How to Avoid Insanity and Stay On Course

avoid insanity

Exactly what do I mean by insanity? I’m referring to the now widely accepted definition of insane; doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

No doubt, most of us have heard that definition and laughed.  And yet, is it possible that we are actually engaging in this type of insanity to some degree ourselves? I recently looked back on a situation in my own life and realized that exact kind of insanity was the problem.

But first a little background

When I was a teenager, I developed the habit of working out with weights three or four times a week.  That’s a habit that has stuck with me all these years. Okay, I admit there have been periods of time when I’ve slacked off.  But for the most part I’ve stuck with it.

I’m sure you realize that there are a lot of different approaches to lifting weights, and I’ve tried most of them over the years.  I don’t want to bore you with a lot of details, but without some details the story doesn’t make any sense.  So, I’ll try to keep it as uncluttered as possible.

When something quits working, then what do you do?

My standard approach has always been to lift fairly heavy weights in the 7-10 rep range. This approach worked extremely well when I was younger.  But that was then and this is now.

A few years ago I herniated a disk in my neck.  On its own, a herniated disc is bad enough, but there was a complication.  A main trunk nerve that runs across my upper back and down my left arm was damaged.  Part of the nerve died, and all of the smaller muscles fed by that nerve atrophied.

Now what?

As a result of this injury I lost about 90% of my strength in certain exercises.  Any attempt to stick with my old approach would have been total insanity under these new circumstances. Determined not to let this stand in my way, I designed a new approach.  I started to use lighter weights, and much higher rep ranges.  I reasoned that higher repetitions help to build neural pathways, so it seemed like a reasonable approach.

After much trial and error, I discovered that in my new situation the sweet spot for moving forward with my new limitations was 25 to 30 reps. Using this new approach allowed me to make consistent progress with each and every workout.  Now here’s the surprise!  I actually started to build muscle and burn fat at a rate I hadn’t experienced for over a decade.

Why?  Because I was forced to break away from doing the same old thing and try something new.  I had no choice because the insanity cycle of doing the same thing over and over had been broken by circumstanced. As a result, I began to produce a different outcome. Since then I have continued to change my approach as my condition improved or my body adapted. As a result, I have been able to facilitate a full recovery.

So what’s the moral of the story?

If what you are currently doing isn’t working, try something else.  Don’t be afraid of change because insanity is continuing to do something that no longer works thinking that your results will somehow improve. They won’t, so move on.

I made a change because I was forced to.  But as I look back, I realize that it’s a change I should have made long before I did.  What I had always done was no longer producing the desired result.  So, exactly why did I stay with it?  Obviously, I must have been suffering from a mild case of insanity.

Resisting change is counterproductive

When something isn’t working, there is no need to wait until change is forced upon you.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about relationships, business decisions, food choices, or any other dimension of your life. Remember, staying with something that no longer works is a form of  insanity.

When your standard approach quits producing the desired results, try something new.  If that doesn’t work, try something else. Keep making adjustments until you start producing the result you are after.

Keep learning to keep progressing

One of the greatest life skills any of us can learn is to pay close attention to the result we get every time  we change our approach to something. When we find something that works well, keep doing it.  But if it doesn’t work, or it quits working, make adjustments. Life is a learning experience.  True learning requires that we take action according to what we learn.  As we learn from those new actions we can make further adjustments.

It would be nice if we could always get it right the first time, but that’s not reality. Even an ocean liner is slightly off course about 90% of the time. Changing currents and wind direction mean that constant adjustments are necessary to stay on course.

There are a lot of things that can affect the results we produce. Some of them are predictable, others will be a surprise.  But they all have one thing in common.  They all require that we make constant adjustments and avoid insanity so that we can stay on course. Every successful person does this.  It’s a simple formula that will allow us to continue producing our desired outcomes and avoid the self imposed insanity trap.

Why not take a careful look at your own life, and ask yourself the following questions:

1. What areas of my life no longer seem to be working?
2. What goals have I been unable to reach?
3. How long has this been going on?
4. What adjustments seem reasonable?
5. What’s preventing me from trying a new approach?
6. What price have I paid for not making adjustments?
7. When am I going to try something new?

