Alex is an old linebacker, and a competitor still. Like me, he races the specter of his wife’s better runs. Unlike me, he tends to come out the victor. On Saturday she claimed a 7:45 pace on a four-mile morning run. On Sunday, he roused himself before dawn to push himself and run the same route just a bit faster.
He tells me yesterday that he likes to know when his workouts will end. It lets him know when to release his energy. If the workout ends sooner than he anticipated, he carries the baggage of unspent energy throughout his day. As in his football days, he wants to leave it all on the field. If it’s longer than expected, he may overshoot and lack the fuel to finish.
I’m different. When I don’t know where the finish line is, I turn to energy-conservation mode. I grind in a low-gear, going slow to make sure I don’t run out of gas and get stranded on the trail.
Too often, however, I’ve found myself carrying this approach to my work and long-term projects. These rarely present obvious beginnings and ends. They’re just very fluid by nature, and the pace is defined by an external authority. How do you meter out energy when you don’t know how long the project will last?
I’m finding value in defining those starts and finishes myself; in creating short-spurt campaigns within projects that have fuzzy parameters or jobs that just go on and on and on.
A campaign mindset creates the illusion of control and lets me know when to drop into low gear for long-lasting marathon mode, and when to toss in an all-out sprint to push myself, stretch my limits, and keep things exciting.
The latest exercise physiology teaches us that intense sprints create asymmetrical improvement in speed and increases in strength, provided they are followed by enough recovery. Grinding workouts at the same speed, distance or weight produce less desirable outcomes. Though they aren’t all bad, they can wear you down with the repetition of unrelenting routine.
But to sprint, you have to know where the finish is. You must have that promise that if you burn all your fuel, you’ll get the reward of time to rest and recover.
It’s easier to know the starts and finishes in sports than it is in work and our own creative projects. Even if he doesn’t know when the final horn with blow, Alex can feel confident that the work-out won’t go much longer than 45 minutes. He can release his energy accordingly. In work, the starts and finishes change. In projects, they get blurred. In both, the timeline is often defined by someone besides you.
My goal is to be the one to control my own campaign mindset, even if outside forces control the long-term beginnings and ends. In creative projects that might take months to develop, I can create shorter-term campaign “chunks” that allow me sprint to a milestone, cross the finish line, and then take some time to reflect, refresh and recharge. In work, I can create my own short-term goals; my own campaigns within the framework of a larger project that someone else may control.
I can sprint hard and grow through the intensity of stretching to reach my own goals, and then fall back into a more sustainable pace to recover. I can avoid too much grinding. And like Alex, I can find satisfaction from leaving it all on the field.