I have enjoyed long distance running for many years now. There is something especially gratifying about traveling over extended distances using only legs and feet. Through my life running experience, I have learned many great lessons about endurance, goal setting, and pushing through difficulties. I realised recently how my experience in long distance running correlates well into my long period work efforts, or what I call ‘Endurance Work’.
My internal physical and mental battle in virtually every distance run (anywhere from 5 kilometres to 25 kilometres) always follows the same pattern. There are three stages of a run – initial enthusiasm, resistance, and relaxed endurance. In Stage One, I start off optimistic, feeling good, and excited about the run. This state of optimism usually lasts about 15 minutes. However, after the 15 minute mark of my run, my body enters Stage Two. My body and mind start to resist as neither are warmed up yet and would rather do anything but keep going. This ‘first wall’ stage lasts around 10 to 20 minutes, depending on other factors. Finally, as I enter Stage Three, my body is warmed up and I am prepared to run for a much longer distance, usually with little effort or will power.
Having spent many (many!) hours in libraries and offices doing focused endurance work, I have found my work efforts follow a similar pattern as my running. I usually start some mental task like computer programming or data modelling with a great amount of enthusiasm (Stage One). After about 20 minutes though, mental resistances and fatigue appears (Stage Two). Just like my body in the early stages of a run, my mind has not warmed up yet and it seeks the path of least resistance. If I ignore the voices that tell me to quit or check email or go to the restroom quickly, and continue to focus on the mental task at hand, within 10 to 20 minutes I move into Stage Three. Stage Three of Endurance Work is also like my body on a long run. Once I have reached it, I find my mind can go for extended periods of deep, endurance mental work.
Stage One: Initial Enthusiasm
At the beginning of an endurance work session, you will likely start off feeling great. You are finally sitting down and focusing on a task you know is challenging. You feel good that you are taking focused, directed action towards this task and you bring a healthy dose of alacrity into your work effort. Soon though it is likely that resistance will begin to creep in.
Stage Two: Resistance
Handling resistance is perhaps the most important part of the Endurance Work process because it requires the most discipline and can ruin a day’s work plan if not treated properly. The two most important points to recognise in Stage Two are:
a) the awareness that you have entered the mental resistance stage and it will pass. While it may seem that this mental anguish will continue on for hours on end while you try to work, the reality is that it will not. Ten short minutes will go by and you will be working effortlessly for a significant block of time.
b) the importance of staying focused and fighting through the resistance at all costs. This is key – no matter what stay focused and keep working. Avoiding any type of distraction is critical. Because a small distraction can derail you from a long period of work, you must push forward. Again, it will pass.
Stage Three: Endurance Work
If you can plow through the initial resistance in Stage Two, your mind will now be warmed up for a long period of productive mental work. Your endurance work time is will vary based on your current endurance levels and other external factors, but can range any where from two to six hours. This type of work has been characterised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in what he terms ‘Flow’. Flow is a mental state of effortless productivity or achievement. Endurance work is pushing through the initial resistance phase and existing in an effortless state of cognitive productivity.