A runner with 26 miles ahead of him works to conserve energy for the long race. He sets his pace, being careful to never go all-in and burn up his precious reserves.
By contrast, a sprinter crouches into the starting block, stares at the distance ahead with a steel resolve to win. She isn’t concerned about using up all his energy, because that is precisely what she intends to do.
You're probably as familiar with these two sporting events as you are the old adage, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.”
But is that really true? Is life really a marathon?
These days, we’re gagging mentally on more information, responsibilities, options and opportunities than we can possibly process. The beeping, buzzing, dinging, tugging and honking of modern demands and devices that are supposed to make life simpler seem to use up our brain’s resources by mid-day, and mid-week.
We feel the pressure and the obligation to press on. To be the last man or woman standing. We don’t stop for a break. Only the weak, the mediocre, the uncommitted do that.
The Whole Truth
While it’s true we are capable of more than our brain thinks we are, and it’s good to leave our comfort zone, to press beyond our previous limits and reach new levels of performance, there is a point of diminishing returns. There is a place where the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze, and we need a break.
As is so often the case, your grandmother’s wisdom, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint” is only half true. The whole truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, life is a marathon…best broken up into a sequence of smaller sprints where we go all-in, all-out, fully engage and use it all up.
Then…and this is the key…we rest and recover and prepare for the next sprint in our long race.
There are now dozens of studies that prove our brains are very active and productive during downtime.
"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets," essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. "The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."
What To Do
First, when doing work that requires cognitive thought, like writing this post, listening empathetically to a troubled teenager, or preparing for an important meeting, do just one thing at a time.
When doing work that is a bit more arduous and difficult to reach a flow state, break it down into smaller chunks using the pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. I’m using this technique as I write this. I’m in the middle of a 25 minute block of uninterrupted, focused writing time. My pomodoro timer will chime and start a timer for a five minute break. Then, after a short break away from my desk, I’ll be back for another 25-minute pomodoro.
Second, take longer breaks after several pomodoros. Go for a walk in the park. Play with a dog. Take a short nap. (Yes, a nap).
Unfortunately, here in the western world, we’ve labeled napping as something only preschoolers do. But most of us know that a short siesta will sharpen your mind and add a couple hours of very productive mental and physical capacity to your day. We’ll acknowledge it at a cocktail party, but never do it during the workday for fear of what others might think.
So, the truth is, in the long run, your life is actually a marathon of sprints. The long run is made up of lots of little, short runs, separated by a peaceful walk in nature, stretch, workout, or even (gasp) a nap or two sprinkled in for flashes of brilliance, creativity...even serendipity. All these, in the right flow, will make the race to become a fulfilled, professional human being (the human race) a little smoother.
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