Effective Work Habits: Sprint vs Marathon

Are you one of those office workers with more than one responsibility and find it hard to excel in any? Have you ever wondered how you got by switching from 1st task to 2nd task to … to n-th task, not really doing your best in any? But when you look at each and every task, they look so simple that you have no excuse for not doing well?

At the same time, have you noticed that work life (or life in general, especially city life) is just a never ending journey of chores, responsibilities, tasks, and expectations? Are you juggling between being a spouse, a parent, a sibling, an employee/employer, a committee member etc. and finding it hard to feel accomplished?

The truth is, you can’t just “drop” one of your responsibilities, and anyway you’re sort of managing it fine, else you would have probably reacted and “failed” in something in order to keep being sort of successful in other things. It’s the mental state of being pulled all over the place, and at the speed of scanning emails, that creates such a fatigue.

I’m suffering from such a fatigue now.

When that happens to me, I usually stop and frame the problem. The problem is, “life is a mess”. I’ve heard it all the time when I was growing up, and now I’m living it. And I try to frame this whole mess into the closest analogy that has a solution for it. Today, the analogy is a marathon.

42 km of running, without being an expert marathon runner, can be hell. But the good news is, as long as you cross the finish line, you are a winner. OTOT (Own Time Own Target) is a age old (well ok, SG-centric) advice any runner will give you, but that’s not enough. Most people try to run their life at their own pace, but there are lots of distractions and expectations from your network that forces you to run when you rather walk, and tire you out when you should be running.

Drawing some learnings from my developer days practising Agile/Scrum methodology, I like to draw your attention to the virtues of a Sprint.

Sprint vs Marathon
A sprint is a “time-boxed” or time limited attempt to run as fast as you can, usually for a short period of time. One can imagine a marathon actually consisting of many sprints, each last as long as the person can take, but without burning out such that the person collapse after the sprint, and instead continue to walk or jog at a slower pace while the body recovers.

The way your body reacts to a sprint is very different from a marathon – biologically speaking.

A sprint is a brief, explosive run while a marathon is a prolonged, high-intensity, endurance run.

The energy demands during a sprint is very different from our body’s normal operations due to the amount of oxygen available to the runner. Lactate will accumulate in the body during the anaerobic energy generation, and can cause fatigue (even death) if the runner sprinted over a long period of time. That’s why most sprints are “time-boxed”.

A marathon on the other hand aerobically generates enough energy to push a person forward. To achieve steady state, a marathon runner balances the ability of the body to generate energy and the energy demands of moving at a certain relaxed speed.

Sprinting for Work
Now that we have a better understanding of the analogy, let’s see how we can apply it to our work life.

1. Set goals and picture yourself achieving it

Stay on course to achieving what you want out of life is probably the hardest of all. Why run a marathon when you don’t have to? The purpose of living to the fullest must first be defined and then pictured in your mind.

Also, these goals can be broken down into smaller goals. See that water station? Capitalize on the down hill to run faster? Find small attainable goals in life as well and picture yourself achieving these smaller goals.

2. Rest before you dash

One of the best ways to complete a marathon is to walk when your body tells you too. Are you running too long a sprint? You might not have achieved the steady state required for marathon (and it takes a lot of practice to train your body for it), so take a break and let your muscles recuperate.

For those who seek to maximize the number of sprints in their lives (i.e. attain a lot more goals), this is the most crucial piece, because each sprint is going to take all the energy out of you and you need time to recuperate.

3. Limit the time for your sprint to prevent fatigue

You need to differentiate between the slow build up to longer run vs sprinting. Education and other muscle training activities strengthens our body to be more productive and effective in taking on the challenge of running the marathon. That’s different from a sprint when you give it everything you got.

When you’re being told to take on a long project, try to break it up into smaller chunks, and take breaks in between. This is the basis of the scrum methodology we use in software development. Every, say, 3 weeks, we dash to ship features to customers, and then we rest for a short while to recuperate (for me it was doing the laundry). A new sprint then starts after the breather. Put a dozen of these sprints together and one large project gets completed as planned.

4. Always accumulate enough resource before attempting a sprint

Before you start a new sprint in life, besides getting mentally prepared, you also need to get water and food into your body. If you’re not ready for your sprint, you might immediately fall in to a state of unconsciousness upon sprinting. (Actually this is happening to me as I rest to type this out to remind myself…) Resources that you need to start a sprint can be as easy as having enough “slack” in your other on-going responsibilities to pursue something new, which can mean anything from time to manpower to money.

After you start the sprint, stay hydrated throughout. Don’t let people “suck” the energy out of you when you’re sprinting. In corporate speak, you’ve gotta focus when you’re sprinting and put aside everything else for the moment, such as your emails and distractions your colleagues throw at you. If you’re running a business, make sure you don’t spend beyond your budget (but make small sprint-sized budgets, not those annual budgets that can hardly predict anything).

5. Plan and Commit to a sprint

Don’t quit your sprint before your sprint goals are attained. In fact, you should plan your sprint such that you attain maximum energy at the END of the sprint and not somewhere in the middle. This is key to be able to continue running your marathon even as the sprint in the middle ends. If you plan it in the middle, you might end your sprint feeling totally spent, and you might reduce to walking much slower than you need to maintain, or worse case stop walking entirely, which will cause your body to go out of rhythm.

Many people quit their jobs after they completed a big project because of this. They felt that they cannot go on putting in so much energy and sacrificing their health and other responsibilities. Usually these are cases of too large a sprint and attempting to sprint for too long a distance.

A professional sprinter and marathoner
To live life like a one time professional sprinter and idle the rest of it, you’ve got to be a lucky person where you’re “set” in life due to factors such as a windfall or achieving some one hit wonder.

To live life like a professional marathoner who runs at almost constant speed without sprinting to the end is to live your life in austerity (example: monks, farmers, hawker or any job that demands the day to day tenacity). It can be done, and it’s perhaps even harder.

The challenge here is to reconcile the fact that life consist of doing both sprints and marathons, which are opposite spectrum of running, at the same time. You might be running a project with a due date next week and at the same time consistently providing elder care to your aging parents every day.

Being able to identify which is which, and set your mental and physical state to handle it like how you would handle a run, is critical. To prepare mentally, you’ve got to make a firm decision to run the sprint, even to plan the celebration at the end. To prepare physically, you’ve got to “warm up” by stretching your muscles, and make your surroundings conducive to your sprint, such as letting your spouse / boss etc. know that you’ll be in this for the next month or so, and ask for their support in your decision.

Get set, ready, go
Finally, don’t run for the sake of running – enjoy the flowers and trees around you. And don’t run only when others are running – the motivation to live life to the fullest can only come from your own desire to do so.

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