Now write down three possible approaches for each area that needs some adjustment.  Choose one approach, and take action.  Notice how things changed.  Were your new results better, the same, or worse?  If they were better, look for ways to fine tune your new approach, and take more action.  If they were the same or worse, try the next approach on your list.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to change everything in your life all at once.  Take on one challenge at a time, improve your results, then move to the next challenge.

Embrace change, avoid  the self imposed insanity trap

Improving the quality of your life is not always about making huge changes all at once.  Even small changes, made consistently can transform your life in a very short time.  If you keep moving in the right direction, sooner or later you will wind up exactly where you want to be.

Life is a marvelous journey of learning and growing. If you learn to embrace change and be more adaptable, you’ll be able to avoid insanity and stay on course!

Have you ever had a similar experience?
Has changing your approach ever made a big difference?
I would love to hear about your thoughts!

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  1. Ryan Biddulph November 30, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jonathan, I’ve been insane, more than a few times. Especially with the iron game. I used to be into bodybuilding and was even a fitness model for a few years. I weight-tripped for the longest time. Even when I knew that form was most important I wanted to hear the 45’s clacking on my 345 pound shrugs or bench press.

    When I became entirely focused on building my physique I let go my old line of thinking and saw immediate progress. Let go and trust. You go much father, much more quickly. Thanks for sharing and have a powerful day! RB

    • Jonathan November 30, 2010 Reply

      Hey Ryan, getting hung up on the numbers is an easy trap to fall into. Something I learned the hard way. No matter how strong you are, the discs between your vertebra can only handle so much compression, then you pay.

  2. Brandon Winters November 30, 2010 Reply

    Jonathan, great post man!

    I believe there are too many people out there that don’t know the definition of insanity, and so they have to keep doing the same thing over and over because they don’t have the awareness or skillset to bring about another approach.

    That is why it is so important to push yourself into unknown areas. You might just find the answer to bigger and better results.

    You explained it extremely well, thanks for sharing. Cheers!

    • Jonathan November 30, 2010 Reply

      Hey Brandon, it’s strange how easy we can get locked into a pattern (rut) that no longer serves us.

  3. Robin Easton November 30, 2010 Reply

    This is fascinating for me as I was highly active over the years everything from high speed ski racing to very fast rollerskating, rollerblading, ice skating, (gymnastics and track when I was younger) and more. I did it all. But I have two damaged shoulders, one that was dislocated, the other partially while doing various sports. I’ve noticed that when I try to do weights, even small ones, inevitably my shoulders get so sore I have to stop. It’s very discouraging for me. I also love to canoe, kayak and row. Would love to do a handstand again and stand on my head! LOL! I’m serious! :) :)

    I am trying to find a way that I can build muscle in my neck, shoulders and back without hurting my shoulders. It is SO wonderful to have the supportive muscle that makes everything so much more powerful, stronger, less prone to injury, etc.

    If you have any suggestions I am all ears. I’ve never had back problems, and I do walk/jog (mix), but I need some type of manageable upper body workout that doesn’t end me in pain.

    I love this post because I’ve often wondered if I am doing exactly what you say, which is still trying to do my upper body work out like I used to, and it just doesn’t work anymore. So this makes me think I have to start veeeery slowly, much smaller weights, maybe smaller reps. etc. I’m not sure. I LOVE being fit and active and am, but I have to make it work for where I’m at.

    I think there may not only be situation-to-situation reassessments that we need to make (daily, weekly, monthly), but there also are stages of life where we have to reassess. I think I’m at one of those, in terms of workout, and various other areas of my life. This post has brought it more to my attention. ;) Thank you so much, I value your insight so much. Hugs, Robin

    • Jonathan February 6, 2012 Reply

      Hi Robin, those old injuries always come back to haunt us. Shoulders are the only joint in the body completely dependent on connective tissue and muscle for support. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of ways to strengthen them and work around injuries. Most people insist on pressing moves which open the joint and that will quickly irritate old problems. I can teach you a number of moves that will stimulate all three heads of deltoids without ever opening the joint. Stability is maintained but the muscles get worked thoroughly. Interested?

