Hitting The Wall

Years ago, when I was preparing to run my first New York City Marathon, I remember asking another, far more experienced runner, for some “coaching” advice. Was there anything he could tell me, any tips he could offer that would help me stay the course and (hopefully) finish the course in one piece? He thought about it for a minute before answering. “Yeah. Start out slow,” he said. “And then keep pace.” It doesn’t sound very strategic, but it turned out to be sage advice, which is why some twenty years later, I still remember it.

It’s not hard to spot the first-timers at the start of any marathon. They’re the bundles of nervous energy hopping up and down to the bathroom every two minutes, doing power stretches, obsessively tying and re-tying shoelaces. And when the gun goes off, they’re out of the gate like a scalded cat. The tendency here for inexperienced runners is to assume a pace that is way faster than their regular stride. This causes the body to underestimate how quickly it will burn through its energy reserves. However, when runners start out at a relaxed pace, they steadily build confidence. At around mile 20, as others start to hit the wall – or “bonk” – those runners will typically have more gas in the tank if they were able to start at, and remain in, that relaxed pace.

I think we all have an optimal pace — whether it’s running a marathon or pursuing other personal and professional goals. Finding that particular groove and staying there, despite what is happening around us, is the key to avoiding burnout and stress. It’s very easy to get caught up in someone else’s pace. Social media, technology, the pace of work or a general FOMO (fear of missing out) can compel us to adopt a stride that is unnatural. And while the rush can be exciting in the midst of a busy period, it usually isn’t sustainable without taking care of the essentials: your health and overall well-being.

Burnout is all-too-common in the startup community where I often work, sometimes with heartbreaking consequences. There are many definitions, but I like this one: “Burnout is a condition caused by unbalance: too much work or responsibility, too little time to do it, over too long a period.” (Simple Abundance, by Sarah Ban Breathnach.) The kinds of people who start companies are generally pretty driven to begin with. They are also heavily invested – mentally, emotionally, financially – so it can be hard to lay off the throttle. Returning to the race metaphor, I sometimes remind them that startup life is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself accordingly, or one way or another, you will pay the price.

Rhythm and Repose

Finding your optimal rhythm requires regularly checking in with yourself to see how you feel throughout the day. When and where are you most able to focus? Are you more energized in the morning, early or late afternoon? What depletes your energy faster than anything else? Often it is the “emotional” toll of work that generates the greatest stress. Not having agency in a position or feeling as though you’re not appreciated, can outweigh the pace of work alone. As one of my clients recently wrote to me: “I feel as though I’m under daily attack. For two years, I have been in a defensive crouch.” Self-knowledge is the key here, and learning to recognize these patterns may point the way to a more productive and sustainable way of living.

We hear a lot about “work-life balance,” but I’m not sure it really exists anymore, if it ever did. Sure, you can try to work 60 hours a week, raise happy, healthy, and well-adjusted children while spending time with friends and enjoying a blissful marriage. But I doubt you will succeed. There simply isn’t time. So what we’re left with is our choosing – and we need to choose very carefully where and how we spend our energy. Maybe now is the time to focus on your family instead of work? Maybe now is the time to focus on your own niggling health issues? Author Anna Quindlen once famously said, “You probably can have it all – just not at the same time.”

The other side of good rhythm is repose: finding a way to replenish our well so that it doesn’t run completely dry. The tendency for a lot of us (myself included) is to keep on pushing, “working through” the pain and discomfort in order to get more done. But the mind and body need regular rest in order to recover and function well. Avoiding these breaks means less concentration, more injury, fatigue, and decreased productivity. It is a false economy. Maybe what we need, in certain instances, is to grant ourselves permission to rest.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, under-inspired or chronically sick – pay close attention. These are classic symptoms of burnout. Maybe you need to take a step back rather than forward? The First Law of Holes is an old adage which states “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!” Sometimes a change of scenery is all that’s required; sometimes it’s tapping into the support system we’re all aware of, but often forget to use. Sometimes it’s having (or creating) something to look forward to. We are not machines after all, but delicate ecosystems in vital need of protection.    

Whatever the case, it’s important that we find a way back to our optimal pace, and regularly give ourselves the chance to rest and recover. And if you find yourself running a marathon anytime soon, always remember – “start out slow, and then keep pace.”

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