The Importance of Underachieving

by Brian on May 17, 2011 in Personal Development,Winning

What if doing less instead of more was actually the key to succeeding instead of failing?

What if putting more effort into a project even made you more likely to fail at it?

Common wisdom tells us that more is better. If you aren’t getting the results you wanted, then you simply aren’t trying hard enough. But what if you are actually trying too hard?

Think of your energy like a bank account. When you put effort into something you withdraw from the account. When you rest, you put more into the account. If you’ve always got the throttle at 110% you’re going to burn through your energy very quickly and go into debt. Expending more energy on something doesn’t fix the problem, it just makes it worse.

To maintain progress you need to keep energy expenditure and recovery in equal balance.

A Powerlifting Parable

It’s very easy to see this relationship in fitness programs. New weight lifting trainees often start off gung ho, training 2 hours a day doing 20 sets of 20 reps for 20 exercises using a program they got from some magazine. Quite expectedly, the new trainee quickly burns out and quits lifting entirely. No long term benefit has been gained, so not only has the entire effort been a waste of time but the trainee is put off from ever trying again.

Mark Reifkind, former Coach Powerlifting Team USA, jokes about the “tough guy cycle”: Heavy, heavier, even heavier, injury, light.

If you applied the same cycle to a different goal such as building an income generating website, the cycle might look like this: write content, write more content, write even more content, F*$(*! AdSense is still only making 34 cents a month, abandon site.

Contrast the newbie lifter’s attempt with an elite powerlifter’s training schedule. An elite powerlifter might do 5 sets of 5 reps of a single exercise and then take the next day off. The weight probably won’t even be anywhere near his max.

Indeed, one might even say that despite all the huff and puff about how hard elite athletes train, the secret of their success is lots of sub-maximal training complemented with ample time for rest and recovery (even though their sub-max may still be 10x better than your max).

An elite powerlifter’s routine also uses periodization. He starts with an end goal in mind, usually a competition. Then he plans backwards creating an incremental stair stepping training schedule to build momentum and peak for the big event.

Most importantly, he does not do more than what the plan calls for. In his bible on strength training, The Purposeful Primitive, Marty Gallagher relates a story about powerlifting great Ken Fantano. A trainee had asked Ken to design a bench press training plan for him. One day Ken spotted the trainee with 225 lbs on the bar and flipped out. Confused the trainee asked him what the big deal was. Ken replied “what does it say on the fucking schedule?” Only 220 lbs was on the schedule for that day. The trainee was then physically ejected from the gym for failing to follow the instructions.

Similarly, if you are starting a business and you know you have to get projects X, Y, and Z done this week and it will be extremely taxing, then pace it out. If you figure project X will take about a day and you finish up Monday at 6pm, you might still feel full of energy and be tempted to press on working on project Y.

Generally you will experience one of two outcomes:

  1. You press on working on project Y until midnight, but don’t get very far. Your brain is fried. You wake up the next day unmotivated and worn out. The rest of the week is a struggle and you don’t get very good work done.
  2. You feel the accomplishment of a good day’s work, then go home and rest. You come back the next day fresh and ready to tackle project Y.

Often in life as in powerlifting, it will actually be when you are feeling the strongest, most pumped up, and ready to take on more that it is actually time to stop and recover for the next round.

In order to make progress you feel like you need to go all out, all the time, but you don’t. In fact, you shouldn’t. Take a lesson from elite powerlifters by giving yourself a project schedule that allows you to build momentum. This means doing less work than you feel you may be capable of on some days.

Il Dolce Far Niente (The Sweetness of Doing Nothing)

In order to bring your best effort to your work, your training, or maybe even your vacation you might keep in mind the Italian phrase “il dolce far niente.”

Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is simply nothing. Sometimes what you need to make progress isn’t dredging even more effort out of your already dwindling energy, it’s rest and recharging yourself for the next attempt. Holding back when spending more energy takes you from 95% spent to energy debt.

Go so far as to plan your recovery time into your project schedule and treat it as an equally important part of the plan. Avoid the tough guy burnout cycle and embrace the sweetness of doing nothing.

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