  4. Curt Rosengren December 1, 2010 Reply

    Great list of questions to ask, Jonathan. I’m a big believer in the power of the question mark. I’m convinced that if everyone set aside some time every month (or even more frequently) to sit down and ask themselves some important questions (like the ones you suggest), life would go a lot more smoothly and a lot more of its potential would be accessible.

    • Jonathan December 1, 2010 Reply

      Thanks Curt, using the power of questions to move our lives is a skill that all of us do well to master. As soon as we ask a question our mind starts searching for an answer. If we don’t like the answer then we need to change the question. Using questions with a positive assumption built into them will open the door to new possibility.

      • Curt Rosengren December 1, 2010 Reply

        That’s a good distinction – “questions with a positive assumption built into them.” Sometimes it’s easy to slip into using the answers to beat ourselves up or otherwise pummel our belief in the possibilities. Building positive assumptions into the questions would be a great way to assure that you only use the answers to move you forward, rather than hold you back.

        • Jonathan December 6, 2010 Reply

          I wrote a whole chapter in my book on exactly how to do this. It’s a great tool to uncover our resources and one I like to use with coaching clients.

  5. Stuart December 2, 2010 Reply

    Insanity is something that you could call a ‘mental illness’ that affects all of us; after all, we all do the same things from time to time.

    And why? Because they’re easy, they’re comfortable, and it means we don’t have to stretch ourselves so much. If you offered the choice of watching T.V. for an hour or exercising for an hour, then I know which option most people would go for.

    I once heard a quote that said “if you don’t make the time for exercise, then you must make the time for illness”. And I think that’s true not only for our body but also for our mind. If we don’t exercise our mind and try new things, then we must way for mental illness a.k.a. insanity.

    • Jonathan December 6, 2010 Reply

      Hey Stuart, what a great quote and application. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Nancy February 6, 2012 Reply

    Wonderful post Jonathan and very insightful!

    Changing our perspective, our attitudes can also change the outcome of our choices and decisions. I’m going to try more reps and less weight. I love when chance encounters happen when you are willing to change the way you look at things.

    In gratitude,

    • Jonathan February 8, 2012 Reply

      Hi Nancy, it is amazing how adaptive we are mentally, emotionally, and physically. There seems to be a tendency to keep doing things the way we have always done them, even when they quit working or cause unwanted side effects. Currently I am doing super slow reps in the gym to minimize repetitive joint movements and maximize muscle tension. It’s not my favorite approach, but high reps can cause wear and tear on the joints if continued for too long.

  7. David Stevens February 6, 2012 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    Thank you for your story. Never be afraid to try something new, especially when ‘old’ is not working out.
    be good to yourself

    • Jonathan February 8, 2012 Reply

      Hey David, you effectively boiled it down into one sentence.

  8. Galen Pearl February 7, 2012 Reply

    Awhile back I caught myself sharing this definition of insanity with my daughter who was repeating a pattern that was not helpful to her. As I was pointing out this pattern to her for the gazillionth time, guess what. I saw MYSELF repeating the pattern of how I responded to her pattern! Who was insane now? Ha! Great post. Thanks!

    • Jonathan February 8, 2012 Reply

      What an excellent personal observation Galen. It seems so easy to be objective when we analyze what others are doing while missing (or choosing not to see) our own programed response patterns. :)

  9. Sandra February 8, 2012 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,

    I’m amazed by how you effected a full recovery. Congratulations. I’m going to be taking a break soon to look at exactly this question. I’ve had some clues in my responses to current situations indicating I need a little shift. I want to take some time to think this over. Your questions are an excellent tool in this regard.

    • Jonathan February 9, 2012 Reply

      Greetings Sandra, the fact that you recognized the clues shows that you embrace change and just want to get some clarity so that you make the right adjustments. That is very commendable Sandra.

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