When Less Makes More

When I started training to run a marathon (in Paris!) I thought I just needed to go out and run as long and fast as I could, every day. Then I got injured and learned that by doing less, I could actually achieve more.

A couple of years ago a friend convinced me to register for a marathon with her.  I had never run a marathon before but this one would be in Paris. I didn’t take a lot of persuading.   

When I started to train for it, I just went out and ran, as long and fast as I could, every day.  I thought I just needed to keep on running as much as possible until I could make the whole 42 kilometres.

In less than two weeks, I had injured my foot arches so badly I had to stop training altogether.  My physiotherapist explained that I needed to vary my training, with both easy and hard sessions.  And I had to take breaks - rest days are just as important as training days.

The same principles apply for our lives, at work and at home.  We can run around all day trying to squeeze more in and get more done but end up feeling exhausted or frustrated (or both).  The faster we run, the more mistakes we make, the more annoyed we get and the less we sleep.  Then we get up the next day and do it all again.

A researcher named Anders Ericsson did a study about peak performance and how much work we need to do to really make a difference.  He studied world class violinists and the results were surprising.  The best violinists were not the ones who spent the most time playing the violin.  The best were those who took regular breaks, got more sleep and practiced less, but in a more focused way.  Doing less work produced more results!

Trying to sustain high energy levels across a whole day pushes our bodies to the limit and wears us out faster.  We work better when we take time out to revitalise.  Then we’re more productive while we work and still have energy to keep going at the end of the day. 

We can be like the violinists too.  Here’s how you can do a little less running around and actually get more done:

  • Take regular breaks.  Set your Smart Phone to remind you every hour or two to take ten minutes to stretch, relax your thinking and replenish your energy supplies.
  • When you’re working, give it your full focus and energy.  Recognise when you work best (morning, noon or night) and make the most of your skills in that time.  If it’s not happening, take a break and come back with a fresh perspective.
  • Have you ever noticed how you get great ideas or solve a problem while you’re in the shower, walking the dog or washing the dishes?  That’s when your brain is relaxed and has space to be creative.  Appreciate the value of these downtimes and use them to your advantage. 
  • Consider the cost of staying up late to pack more into your day.  You might get more done today but you’ll be less productive tomorrow and more likely to make mistakes and get grumpy.  Having enough sleep is your best choice in the long term for getting the best results.

I followed my physiotherapist’s advice and trained hard some days, easier other days, and took rest days so my muscles could repair.  It felt like I was slacking off, but it worked!  I built up the strength I needed and was able to run the whole 42 kilometre marathon.

These strategies can help make the marathon you run every day in your busy life easier.  Breaks are not a luxury – to need them to work at your best.  Work hard, then rest well so you can get more done, and feel better while you do it.