Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Runners know exactly how many miles a race is. They can pace themselves to maintain enough energy and muscle strength. But in the COVID-19 pandemic, we have no idea how many more miles we have to run. It’s impossible to pace ourselves emotionally or psychologically. Learn techniques to stay effective and energetic at work without burning out.
What You’ll Learn
How and why runners pace themselves
Why it's so hard to pace yourself in the pandemic
The way it affects your effectiveness and resilience
How to give yourself regular “finish lines” to pace yourself
Why your work performance and emotional health will benefit
Runners Don’t Race Without a Finish Line
In a race, runners know exactly how long they’ll be running. Whether it’s a 5K, a marathon, or an ultra-marathon, they know the distance they need to cover. This information is critical. They know how much fuel to give their bodies. They know how fast to run so they don’t tire out before the finish line.
Pacing is a strategy runners use to decide how quickly to run different parts of a race. Some runners run a “negative split,” running the second half of a race faster than the first half. They conserve their energy early on to maximize their performance. Others do the opposite, running a “positive split.” They start out fast, then run the last half of the race slower. Other runners cover the entire race at the same speed in a constant split. This helps them maintain their endurance.
Each runner chooses a split strategy that works best for them. They know how many miles away the finish line is. They know what works to conserve the most glycogen (energy) and delay the accumulation of lactate to prevent muscle cramps. This keeps them fueled and prevents them from crashing before they complete the race.
If you told a marathon runner at mile 24 that you just extended it to a 60-mile race, you’d introduce a big problem. She’s spent the previous 24 miles burning energy at a pace designed to get her to the 26-mile finish line. She didn’t plan for an additional 36 miles. There’s a good chance she won’t have enough glycogen to get that far.
If you’d told her it was a 60-mile race at the starting line, she may have been able to adjust her strategy and her pace. She knows how much fuel her body needs, and she can physically pace herself.
Living and Working Without a Finish Line
In “normal times,” we are like runners at the beginning of races. We know much of what’s happening around us. We know what the course will look like and how long the race will be. We know how much fuel we need to get to the finish line. There are a lot of finish lines in our lives: the work week, large projects, the school year, life milestones. Of course, there are many unknowns in life, but we can use reserve fuel stores because so many other things are routine-based and predictable. We can pace ourselves and preserve energy to handle these unknowns.
One year ago, we prepared for two-week lock downs. That was a finish line we could plan for and pace ourselves for. Today, we are still handling the pandemic. We’re managing completely remote teams. Many of us aren’t seeing friends or family. We don’t know when we can travel again for work or for pleasure. We have massive volatility in the world and in the financial markets. We’re remote-schooling children while trying to work. We are seeing the lines between “work” and “home” blur, if not disappear entirely.
How do you pace yourself for a marathon you didn’t sign up for? A marathon with no mile markers and no apparent finish line?
I hear every day from my executive coaching clients that they are experiencing high levels of procrastination and apathy. They have a persistent low level of anxiety, which distracts them from work. Many people are interviewing searching for jobs in a remote environment, which is a new and stressful experience.
This is our reality. We still need to be productive and effective at work. We need to stay emotionally healthy and resilient. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. You can do it by pacing yourself. How do you do that without mile markers and with no finish line?
Create Regular Finish Lines for Yourself
We’re all running a marathon with no finish line. To be the most effective and resilient, we need to create them. The best part of this strategy is that you can choose your own distance. Because we measure deliverables by the passage of time, I like to assign finish lines as blocks of time.
I suggest starting with one or two week finish lines. That’s a manageable time period and it’s easy to see progress. It feels like you’re running an easy 5K race, instead of diving into a half marathon.
Identify what you’ve had trouble getting finished or motivated to do. Here are some of the things my executive coaching clients have struggled with recently:
Longer-term strategic projects (Business plans, pitch decks, budget forecasts)
Personal reflection and development (Career planning, updating resumes)
Here’s a simple way to create a finish line for yourself:
1. Break your project into manageable tasks
2. Identify some days that are just for deep work or more time-consuming tasks
3. Set up other days for tasks that you can easily jam through between calls and meetings
4. Assign your project tasks to specific days or time slots based on how long they will take
This helps reframe big, multi-part projects into manageable, doable to-do lists. Instead of a 26-mile marathon, they become the shorter distances between water stations on the racecourse. By assigning yourself some days for deep work and others for easier tasks, you’re mimicking a runner’s splits. Some days you’ll run faster and other days you’ll take it a bit easier. That’s how you pace yourself towards your finish line.
Celebrate at the Finish Line
When you accomplish your project at the end of your finish line, take the time to celebrate. These days, every day feels very much like the one(s) before it. It’s important to find a way to congratulate yourself and give yourself a break in your routine. Stack up easy, tactical work for a day and give your brain a rest from deeper work. Schedule several networking calls (link to YouTube – how to network in the Pandemic) and reconnect with colleagues. Break up the rhythm of your work.
Celebrating small victories is important.
Runners Take Rest Days
Don’t forget your rest days. Athletes give themselves days off for muscle recovery. You need to do the same thing for your mind and your soul. Take a self-care half or full day. Your team and your company won’t fall over if you take a few hours off.
Schedule your rest day on your calendar. (I know, this is very ironic.) But it’s important to actually commit to it. I’ve worked some portion of every weekend for the past twenty years. It’s a founder and CEO compulsion. But I intentionally carve out time to unplug. If the weather forecast shows a beautiful Friday afternoon, I’ll block off several hours. I walk my dogs or have wine with a close friend. This is important. Just like runners give their muscles time to recover, schedule time for yourself to relax and rejuvenate.
Give Yourself Grace
With no end in sight, we’re all becoming ultra-marathoners and endurance athletes. Try setting regular finish lines for yourself. You’ll create structure so you can pace yourself and maintain your energy.
This strategy is designed to boost your productivity and effectiveness. It gives structure and pacing back to an otherwise endless race. It will help you get the big things done that you might be struggling with.
What if you still find yourself operating below your usual levels of productivity, efficiency and focus? Almost everyone is experiencing the same thing. Give yourself grace. Give yourself permission to feel frustration.
Let me know how this works for you. Creating finish lines and pacing yourself is just one strategy to remain effective and resilient in the pandemic. I’m curious what other strategies you’ve developed. Share them with me! I’d be honored to help you get refocused and intentional on your leadership journey. Reach out to me here.
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