheduled events to your life, Dr. Stratis recommends checking in with yourself on a regular basis to ensure the structure you institute is setting you free (not entrapping you). Because in many, if not most, cases, you don’t have to commit to any equivalent of rigidly scheduled months of tumbling practice to yield success.

If your newfound structured schedule calls for meditation, start with this two-minute walking one you can do on your coffee break. And if you want to start whipping up your own dinners, one of these recipes will get you started, stat.  

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