ungroomedWhen you tackle something major, how do you break it into manageable chunks? How do you measure progress while making sure you aren’t getting pulled in the wrong direction?

In last month’s post, Keep Moving Forward, I wrote about pushing through obstacles to find success.  After reading it, someone asked me about the list of suggestions at the end of the article.  In particular, she asked how I broke the Arrowhead 135 into smaller, manageable pieces, when the overall distance was so great.

People who do long races have a number of mental tricks that help pass the time and increase the likelihood of consistently moving towards the end goal.  Maybe think about how these same tricks can help you as you undertake significant projects at work or face particularly challenging times in your life.

Embrace the Challenge
One of my favorite songs is (Bluegrass warning) Long Way to Go.   In long races I take comfort in acknowledging that there is still a long way to go, and there is almost always still a long way to go.  It removes the threat of the distance and allows me to focus on the moment and appreciate the opportunity of being out, challenging myself. I will sing this song for hours, sometimes out loud, as I move down the trail.

I’ve also surprised myself a few times outside of races, humming the tune or signing the words, when things get challenging with a specific project or a personal hardship.  Again, there is a lot of power in acknowledging just how tough a given situation is going to be without allowing fear to creep in.


Mental Math
A trick I use in almost every race I do is to try and figure out what fraction of the race I have done or have left to complete.  For instance, I actually thought ten minutes into the most recent Arrowhead that I had completed about 1/135 of the race.  It made me laugh.

Later, as the number of miles completed got larger and my mental acuity decreased, the math became much more challenging.  This task can sometimes occupy my mind for minutes, and it’s actually surprising, even in long races, how quickly the fractions become meaningful measurements of progress and not ridiculous comments on the distance left to cover.  For instance, having covered 1/10 of the distance sounds so much more reasonable–at least in my head–than having 122 miles left to go.

I know teachers and students use this one all the time to mark progress throughout the year, and I’ve seen some creative charts for marking progress in large, multi-departmental projects.

Four Separate Races
There are only three checkpoints on the Arrowhead course.  The legs are about 35, 37, 38 and 25 miles respectively.  Thinking of each of those legs as a separate and unique race, does two things.  One, I can wrap my head around going 35 miles before a significant break.  Two, it mentally prepares me for the challenges of that particular section, as they each have a unique personality and difficulties associated with the terrain and where the leg falls in the race.

The one possible pitfall of this approach is not keeping the overall race in mind.  If one focuses to literally on an intermediate finish line, he/she will be overly tired, or physically or mentally unprepared to continue the next leg.  I’ve made that mistake before, and not just at the Arrowhead, waiting to take care of issues that needed to be addressed because I believed I only had a short distance to the next checkpoint.  It put me in a physical and mental hole from which I had to climb out.

As people prepare to leave the final checkpoint called Ski Pulk, you can hear again and again, “Only a marathon to go.”  While that may seem ridiculous as an encouraging statement, when people leave that checkpoint there becomes a sense on inevitability about finishing the race.  “Only a marathon” is a manageable goal after traveling 110 miles.

Micro Goals
When the going gets really tough, successful racers start to break things down into very small chunks.  “I’ll have a snack and watch the sunset in 20 minutes.” “I can rest at the top of the hill.”  And even, “I’ll rest every 10 steps.” Labeling micro goals and then sticking to them can help maintain short-term focus when the obstacles are huge and ensure continued forward progress.  Examples of this trick abound in stories of adventure and personal triumphs.

I Can Do Anything For _______________ .
My wife, Molly, first taught me this one when I began rowing competitively.  Then it was, “I can do anything for seven minutes,” roughly the length of a 2000 meter race. Now that the pace has slowed and the distances have increased, it often becomes “I can do anything for eight hours,” or some other arbitrary, but surmountable number.  Sometimes I like to break that number down even more.  “That’s only six episodes of the Big Bang Theory,” or “That’s only half a day at work.”

I hope you find these helpful and relevant to your world of work and challenges you face personally.  I’d love to hear what tricks you use to keep moving forward.

Jerritt is the owner of True North Consultants, a full-service leadership and organizational development company.  Contact us today to see how we can help your team.