As a runner, I’ve spent most of my adult life training aerobically, meaning I run for extended periods of time—30 to 60 minutes—at a pace I find challenging but perfectly tolerable.
But over the last several months, I’ve more often been running anaerobically—in short intervals of 30 and 60 seconds at much higher speeds, with same 30 to 60 seconds of rest between each one. I invest as few as 7 to 10 minutes in my interval workout, and it rarely goes beyond 15.
The reason I’ve shifted is the growing evidence that short, intense workouts are a more efficient way to train. Over the last several months, the New York Times columnist Gretchen Reynolds has reported on several studies suggesting that high intensity interval workouts as short as four minutes can produce cardiovascular health benefits as great as those from far longer aerobic workouts. I’m a sucker for doing less.
Why should you care if you’re not a runner, and this is a column about the workplace? The answer is I’ve long since learned that what’s true for us physically usually turns out to be equally true mentally and emotionally.
Most of us feel deeply challenged by how to get more done, more efficiently, in a world of relentlessly rising demand. The default answer is to put in more time. But just as that may be counterproductive in workouts, so it is at work.
I wrote about this at length in February, in an article called “Relax, You’ll Be More Productive.” I mentioned the power of working throughout the day in mental intervals, which are focused periods no longer than 90 minutes at a time, followed by a break. I argued that by doing so, it’s possible to get far more accomplished in shorter periods of time.
But here’s the trade-off: Just as running high intensity intervals is demanding, uncomfortable, and nearly unbearable toward the end of each one, focusing single-mindedly on a challenging task in successive intervals is mentally taxing and, at times, exhausting.
The point is that high efficiency requires a much higher tolerance for frequent, short-term discomfort. Most of us instinctively avoid pain of any kind—much less regularly—which helps explain why the majority of us aren’t really great at anything. It is also why we interrupt challenging work so frequently to check our e-mail or check out Facebook or Twitter.
So what’s the trick to overcoming our resistance to pushing ourselves really hard, even for short periods?
The answer is fierce prioritization in the form of rituals. Set up highly specific behaviors you do over and over at precise times so they become automatic as quickly as possible and no longer require conscious intention. As the authors Roy Baumeister, Charles Duhigg and others have written, the more we have to think consciously about doing something, the more rapidly we deplete our severely limited reservoir of will and discipline.
My favorite ritual, for example, is to do the most important thing first every morning, for 90 minutes, and then take a break. I’m in the middle of that interval right now, and at the end of it, I’ll have breakfast. It’s how I prioritize my most important and challenging work at a time of day when I have the most energy to do it, and the fewest distractions.
Prioritizing itself turns out to require time. Part of my evening ritual is to take five to 30 minutes before I leave my office every day to sort through what I’ve done that day, and decide what makes most sense to begin with the next day.
If I try to do that the next morning, I learned long ago that I get distracted by competing possibilities, and end up simply responding to whatever feels most urgent. Likewise, if I don’t get to my highest and most challenging priority first thing in the morning, by the time I do, at the end of the day, I’m usually too tired to do it.
It’s about breaking up your current marathon into short, doable intervals. Tolerate finite periods of focused discomfort so you get more done and you have more time left to savor the rest of your life.
When you’re working, really work. When you’re renewing, truly renew.