Usain Bolt is an amazing sprinter. The fastest man ever recorded. But, how much of his time do you think he spends sprinting? More than me for sure, but relative to the time available to him, it is a miniscule fraction that he spends running out on the edge of his capability.
A professional athlete aims to give absolute maximum effort a few times per week, to test progress. The rest of the time Usain will move slower, relax, sleep, eat, have the occasional massage. He is planning and pacing to achieve a peak performance a few times per year, when it really counts. He recognises that what he does in between sprints is as important, even, or especially, the down time.
Now imagine how things might look if Usain woke up each morning and sprinted all day. If after dinner he headed out to do some more sprinting until bedtime, before getting up and going at it again. Day in, day out, week after week, year after year.
Ridiculous? Of course it is.
In the latter scenario, Usain Bolt would never be a household name for his sprinting prowess, except perhaps in his own house.
Unfortunately, if we take this imaginary scenario and apply it to how we are working these days, it is hardly jarring at all. Many are doing exactly that, day in and day out. Recent research found that, on average, Londoners work the longest days in the UK with one-third working over nine hours per day.
The ‘always on ‘ mentality exacerbated by always-on gadgets, a tough economic climate and the growth in remote working. But, is working longer the same as working hard.
There are increasingly common misconceptions about where our successes come from. Sometimes we do sometimes have to work hard, and the hard work is associated with success. The mistake we make is connecting sprinting with the success, then thinking that more sprinting will equal more success.
Yes, you need to be able to work hard, just like you need to run fast sometimes. But it seems to me that many of us are no longer getting enough sleep, downtime, or play to be able to run fast when we really need to. We are trying to run fast all the time, and so when we need to really run fast we just don’t have that gear any more. We need to husband our energetic, intellectual and emotional resources to be able to deploy them in critical moments.
Moments of inspired confidence
In a certain sense careers are built in instants, not in great marathons of effort. Of course you need to show up with your shoes tied each day, and yes there is some work and some practice involved. But the big wins – the pitches won, the promotions, the election victories – are often down to a few moments of inspired confidence: looking the CEO in the eye in a first meeting, asking the key stakeholder confidently to support your idea, grabbing the client’s attention and taking them with you in your pitch.
In those moments your actions ‘weigh’ more than normal, are observed more than normal, and count more than normal. Like a camera that has moved in close, whatever you do in those moments is magnified. In those moments you need to be fit and at your best, which is much more difficult when you are on a 5th night (or 5th week) of 5 hours sleep per night, running on fumes. To win big when it counts, you need to have looked after yourself in ways that seem completely unrelated to an eventual successful outcome.
The ideal scenario
In an ideal world, we want to be out there being bold, being confident, making good strategic choices about how best invest our energies in service of our companies, clients and communities. Those exhausted by incessant effort are rarely making such choices, and are more often found snacking on e-mail because it seems easier to handle.
The challenge you face
The challenge is to know when to sprint and when to contain and preserve your energies. Everyone needs to work out for themselves what their own formula is; I can only tell you for sure what it is not: go hard, all the time, forever. Beyond that, it is up to you to know what you need to look, feel, and sound great when the next mega-moment is upon you.