It’s been almost two years since I’ve become my own boss, and I am still fairly bad at it. Any real boss would fire me. I take long lunches and don’t come back sometimes. I defer important tasks till the next day because it suddenly seems more important to go get groceries in the middle of the afternoon. It takes me eight hours to do three hours of writing. If you’ve ever emailed me, you may have first-hand experience with my near-glacial correspondence speed.
This is classic severe procrastinator behavior, and as bad as it is, it used to be worse. But I’m improving only about as quickly as a guitar player who takes six days off a week.
Not all areas of my life are as inefficient as my desk work though. When it comes to fitness I have become the opposite. For more than a year now I’ve been on top of my fitness programs, with no interruptions or start-overs. In the gym, I get my work done, with no compromises and no wasted time. I make real progress consistently and feel awesome about it.
I was talking this through with a fellow self-employee the other day, and wondered aloud, “Why can’t I be as good at my work-work as I am at my gym-work?”
Since then, this question—why does X go so well and Y so badly?—has become fascinating to me. Clearly something is seriously different about the way I approach each, the way I perceive the work.
You probably have a different X and Y than I do, but with a similar disparity in success at doing them. What part of your life do you handle well? What part are you perpetually botching?
It doesn’t seem like a comparison between lifting and working habits would yield any insights. Pressing a barbell over your head is nothing like outlining a book. But on a fundamental level, the two operations are the same: I have a list of stuff to do. At the gym I do it all. At my desk I don’t.
So I sat at the table with a cup of coffee and broke it all down. Why do I lift better than I work? Lots of reasons. Here are a few.
1) It’s always clear what I expect of myself at the gym. The tasks on my gym to-do list are 100% unambiguous. There is no question about what three sets of five at 165 pounds is. It’s always obvious what I need to do now, when I’m finished it, and what to do after that. The standards are perfectly clear.
My desk work is intrinsically more complex—it will never be quite as well-defined as a rep scheme at the gym. But it’s clear that I need to take way more care in defining what needs to be done each day. “Work on book for two hours” is too ambiguous. You can’t feel “done” without clear finish lines.
2) Fitness work is tied directly to a timeframe (but so is every kind of work). I almost never miss workouts because fitness regimens require a certain amount of work in a certain timeframe. If you’re only doing six weeks’ worth of training in twelve weeks, you’re never going to reach your goals. There is a deal-breaking difference between whether I do my workouts as scheduled this week, or put them off until next week.
When it comes to fitness, this calendar-to-workload relationship is obvious, yet in my desk work I often convince myself that doing something tomorrow is just as good as doing it today. In reality it’s only half as good, because it took me two days instead of one. This difference is huge. For a business owner it’s the difference between earning X amount per year and earning twice that. But we procrastinators do this all the time, opting for tomorrow instead of today. Of course, half the time we don’t do it tomorrow either.
3) There’s nothing else to do at the gym but gym-work. This is another point that’s obvious in hindsight but easy to overlook in the moment. I’ve always dismissed the idea that I should close my web browser and put my phone away while I work; I figure there’s no need to be a slave driver. But my reluctance to shut down those things proves they distract me. At the gym I know I’m not going to do anything but lift, because there’s nothing there but weights.
It’s hilarious to imagine myself approaching bench-pressing like I approach work at home. “Oh I’ve done 2 of my 5 sets! I can easily finish this later but first let’s watch an episode of Adventure Time. Clearly I’ve earned an eleven-minute break.” (Which easily becomes a 77-minute break.)
A single workout with that mentality would take me fourteen hours. I keep my workdays loose like this with the idea that I’m “preserving my freedom”, but in reality this looseness reduces my freedom. It is absurd how many distractions I allow in my work environment.
4) I am always aware of why I’m lifting. Even though muscle growth takes time, lifting weight makes you feel strong in real-time. That keeps me aware of why I’m bothering to squat down, with a barbell on my back, twenty-five times. Being a habitual pessimist, I easily lose sight of the rewards and upsides of my desk work. I get completely absorbed with the pains and challenges associated with it. If all I thought about at the gym was how heavy the weight is, I wouldn’t lift it.
I know this isn’t an issue for everyone—go-getter types always seem to have their eyes on the prize. But I’m always focused on the pains and difficulties of work, so much that I often completely forget that there’s actually something to gain by doing it. I’m sure fellow extreme pessimists can relate.
The Bigger Principle
There are quite a few other reasons why my gym work is more efficient than my desk work, but you get the idea. Certain business habits suddenly look completely absurd when I picture myself using the same approach in the gym.
It’s the bigger principle that’s important though. Whenever you do one thing well and another thing poorly, you can learn why by picturing yourself doing X with your usual approach to Y, and vice-versa. Maybe you run your business like Jeff Bezos, but you run your household like Homer Simpson. What would your Jeff Bezos side do with your household? What would your Homer Simpson side do with your business?
If, for example, you’re good with money but bad with nutrition, where does your dollar-budgeting philosophy work that your calorie-budgeting approach doesn’t? Perhaps, out of principle, you would never avoid looking at your monthly balance sheet, yet you refuse to confront the reality of the numbers when it comes to calories in versus calories out.
Being aware of these differences doesn’t automatically resolve them, but it can remove much of the mystery about why you’re so bad at what you’re bad at. This kind of comparison can reveal the absurdity of habits that at first glance seem normal or not-that-bad to you.
Universal principles emerge. In my case, this quick comparison made it clear that serious work gets done when I a) define the work clearly, b) keep the rewards in mind, and c) stack it all together with minimal interruption, and I would bet that remains true whether I’m lifting, writing, or doing something else entirely. Again, those ideas may sound obvious, but they weren’t until I realized how crucial they are to my fitness success.
I can’t justify my relatively terrible desk behaviors on the grounds that gym work and desk work are apples and oranges. It’s true that they are different types of work, and I can’t make them the same. I can’t produce a finished book by doing enough chinups. But that doesn’t matter. It’s not the types of work that are being compared, it’s the approach and mentality towards them, and that’s the part we control.